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by Lorin Buck

Staff Writer

Today’s column is a departure from the norm, as I take an opportunity to offer a firsthand account of the global reach of a few local volunteers.

At the end of August, I had the privilege of accompanying a small group of Fairfax County educators to Haiti. There they led a three-day professional development workshop for 16 preschool and elementary teachers at the Village of Hope School in rural Ganthiers.

The group included three teachers, a former principal, our group leader and me — a less-than-fluid francophone, who hoped to help our non-French speakers communicate. We flew to Port-au-Prince on Aug. 23, under the auspices of a program sponsored by Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Vienna.

Boarding at Reagan National Airport were Gena Norquist of Fairfax, a special education teacher at Key Middle School, and Ashley Davies of Vienna, who spent eight years in Fairfax County’s French immersion program at Kent Gardens Elementary and went on to teach in the program at Herndon Elementary. With them were Bill and Deborah Larson of McLean — he, a retired Air Force officer who subsequently retired from the technology company SAIC, and she, a local real estate agent and former elementary school teacher.

Joan Ulvog of Vienna, a former Fairfax County Public Schools administrator, flew with me from Washington Dulles International Airport. Kathy Adams, a retired educator and Presbyterian pastor from Perryville, Ohio, met up with our group in Miami. During this, her 10th trip to the island nation, she would work with the school’s secondary teachers.

Our immediate destination was Hope House in Croix-des-Bouquets, a Port-au-Prince suburb. The guest house for visiting mission groups is run by the Village of Hope Lazarus Project, which sponsors the school and operates a health center. Its resident directors are Bert and Roberta Anderson of Panama, N.Y.

Bert Anderson, his driver and his security guard greeted us at the airport and loaded our bags into a van. We climbed in and headed out onto the capital’s deteriorating roads. Three days of rain had washed mounds of debris to the gutters. Potholes stretching the width of the road and dropping 6 inches or more became trenches of tan silt. It was the first of many jarring rides we took that week, navigating neighborhoods of walled compounds crowned with razor wire and crowded with merchants.

Hope House was spare but comfortable, offering services typical of a developing country: electricity that shut off without notice, and Internet access that flickered on and off. The sudden roar of the generator meant the air conditioners wouldn’t work and water for our showers would be reduced to a trickle. Too bad for those who waited until evening to wash off the dust and sweat, as electricity was unlikely to be restored until morning.

Our mission

More than a year ago, after visiting the school, Bill Larson came up with a plan to offer a professional development workshop for its teachers.

“It was his idea from the get-go,” said Norquist, whom Larson chose as lead teacher. VOH Principal Clovis Elias and Larson decided it would be most beneficial if the U.S. team introduced Haitian teachers to new teaching practices — something other than the lecture format on which they rely.

“We could use our skills as educators to bring a new perspective to successful teaching methods,” Ulvog said. The U.S. teachers could present “a new way of viewing children and how they learn.”

Because not all children acquire knowledge in the same way, the workshop focused on three distinct learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic. The Fairfax teachers explained how auditory learners listen, visual learners read and kinesthetic learners move. So that children can learn, lessons should include activities for each style.

“[The Haitian teachers] saw all children as auditory learners, but they gained an insight into visual and kinesthetic learners,” Ulvog said. “They were able to identify students in their class that performed that way, and they were excited to have a new structure to use when planning lessons.”

Elias also asked the Fairfax educators to train his teachers to use manipulatives in the classroom. So into 10 donated suitcases went colorful interlocking Unifix Cubes, small plastic animals, dice, playing cards, popsicle sticks — anything that would help younger students grasp patterns and counting, and teach older ones how to add, subtract and figure fractions. Magnifying glasses and materials for make-and-take projects were packed for science classes.

Each teacher also received a large reusable bag chock-full of teaching supplies.

Success at school

Perched on a hill overlooking the valley’s arid farmland, Village of Hope School enrolls some 600 students from age 3 through grade 13. The 30-acre campus comprises nine buildings that house classrooms, the health center, kitchen, dining hall, assembly hall, chapel, restrooms, administrative offices and storage facilities.

Each morning workshop participants gathered in the breezy open-air chapel. Many had traveled an hour or more by tap tap — wildly painted buses and pickup trucks that form the public transportation system. Despite the dust and heat, the teachers arrived impeccably dressed and professional in their demeanor.

Norquist led daily openings with devotions, games, songs and introductions to the learning styles. The teachers then dispersed to classrooms to learn to use the manipulatives and new materials. Five trilingual Haitians worked alongside the American teachers, translating from English to French or Creole and back again.

Aware that language could pose a problem, the U.S. team determined at the outset that all written materials — including handouts and worksheets — would be translated into French. Books would be in French. School supplies were carefully chosen, such as rulers that measured in metric units, not inches.

“I’m glad we had the cultural sensitivity to have brought the materials in French,” Norquist said.

It wasn’t long before the VOH teachers warmed up to their American colleagues and their teaching methods. The Haitians actively participated in class, asking questions, role playing, leading songs and debating — sometimes heatedly — the finer points of instruction.

“The enthusiasm [of the VOH teachers] exceeded my expectations,” Larson said. “This was a higher level of energy than I have seen in other activities in which I’ve participated down here. The teachers stayed long after they were dismissed from classes.”

In fact, a fourth day of learning was added after the VOH teachers requested more time to ask questions. They raised issues such as motivating lethargic students and finding effective ways to teach reading. The U.S. team responded with specific techniques and supportive materials.

“We could go anywhere they wanted us to go,” Larson said. “We filled their days with very meaningful stuff. We were prepared for whatever they needed.”

Village of Hope has an ongoing need for volunteers to expand its reach to the poorest populations. The health center is seeking volunteer medical personnel to staff mobile units that provide primary care and immunizations in rural areas. For more, visit http://villageofhopehaiti.org.