Reflections by Connie Biewald, Fayerweather Street School Librarian and Growth Education Teacher. For many years, Connie and her family have been, and continue to be, a part of the heart and soul of Fayerweather. She is also author of several books: Digging to Indochina, Roses Take Practice, and Bread and Salt. Connie has been to Matenwa many times and looks forward to her next trip.
In July 2011, a year and a half after the big earthquake, My friend and colleague, Ingleed Auguste and I traveled to Matènwa to deliver three heavy suitcases full of Mother Tongue Books written by both Matènwa and Fayerweather kids and to lead a two week writing workshop for the teachers at LKM. This writing course, which met each day, would be the biggest piece of their summer staff development. Having sat through a lot of staff trainings in my more than thirty years of teaching, many of them abysmal wastes of time, I felt a lot of pressure to make this worth their while. Not only would I be working with teachers who focused on literacy in their classrooms; the woodshop teacher, the agronomist, the music teacher, the math teacher, would all be sitting there too. My Haitian Creole is coming along but isn’t yet at a point where I could lead a workshop. Ingleed would translate.
I believe that whatever we want for kids needs to start with the teachers. If teachers have a voice and are confident comfortable writers, they will pass this along to the kids. In fact, I think as much or more can be learned by osmosis and example than through direct instruction. I also believe that a good writing workshop builds community. Even people who have known each other and worked together for years can deepen connection through hearing each others’ hopes, dreams, and fears put down on paper and read aloud. In a good writing workshop we risk vulnerability and receive support–in other words, we are human beings at our best.
So each day, after a morning of teaching kids in summer school, the teachers gathered on the spacious and breezy veranda, overlooking the hills that unfold down to the water, the Haitian mainland in the distance, and wrote together.
I focused on teaching the use of strong verbs and specific sensory images. There seems to be a natural inclination to write in big generalities. Many of their pieces began by sounding like sermons or political speeches that decry the very real hardship of life in the Haitian countryside and were powerful to hear read aloud, but I wondered about the effectiveness on the page. “If those with good teeth would listen,” one teacher wrote, and proceeded to outline the needs of the community and country. I felt ridiculous trying to explain that writing maxim that it is more affecting to hear a story of an individual’s experience, that when you know a person/character you are more invested than in collective misery. His speech sparked a loud round of applause.
Teachers listened eagerly to a wealth of stories written by colleagues that described families, friends, conflicts and experiences of loss and delight and began to experience first hand that when the details are vivid, sensory and specific, people are more likely to hear the writing with their hearts. Teachers also reflected that they learned about running a writing workshop–how to give writing prompts and constructive feedback as well as structured ways for students to share work with each other.
It was an honor and a thrill to have the opportunity to work with such an engaged and capable teaching staff.