Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haiti: Resources and Curriculum

A Critical Exploration of Learning About Haiti and the Implications for our Collections

What might our students have learned about Haiti before it became the nation best known for the devastating effects of its unfortunate geography? Where in curriculum do we study the histories of post-colonial republics that were formed by struggles for freedom of the formerly enslaved? Some suggest that we study the history of “the winners.” I would suggest that notion applies to geographies too. When studying world economic conditions, Haiti might have been included instructionally as the example of a “deficit” economy, as it is arguably the world’s poorest nation.

Let me give you an example of what gets included and what doesn’t. Armenian history is fascinating. I know only because, more than 10 years ago when I was a teacher of social studies, a young Armenian-heritage student in my grade 8 class asked about a single reference in his textbook, asked if we could study his history. How would a young Armenian-Canadian find his history reflected in our BC curriculum? He would find it only if someone put it there. And so I set out to do just that, to teach my class of “young historians,” by example, how some histories are chosen for classroom re-telling and some are not.

I had no idea that it would prove to be so difficult, if only to find materials that reflected a history in the Armenian people’s own terms. Nationalist information sources in English translation -- that is, that are intellectually accessible for me, the curriculum developer -- were hard to find. Imagine if the Holocaust were not included in curriculum interpretations of World War II and were only available in untranslated or non-Jewish terms. A young Armenian friend of my daughter’s provided materials I could work into my unit.

Once a large “crossroads” empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, Armenia saw invaders coming from and heading off in every direction; its sturdy architectures reflect not only defence against these invaders but also the constant threat of earthquakes. Armenia was the first Christian nation; nationalist symbols always include Mt Ararat, now in Turkey. All themes for the Middle Ages in Grade 8 social studies can be taught by looking at Armenian history. For older students, Armenia was the site of the 20th Century’s first genocide and of a massive diaspora in response to the brutal Ottoman campaign following World War I to eradicate a people. But, reduced now to a land-locked postage-stamp nation, Armenia is not included in most North American curricula. I felt our classroom-based inquiry provided the opportunity to live out my grounding educational principle, however, that every student should find him- or herself somewhere within the curriculum and in the school library.

Unfortunate is the reality that, while BC social studies curriculum is written in broadly inclusive terms, textbooks – and the convenience of using the textbook -- serve to narrow curriculum interpretation in many classrooms, particularly true in those classrooms where opportunities for inquiry are limited by preparation for exams and by lack of a school library, qualified teacher-librarian, or teacher who is confident in creatively translating learning outcomes into curriculum inquiries beyond the textbook. Sometimes this is deependent upon opportunities for teachers to engage in professional development or collaborative teaching.

In short, nothing in the curriculum document says Haiti can’t be a case for studying the histories, geographies, and cultures, as well as the social and economic conditions, of the world. There are many points of intersection within the BC curriculum as the curriculum does not specify, study Japan or study Peru; I have just checked that. But the question remains, what are the information sources we would use with our students that would fairly represent the reality of life and the pride of a people in its history and struggles.

Let’s say, here in Vancouver, that Haiti were to be the focus for lessons. Certainly, it would now be subject to discussions for current events as students learn about earthquakes, poverty, an agricultural economy, unsteady infrastructures, international debt, and location in relation to tropical or seismic conditions that can create devastation. But how about its being included as a case study of a nation before the devastation? What would we have to use for resources?

There are 56 listings and 130 items, mostly books, in our district catalogue, which also includes videos and DVDs in the district media collection and French language materials for our Immersion programs. Many of the titles are probably in need of weeding, based on datedness; non-fiction “country study” materials dated in the 1980s and 1990s are not likely to be very accurate. One high school has developed a current and more comprehensive collection, suggesting this is a unit of study at that school. Many of the books are non-fiction but there is plenty of fiction; stories can be a good way of enhancing learning about a people.

What about our e-library or digital collection? I would like to caution against using these information databases uncritically to study geographies, as well as histories.

  • the question of authority, because some “creators” of country-information databases need to be reviewed carefully; would you direct students to almanac-level information about Canada prepared by the CIA, the Mormons, or the Reverend Sun Moon? Yet, these are in fact the developers of just such commonly used tools.
  • the importance of corroborating accounts: more than a single source or multiple sources of information, including print and media. Fiction is a good way to introduce or enhance understanding of a culture. Did you know that literature experts were hired in World War II to read German novels for the insights or “secrets” these might reveal?
  • the range and reliability of the perspective: when a story is written from “the inside out” about a culture, that is, the author is of the culture, the story will likely contain real insights into the psyche of a people, its understanding of the landscapes and the relationship of the people to the environment or the history.
  • the fact that some cultures have an oral tradition for sharing their histories and perspectives. When these are captured in print, the question of the credibility of the storyteller is an important one. Who has the right to represent a people’s account? Who, for example, has the right to tell the story of the Beothuk? Of Hiawatha? Or of a young man sentenced to a process of restorative justice based on the traditions of the Tlingkit people of Northern BC and Alaska?
  • what the source has to say about Canada, because this may reveal the simplistic or reductive levels of analyses; watch for the tendency to reduce a country, always complex in cultural composition, to stereotypes, recipes, festivals, flags, and anthems and to omit real issues; watch also for issues framed in “pop star” terms as these can “dumb down” the real issues.
  • the intellectual/developmental level of your students; some issues are too complex and some treatments of issues are too “dumbed down” to be worthwhile. The evaluation of sources is a worthwhile discussion to have with students. Consider the question of omission as well. Why are the complex issues reduced or glossed over or missing?
  • the currency of your resources; don’t be alarmed that the last population data is 2001 or 2006. The world does its BIG census in the years ending in 1 and a mini-census in years ending in 6. These are the only accurate figures and there can only be projected population figures in between. Country information – and books about countries – is largely unreliable if it is too old.
  • the nature of history and histories, as histories change in their interpretations over time and . Consider the changing interpretations and multiple interpretations of the wars in the Middle East. In fact, question the singular interpretation and ensure you have the multiples resources.
  • the use of primary sources, including people with expertise or personal experience they can share.
  • whether books on countries are the best investment, or whether the digital resources that are acquired or under consideration provide the capacity to engage in teaching and learning for deep understanding.

This does not purport to be all of the factors that shape our curriculum and resource considerations, particularly for teaching into the "hidden" curriculum or as a counter to seeing the world from the perspective of "the winners."

I would certainly appreciate your input. As I consider the question of what could we have taught -- what can we teach -- about Haiti, my concerns have been about the capacity of some of the resources for superficiality when used in isolation. I have no answers. As TLs -- as the school's resource expert -- we are well aware of the constant and critical need to interrogate the resources we examine, the processes we use for selection, and the role we play in building opportunities for student inquiry.

Compare information about Haiti amongst various VSB subscription digital resources such as ProQuest's Culturegrams, World Book Online, EBSCO Middle Search and eLibrary. See also the Duvaliers and other Presidents in Biography Resource Centre. Try the Global Issues in Context trial database from Gale. This last database is a rich and complex resource suited to older students.

Check Haiti in the CIA World Factbook. See also New Internationalist.

Websites are also important:

New York Times: The Learning Network includes websites and lesson plans from before the earthquake

New York Times: 5 Ways to Teach About Haiti Right Now are lesson plans for teaching about the earthquake.

CBC: Haiti's Unhappy History includes a country profile with links to news stories and more.

Unicef's Voices of Youth -- Ayiti (Haiti): The Cost of Life, two workshops and materials for educators

PBS Teachers: check for lesson plans here.

No comments: