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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Educating for Peace: Meeting with Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala's father

Can we develop a curriculum for peace education?

That was the question today in our second meeting with Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. In our spring, 2014 meeting we started the conversation; today we hoped to develop some concrete action steps to take us forward.

Ziauddin is well-known as a peace activist from Pakistan. His daughter, Malala, recently co-won the Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times has an excellent documentary that tells their "back story" before she became famous. To watch the video click below:

The Making of Malala

Today's meeting brought together about a dozen educators and academics at University of Waterloo's Conrad Grebel College. As we talked about how we could work together to develop a peace curriculum for students in Pakistan, I kept coming back to two key questions:

1. How can we, as western educators, even begin to conceive of (or contribute to) such a curriculum? What could we offer?
2. How can a peace curriculum lead to peace? I'm a strong believer that a "living curriculum" (i.e. lessons learned from our interactions with each other) supersedes a written one. Yet, one without the other is problematic as well.

I don't have answers for the above questions.

What I was struck by was the suggestion of one of the other educators at the table, a gentleman from Congo who has been part of an African peace initiative sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee. Esau suggested that we should not worry about the specific details of a peace curriculum; that should be designed and developed locally. What we can all contribute to is a framework for what peace education should be in a global sense. That is, what are the universal aspects to peace education that parents, children, and teachers can work toward no matter where they live?

I learned a lot today.

Some I learned from Ziauddin and the other guests who were from Pakistan. But I also learned from a new friend from Congo who taught me (once again) that I have much to learn from my colleagues from other parts of the world.

I am intently looking forward to spending more time with Esau to discover what peace education can be.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Virtual School Leadership: How Principals in Fragile States Can Use Technology to Support Professional Development

Last week, an article that I wrote on "virtual school leadership" was published in The Online Journal of Distance Education and e-Learning. In this article, I used data from a research project that engaged school administrators in Haiti and Canada over the past three years. The research project centered on how principals in fragile states such as Haiti can use on-line learning opportunities to improve their leadership practices.

What my research demonstrated was that Haitian school principals who engaged in an online professional learning community had significant experiences of collaboration, problem-solving, and engagement. Although the research project has concluded, I continue to interact with school leaders in Haiti who are improving their leadership practices as a result of their use of technology. When in Haiti last week, I was amazed at one administrator (from a Haitian NGO) who was using his smartphone to Skype with leaders in Canada, communicate with his assistant, and access resources from the Internet. This particular person had not been in the research project so his experience resonated with me in demonstrating that it wasn't just participants in the research project who were developing professional skills through access to technology.

This is not to say that technology is a panacea but it certainly provides a suitable tool by which to access and disseminate information. In countries such as Haiti, the ability to interact with others across the country, and internationally, can provide access to information that otherwise may not be easily available.

The conclusion of the article considered how these new possibilities for leadership development are further examples of glocalization.

The article can be accessed as a pdf from the TOJDEL website (click below):

 The Online Journal of Distance Education and e-Learning

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Disruptions: Growing by Moving Backwards

Early in my teaching career I thought that to be successful I had to do everything correctly. I soon realized that I was making plenty of mistakes ... and becoming a better teacher because of them.

I specifically recall a lesson from one of my high school courses that incorporated a social justice perspective. I responded to a question by one of my students by stating that she would not likely understand issues of poverty because she had led a fairly privileged life. She confronted me as she left class to say that I really didn't have a clue about her life. She was right. The next day I apologized to her and made a mental note never to make that kind of assumption again. I was/am a better teacher because of it.

Disruptions seem to work in a similar fashion. I have a lecture or activity or project (or ... fill in the blank) lined up. Everything looks to be in order. Then a disruption happens ... a challenging question arises ... a flat tire on the way to an appointment ... someone gets sick ... an unexpected visitor drops in. Often I get frustrated by these disruptions.

But I'm also learning that disruptions often cause me to re-think. To take stock. To re-imagine. Perhaps more importantly, to re-prioritize what is important and what is not.

It doesn't make sense in what we would like to see (or hope?) as a linear, cause-and-effect, formulaic world. Of course, life is messier and more chaotic than that. In this reality, moving backwards is often the best way to move forward.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hope for Haiti`s Future--Making Meaning of Our Time in Cap-Haitien

On our last evening in Cap-Haitien, during our debrief, the group was asked to reflect on their initial motivation to participate in this partnership-building trip and whether the trip has satisfied this motivation. With many of us being first-time-visitors to the country, we walked into the experience with low expectations but open eyes and ears. The diversity of expertise represented in our group members was impressive. The common thread in all of our intentions was to experience Haiti with an open mind, and determine the possibilities of how we could contribute to its cause. For some of us, this meant exploring capacity building opportunities in education, for others this related to social entrepreneurship and the opportunity for local or collaborative enterprises.  

In the midst of this discussion, we were reminded of the age-old story of a boy walking along the beach and finding the dry coast littered with stranded starfish. As the boy began to pick up the starfish and throw them back into the water, his father remarked that there were too many starfish, and there was no way to save them all. Upon hearing this, the boy replied that though he knew he could not save them all, he at least would be able to save the few that he could, and that was enough.

In many ways, this approach is the only feasible way that we are able to collaborate with our Haitian partners. As we struggle to identify how our own skills and experience can contribute to these partnerships, we must also accept some ambiguity in how this will fit in the big picture. What can be agreed upon, is that investing energy in the children and youth of Haiti will open the opportunity for the future leaders of this country to make a greater impact than would be otherwise possible. As Steve said last night, this hope in the next generation is a representation of humanity at its most basic but universal level. There is something in it that restores your faith in what is possible.

