Haitian educators, MIT faculty develop Kreyòl-based teaching tools

Project led by linguist Michel DeGraff is revolutionizing education in Haiti, and serving as a model for similar projects around the world

Members of the MIT Haiti Initiative; photo by Jerry Lamour

“This project will have a profound impact on the way people think about teaching STEM in mother tongues and serve as a very important model for similar initiatives around the globe.”

— Vijay Kumar, Associate Dean, and Senior Strategic Advisor for Digital Learning at MIT; co-Founder, MIT-Haiti Initiative

OCTOBER 1, 2015 — Six veteran educators from Haiti — two biologists, two physicists, and two mathematicians — were on campus recently to work closely with MIT faculty to develop and hone Kreyòl-based, technology-enhanced pedagogical tools for STEM education. This interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange was the most recent effort of the MIT-Haiti initiative, founded in 2010 by MIT Professor of Linguistics Michel DeGraff.

The MIT-Haiti initiative promotes the use of Kreyòl-based digital tools to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in Haiti. Historically, Haitian children have been educated exclusively in French, a language in which most of the population are not fluent.

“The basic premise of our initiative” DeGraff explains, “is that using Kreyòl for Haitian education is an essential ingredient to improving quality and access for education for all.”

Educators detail the value of Kreyòl in Haitian classrooms

On Thursday, September 24, DeGraff, along with Haynes Miller, Professor of Mathematics, and Vijay Kuman, Associate Dean of Digital Learning at MI, and co-Founder of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, convened a panel discussion with the six visiting educators to provide the MIT community with some insight into the education challenges in Haiti, the MIT-Haiti Initiative, and their reflections on the intensive fellowship here at the Institute.

“In Haiti's classrooms,” said Guerda Jean-Guillame, Professor at Centre de Formation pour les Écoles Fondamentales, “most children do not like to ask or answer questions. They are constantly struggling to translate from Kreyòl into French or from French into Kreyòl.”

The use of French creates problems for teachers as well. Jimmy Fedna, Professor at the Université Quisqueya and École Normale Supérieure, remarked on the difficulty. “I teach in Kreyòl because that's the language in which I am most comfortable,” he explained. “I like to make jokes when I teach. That humor is essential for good teaching—to wake the students up, to keep them alert, to relax them, and so on. When I teach in Kreyòl, I’m a much better teacher.”

Several of the educators noted that the use of French in Haiti's classrooms has been a national education policy. School exams as well as national assessment tests are mostly conducted in French, rather than Kreyòl, and STEM course materials for highschools and universities have also been available exclusively in French — until recently when the work of pro-Kreyòl educators both in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora, including work by DeGraff and the MIT-Haiti endeavor, started showing the key benefits of a Kreyòl-based education at all levels of the education system.

Painting titled "Kreyòl pale, kreyòl konprann" (“When Kreyòl is spoken, Kreyòl speakers understand.”) by artist cooperative "Kalfou Richès." This was painted, as a gift to the Initiative, during the MIT-Haiti Workshop in Port-au-Prince in January 2015.

The MIT-Haiti project and DeGraff's work are succeeding: in 2014, Haiti adopted a new policy that will allow students to be educated in Kreyòl rather than in French.

Developing digital resources in Kreyòl

The MIT-Haiti Initiative was catalyzed by DeGraff’s ground-breaking linguistics research into Kreyòl. Over the course of two decades, DeGraff has shown that Creole languages are as capable of conveying complicated intellectual concepts as any other Indo-European tongue.

Through the Initiative, DeGraff has organized Kreyòl education programs around the country, with the support of a National Science Foundation Grant, and has advocated for new national standards. His work, alongside that of like-minded pro-Kreyòl scholars, has paid dividends: earlier this year, Haiti adopted a new educational policy that will allow students to be educated in Kreyòl rather than French.

“This Initiative meets a crucial need in Haiti,” said Jean Genis Dorvilien, Professor at Collège Catts Pressoir and Lycée Cité Soleil. “It is introducing modern techniques for interactive pedagogy while helping to develop digital resources in Kreyòl.”

A project with global significance and impact

As part of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, digital tools created at MIT and elsewhere — including STAR, Mathlets, and PhET — have been translated into Kreyòl and provide proof of concept of Kreyòl as a necessary ingredient for active learning in Haiti.

“This project will have a profound impact on the way people think about teaching STEM in mother tongues,” said Associate Dean Vijay Kumar, Senior Strategic Advisor for Digital Learning and co-founder of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, “and serve as a very important model for similar initiatives around the globe.”

Across large swaths of Africa and the Americas, indigenous languages continue to face systematic marginalization, says DeGraff. The MIT-Haiti Initiative offers a guide for these populations to empower their communities by making their voices heard.

Archive Story: 3 Questions: Michel DeGraff | MIT News


Top photograph: Members of MIT-Haiti Initiative:
Bottom row:  Lourdes Alemán, Sonide Alcin, Lilen Uchima, Jimmy Fedna,  Judith Leonard, Paul Belony, Adler Thomas / Middle row: Yvon Lamour, Guerda Jean-Guillaume, Marie Kenny Rodney, Glenda Stump, Étrenne François-Joseph, Alison Brauneis / Top row: Jeremy Orloff, Kirky DeLong, Michel DeGraff, Haynes Miller, Jean Genis Dorvilien



Story prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Staff Writer: Daniel Evans Pritchard
Photographs courtesy of Professor Michel DeGraff