From Brandeis to Haiti: Widening the gap

02290814.jpgAre you tired of sitting in class after class, listening to the professor lecture, and spend each day just writing chicken scratch notes in your beat up 3 ring binder? Then maybe a Community Engaged Learning class is for you. Although two of the three scheduled weekly class hours are more formal in terms of format, the third is not your typical classroom format. During the third hour, students in Community Engaged Learning do just as the name suggests- get out and do good deeds in the community, learning in the process.

That’s the idea behind the French Department’s special Spring 2008 offering “Haiti: Then and now.” Students spend class time in class learning about Haitian culture through literature, art, music and more, and then go out and work with actual Haitians, picking up Haitian culture in the process. A hands on experience, it certainly embodies, as Colin Powell put it in a statement not long ago, the idea that one can “apply academic disciplines to practical, everyday problems. In the process, it provides a compelling answer to the adolescent’s perennial question, ‘Why do I need to learn this stuff?’”

The members of the course are currently engaged in four separate projects, each designed to help the sizeable Waltham Haitian population in some way.

One of the groups is dedicated to collecting books through a book drive in order to provide Haitians from low-income families with books suitable for someone in their age range. The books will be gotten through a book drive happening here on campus between March 1st and March 15th here at Brandeis- so if anyone has appropriate books to donate, this is the time to find them. Although the project is very much “still in the planning stages” according to Maria Nictas ‘08, the idea is to have enough books collected to make a real difference in the community. Part of what makes the process a demanding task, she added, is that “our professors work as liasons…but the students put together the whole thing.”

Another group is working on bringing the artwork of Haitian artist Fred Cadet to campus. The group has arranged for an art exhibit containing his works and a presentation by the artist himself. NY resident Cadet’s exhibit and appearance are arranged to coincide with Brandeis’ Festival of the Arts, which is to take place this year in early-mid April.

Ever seen Reading Rainbow? The class has that concept covered as well. One of the groups will be reading books in front of rolling cameras, and the shows will be aired on real public TV stations in the Waltham area. The group hopes to have people whose native languages are French and Haitian Creole participate as well. The purpose is twofold: To give local native speakers the opportunity to hear and maintain their own language, and to help others appreciate it. “I think it is important for people to maintain connections to their cultures…keeping one’s native language does that,” said Jenny Rypkema ‘08, a member of the project, when explaining why showing people reading books in such languages is important.

Perhaps the most “Community Engaged” group in the class, though is the one that goes to Prospect Hill Community Center every week to work with local Haitian children one-on-one, reading, tutoring, and just spending time with the kids, all of which is planned out by the students. The independence given to the students makes such activities rewarding, because they can see immediately when their hard work comes to fruition. “For, me, the best part is figuring out what we were doing. We knew we wanted to share the Haitian culture and the things that we’re learning in class and also learn from the Haitians as well. Wanted to see how they responded to us and how we responded to them. Each time is a learning experience, “stated Kenny Altidor ‘10, a member of the Prospect Hill group and also the Teaching Assistant for the class. For the first project, the group had the children make little booklets on Haitian culture, centered around the Haitian anthem. Students had different cutouts with various pieces of the booklet and the Haitian flag in front of them and sort of “assembled” them, which ended up working very well. “We got all the kids united to make a project..we weren’t really sure how things were’ going to work out, but somehow we managed to get the kids together,” explained Kenny. “On valentines day, we made these nice heart baskets using the Haitian flag colors, and we talked about what they do in Haiti on Valentine’s Day,” said Kenny. Every week is another project.

For Kenny, being a teaching assistant for the class was a natural move. Kenny’s parents are both of Haitian descent, and he speaks French and Haitian Creole fluently. His “natural love of languages,” which has brought him to the ability to speak over six languages, and his desire to “do a community service learning project” with Haitians living in Waltham made him a perfect match.

In addition to Kenny, The Prospect Hill Group is very lucky in that Brandeis already has quite a few connections to Prospect Hill through various other programs, such as the ELL (English Language Learners Program) a program that assists Haitian adults and children learn English, helps adults fill out tax forms and other documents that are hard for non-native English speakers to comprehend. Students also volunteer time watching children so that parents can take English courses in the afternoons.

Students wishing become involved should. Even if you aren’t perfectly fluent in French or Haitian Creole (though of course all of us at Brandeis are) everyone can help Prospect Hill, and students do on a regular basis- Mondays through Thursdays, 3:30-6:00 PM every week. The ride is free, as funding is already covered, and students can help out with a variety of activities, ranging from activities with Haitian children, staffing daycare, to even helping to build assemble a computer lab, currently near completion at the center. Anyone interested should contact Profesor Auslander, mausland@brandeis.edu, or Professor Schattschneider, eschatt@brandeis.edu, co-coordinators for Brandeis activities at Prospect Hill Community Center.

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