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Innovation, Creativity, Community, Education

An innovative school in Haiti where children are taught in their mother tongue so that they can learn and thrive.

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The Matenwa Community School, La Gonave, Haiti

A conversation with Chris Low, cofounder of The Matenwa Community School.        The conversation ended with the following story. 

Chris's 15 year old daughter had recently been invited to participate on a youth panel at the UN entitled, "The World We Want," as part of a Conference on the Millenial Goals,  2015.  As a panelist she  described how the Matenwa School and the Mother Tongue Book Project is working thus far saying:  "Twelve years ago a woman who worked for Unicef visited Matenwa and spoke to the sixth graders at the school, asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up.  They replied, not hungry. This year the sixth graders were asked the same question and they answered, doctors, lawyers, musicians and artists."  

History of The School

Chris met the school's cofounder, Abner Sauveur, in 1995, when they worked together for Beyond Borders, an adult literacy project on the island of La Gonave.                          "There were centers all over the island.  Some were 30 minutes away by foot, some were five hours.  We walked together early in the day so as not to walk in the midday sun.  We had lots of time to talk about education."                                                                                                

In 1996 Abner told her about the elementary school in Matenwa, the town she was living in.  She had never noticed it.  They went to visit it together.  "The school was housed in a tin shack and a nearby house.  It was grades K - 2.  I walked into the 1st grade - there were a bunch of little benches and 24 kids.  In my basic Creole I asked them to get out their pencils.  Half the kids ran out of the classroom.  I asked Abner - Did I say something?  He explained that they had to get their pencil from their sibling in the other classroom, as families only had one pencil.  I knew right then that this was not going to be a one year project. So that is how we started the Matenwa Community School.  From there I moved the first graders to the porch of my house in town."                                                                                                            

In 1998 they received funding and began a process to build a school.  The school is now Pre School to grade 9.  They plan to expand.

From the beginning the language of learning in this school was Creole.  Most schools in Haiti teach in French, although most Haitians do not speak French.  Therefore Chris and Abner wanted to teach in the mother tongue, so that children could learn and thrive.  There were no books at all.  The Mother Tongue Book Project was developed out of necessity.  Children wrote and illustrated their own books.  

The Present                                                                                                                                There are now hundreds of books in the library.  There also are collaborative projects with schools in the USA.  Children write and exchange books.  This fosters cultural exchange and learning.  One Haitian child wrote the following in his book which was shared with a class in Massachusetts -  "When there is no rain there is no water."  

Books are now written, translated, printed and shared in Creole, French and English.  Each book is trilingual.  An app is in develop which will enhance learning, literacy and have the potential to scale this project.

"This school is about giving teachers the liberty to think and be creative and giving them the ability to facilitate creativity in the classroom."  

Classrooms are transformed as children learn and do projects based on major themes throughout the year.  

Several times a year the school hosts "Open Space."  Teachers and parents gather to discuss together.  "What kind of development do you want? What do you think your child needs?  Programming for development is built around these discussions.  Examples include two art centers that have been developed, water projects, and the school garden.  About the garden Chris said - "The tangible.  It makes sense.  They need food.  Life and death."

Other Initiatives                                                                                                                    Teacher Exchanges and Trainings                                                                                       The school trains teachers from other schools on LaGonave and from other parts of Haiti in their educational methodology.  "Teachers from other schools in Haiti come for visits. They are amazed that there is no corporal punishment and that teachers are so patient. They want to change but they don't know any other way."                                                                                                                                                                       

Matenwa School Garden -  A place to learn,  and a vital resource to support the nutritional needs of the school community. (see linked videos)

The Chicken Project -   The newest initiative is the chicken project.                         Laying chickens were brought in to the school.  Every afternoon children collect firewood, boil and eat eggs.  The older classes are paired with younger ones.  Each class is responsible for one coop.  The coops, built by local craftsmen out of local wood, are beautiful.  (see pdf for images)


Wise Initiative, 2013 - World Innovative Summit for Education Highlights Matenwa

"The Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC), founded in 1996, is a community-based initiative working for transformational change and sustainable development. MCLC exists in a remote area of Haiti high in the mountains, in an agricultural village called Matènwa, on the island of La Gonave. The heart of its program is a pre-k through 9th grade school. Unlike most Haitian schools, MCLC uses Creole as the language of instruction, offers French as a second language, bans corporal punishment, and puts an emphasis on child-centered learning in an environment of mutual respect, investigation, and critical thinking.  Organic gardening, local arts, Reflection Circles, and authoring their own Creole books are essential parts of MCLC’s curriculum. 
The Mother Tongue Book Project validates the students’ life experiences in rural Haiti in a language they understand, fueling their eagerness to read.  Educators from organizations and schools across Haiti come to witness what is happening and participate in discussions and trainings. MCLC is presently focused on spreading this model in its network of schools in 10 other La Gonave communities.
MCLC supports community driven development. It conducts annual Open Space meetings to hear the community’s desires and goals. Then it searches for educational opportunities and human resources to realize these goals. As a result, Matènwa now has all its primary age children in school, popular theater groups that promote children and women’s rights, reflection circles, , music groups, international teacher exchanges family planning, a breakfast program, art centers, a tree nursery, a library, a computer lab, Mother Tongue Books, a summer camp, teacher training outreach, and community-wide projects to increase water access, home vegetable gardens, and repairs after natural disasters. Through access to education that is responding to their self-determined needs Matènwa citizens continue to shape their own future."  


More Information

School Website - 
Mother Tongue Book Project, Fayerweather Street School, MA
Learning on LaGonave - Article on how the school was started


How might learnings here inspire innovation and be applied to other communities so that young children can thrive and learn?



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