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Collaboration Ties Us Together With Haiti

By Liz McColloch, French Faculty

DSC04521Our partnership with a Haitian school may seem, on the surface, to be about little more than the generosity of a well-to-do New England boarding school and the needs of a small school in a rural community of a disadvantaged nation.  This assessment may be true at first glance, but the partnership and the work of the Haiti Partnership Committee (HPC) are about much more than philanthropy or even cultural awareness.  For me, the HPC represents a future model of learning, one that will become increasingly relevant as we at St. Mark’s support students who seek to contribute to a globalized world.  The students involved with the HPC must collaborate and communicate effectively.  They are learning history and Haitian Creole.  There is also the potential for serious study in economics as we work to understand both the history of the Haitian economy and the impact of humanitarian aid before and after the January 2010 earthquake.  Finally, beyond the HPC, the St. Mark’s STEM fellows are researching and working to solve real problems that affect Haiti.  Two of our STEM fellows will have the chance for hands-on research as the first St. Mark’s students to travel to Haiti this coming February.  Our partnership with a school in rural Haiti is about a shared future in education: theirs and ours.

In February 2013, Ms. Kimberly Berndt, Ms. Lindsey Lohwater, and I DSC04493were lucky to visit École Ste. Marguerite, which stands in the small mountain community of La Tournelle, several hours by car and foot from Port-au-Prince.  The church with which it is affiliated fell in the earthquake, so the school building now serves as a multi-purpose structure, housing church services, scout meetings and school: primary school in the morning and secondary school in the afternoon. The word town, or even village, would be too strong of a description for La Tournelle, which is really just a cluster of dwellings near a plateau on a mountainside.   Students arrive each day from every direction, rising out of valleys and descending mountain trails, dotting the hillside with their blue gingham uniforms.  La Tournelle and other similar communities were founded during the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), when Haitians, fighting the French, fled to the mountains knowing the Europeans would not chase them upwards.  For more than 200 years, Haitians have lived in the hills, without running water or electricity, subsisting primarily on the farming of crops planted in neat rows along their steep slopes.  Terrace farming, as it is known, is popular in many countries, and in Haiti, the saying, “We lost the farmer when he fell from his field” becomes clear when you see the grade of the inclines where they farm.

In La Tournelle, water comes from a source accessible by foot, twenty minutes below the main plateau, down one of these very steep slopes.  Walking down felt treacherous for us, but walking up with large buckets of water seemed unimaginable.  And many people make the trip several times a day, including children who would otherwise be in school.  The water is not treated and therefore not always safe.  There is a cistern, but when we were there, in the dry season, the source was just a small trickle and the cistern was nearly empty.  The school sometimes has access to tablets to treat water.  Boiling water is possible, but the heat source is a slow wood fire, and much of the countryside is deforested.   Yet, when we spoke with the lay leaders and school director of St. Marguerite’s, water was not the first item on the list of concerns that they have about their community.

Officially, our goal in partnering with St. Marguerite’s is “to foster communication, education and cultural exploration between the two schools.”   We also state that at St. Mark’s we are “committed to supporting capital projects at Ste. Marguerite’s through fundraising.”  Most importantly, however, when we think about ways to support St. Marguerite’s, it is important to remember that we must first listen.  We cannot impose our ideas about what problems they have and which need solving.  We must hear the stories of those who have lived in La Tournelle their whole lives and some who have left and then returned.  We must understand, from their perspective, what changes would most help the students of St. Marguerite’s advance their education and DSC04534thus their community.  The lay leaders and school director hope for electricity so that they can teach computers and other technical skills.  Electricity would also mean they could assign homework to students to be done at night, outside of class time.  They speak of the need for latrines so that sanitation needs are met at school and students, especially girls, don’t stay home unnecessarily.  They are in need of school supplies, food, and money for teachers’ salaries.  Hungry students don’t learn and unpaid teachers don’t teach.  And so yes, our partnership is about support we can offer them.  It is also about the friendships we build in the process of solving problems together and about what we learn in our search for solutions.

In early January, I had the chance, with three other colleagues, to visit Brooks School and observe some of their Winter Term courses in action.  The course that caught our attention, far more than others, was one dedicated to providing heat and electricity for the School of Leadership in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Students at Brooks were working directly with girls from SOLA as they strategized ways to create energy and therefore provide heat in the classrooms.  Electricity was also a goal so that students might have light do homework after school hours.  Imagine wanting light for homework because you know it will advance your education and therefore your opportunities.

Together Brooks and SOLA students were discussing solar power, distribution of heat in rooms of various sizes and marketing tools to promote the project.  They were building prototypes of heating devices powered with solar energy.  Brooks students were designing logos, preparing promotional videos, and developing information to launch an Indiegogo campaign.  They were writing text for their website and preparing presentations to potential donors.  They were Skyping with girls at SOLA, asking for exact measurements of classrooms and troubleshooting possible roadblocks to their plan.  This course combined design, writing, math, and engineering.  It encouraged communication and collaboration.  It had a goal of solving a real world problem using high school skills.  We left inspired and confident that our Haiti Partnership, and other potential programs, could evolve into a similar multi-faceted, interdisciplinary course.  We know our St. Mark’s students are ready.

In many ways, the challenges of La Tournelle are quite different from those at SOLA.  Heat, for example, is not an issue.  But electricity is.  And one goal includes lighting a part of the plateau so that students could come together and study in the evenings.  Can we at St. Mark’s figure out how to provide solar power lights for the students at St. Marguerite’s so that they might study after dark?  One of the complications in La Tournelle is fear of theft – currently, there would be no way to secure the technology.  We also must consider the location – how to deliver and install light fixtures where there are no roads, with only people and donkeys to carry material.  How might we build latrines and more functional classrooms?  Would it be possible to help stimulate the local economy in La Tournelle so that more families might afford school, students would be more likely to have regular meals, and teachers would earn a salary that enticed them to return each day?  Our STEM fellows are currently researching ways to improve the soil in the terraced fields and examining possible solutions for water pumping and treatment.  What will it take to turn their research into reality for the students and teachers in La Tournelle?

Communication, math, writing, economics, design  – all skills that St. Marker’s currently develop across many courses.  But what if one course, or several courses with similar outlines, offered these skills together?  Ideas are driven by economic needs and shaped by historical context and a deep understanding of the local situation.  Science and design are used in the creation of devices and other physical solutions.  Effective fundraising requires clear written and spoken communication.    Collaboration ties it all together.  As does our common goal.  The Haiti Partnership Committee is just the beginning; the possibilities for learning and teaching, for cultural understanding and for cooperation across many divides, are endless.

Liz McColloch is a French teacher at St. Mark’s and is the faculty co-chair of the Haiti Partnership Committee.  She also coaches basketball and crew and is the house head in Thayer.

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[1] “Haiti.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Jan. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/251961/Haiti>.

[2] Black in Latin America – Haiti and The Dominican Republic: An Island Divided (www.pbs.org)

[4] http://www.brooksschool.org/academics/winter-term

[5] http://www.sola-afghanistan.org/

[6] Indiegogo is a website that provides tools for crowfunding (www.indiegogo.com)

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