At the end of the day, it is recognized that our most powerful ability as partners in Haiti`s struggle is not out own ability to change Haiti for the better, but to empower Haitians to lead and own this change themselves. As we head home to our lives in North America, each of us may not be able to articulate exactly how we intend to stay connected and support these initiatives in Haiti. What we can say for sure is that it has made an impact on each of us, and we continue to be interested in this connection, no matter how small our impact may be.

By Jessica Vorsteveld

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Haitian Education - The key to a thriving country

Our group had the pleasure of hearing Haiti’s Director of Education of the North speak about his vision for the future of Haiti’s education system. His passion for this cause was both genuine and compelling. During his address to the group, he indicated that educators in Haiti are in this field not because it is a job, but because they live this role as a vocation in their lives.

It is generally accepted that doing what you love and are passionate about makes “work” not feel like “work” at all. Throughout this trip, I have been astounded by the passion of our diverse group. Our evening debriefs and meetings have overwhelmed with ideas, debates, inspiration, and “aha” moments. In fact, much of the conversation has revolved around how to reign in the passion to find concrete and manageable next steps without over-committing. Furthermore, the devotion of this team is emphasized by the fact that many of our members are participating on personal time.

Not everyone has the opportunity to thrive in this way throughout their career. Haiti, for example, lacks much of the infrastructure necessary to give its younger generation ample choice and opportunity in vocation. Having said this, I have been so impressed with the consistency of Haiti’s value of education. In fact, this value appears to be embedded in the Haitian culture. As a country, Haiti sees education as the key with which the country can thrive. Pastor Caleb, a Haitian man, even told us that at his age of 54, if he told his father he wanted to pursue further education, his 80+ year old father would begin harvesting sugar cane to afford this. This speaks to the goal and vision Haiti has for its people. It also reinforces why continued collaboration to achieve this dream is so necessary.

By Jessica Vorsteveld

Friday, October 17, 2014

Only by Taking the Journey Can We Arrive at the Destination

Inspiration for today’s post came early in the morning… 5:30am in the morning, to be more precise. A few members of our group joined others staying at Mont Joli on a trek to the mountain’s peak which began in the dark at this hour. Those who joined mentioned that parts of it were tough (all of it was hot and humid) but the effort was worth the reward.  Seeing the sun rise and the span of the land below was a spectacular view.

Much of the work that Haiti and its partners face in the struggle against social injustices is long-lasting and difficult. We have heard of these struggles over and over, and the time and patience that is often required before the benefits of such rewards are reaped. Today, for example, our larger team split into various groups for differing purposes, though each of us experienced this recurring theme.
Some of our group members travelled to Haiti’s Northern Public University. During our meeting with the university, UPNCH, much of the conversation revolved around how to overcome the English language barrier, and provide online ESL course within a Haitian context. It was recognized that starting with small, manageable opportunities and building a foundation from this was necessary. Having said this, it was difficult for us to conceptualize and identify what these concrete first steps might be. The end goal would be of obvious benefit to the students studying tourism at the university and their future success, but the work in understanding how to collaborate productively was difficult.

Similarly, two of our members returned to Regina Asumpta to deliver professional development workshops for local educators. Though one of our principals was not feeling his best throughout the day, he knew that his efforts would benefit the students and educators of Regina Asumpta moving forward.

Lastly, Pastor Caleb escorted a small group from our team to his rural hometown of Pignon. Though the drive to this rural town was rocky and long, they boasted about the amazing experience they had today, and returned to our hotel glowing.

Often, outcomes of true worth are only achieved through diligence, and devotion. At dinner tonight, we debriefed the discomfort and frustration experienced in these situations.  In fact, the frustration we endure in the struggle to achieve our goals makes the reward all the more worthy. In the end, though struggles will always lie ahead, there is a consensus amongst our team, and amidst the Haitian community, that pushing forward is a battle we are willing to fight.

By Jessica Vorsteveld

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Making a Positive Impact, One Step at a Time

Throughout our meetings in Haiti, our team is constantly navigating our big dreams while respecting the need for concrete, actionable, next steps. Today was an example of the struggle to achieve this balance in our continued school visits and through our conversations.

This morning, our team met with a number of leaders from the State University to not only express our own areas of expertise, but to discuss how these can align with the identified priority areas of the university. Our conversation eventually focused on actionable, collaborative, next steps towards online learning, ESL programming, and professional development for educators at the State University. One of the most exciting outcomes of this meeting was an agreement made between Wilifrid Laurier University’s Steve Sider, Nova Southeastern University’s Charlene Desir, University of Louisville’s Gaeteane Jean-Marie, and the State University of Haiti’s Elias M Nassar. These four individuals, across four universities and 3 countries, intend to collaborate on multilingual online learning modules – an impressive and innovative goal! Below is a picture of this group of four after the agreement was made.

As conversations carried through into the evening, we continued to contemplate the social issues that Haiti faces. The conversation ranged from the lack of women in educational leadership roles to the complex nature of Haiti’s economy and how to build a sustainable future that could help to mitigate poverty. When faced with these issues that have systemic roots, it can become overwhelming. In Haiti, particularly, this challenge can be magnified by the problem of sustainability and using what little time you may have in a meaningful way.

Two reminders from our team members offered solace in the face of this challenge. First, Pastor Caleb reminded the team that when given a window of opportunity, we must seize the time we have and do as much as possible within it. Furthermore, Steve reminded us of the Haitian saying “little by little, straw by straw, the bird builds it’s nest”. Certainly, we continue to find our own ways of contributing to this foundation upon which Haiti can thrive.

By Jessica Vorsteveld