Online English class a draw for Haiti survivors

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Two dozen Haitian students manage a ragged unison in their stab at English.

Today we go to school,” they pronounce, more or less as one. Their instructor approves and gives the next cue.

“In school I will learn to write.”

“In school I will learn to write,” the students echo.

“The teacher will help me.”

“The teacher will help me,” the Haitians offer in return.

On this day, the teacher, Justin Purnell, sits 1,300 miles away in Asheville, N.C. The students are packed into a bare-bones classroom in Port-au-Prince, watching and answering via video on a laptop computer propped in front of them. The steamy air carries the whine of a generator running in the makeshift tent camp outside.

The adult students, some of whom have lived in tents since the Jan. 12 earthquake, are studying English as part of a fledgling project that uses Internet technology, faraway volunteer teachers, donated laptops and an earthquake-themed storybook written especially for the Haitians.

The long-distance English classes are the brainchild of Justin’s father, Karl Purnell, a 76-year-old author and former journalist who has used the Internet and video hookups to teach young people in Nepal.

The elder Purnell brought his project, which he calls Teach the World Online, to Haiti in February. He got involved after a longtime friend and fellow journalist, Jurate Kazickas, suggested that he hop a flight there with her husband, Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary who was flying in supplies for quake victims.

“The next day I was on the way with two laptops, not having any idea if they had broadband,” Purnell said by telephone from his home in Mifflinburg, Pa.

Internet service in Haiti was by then restored, and the remaining question was whether to teach English or French. Camp dwellers answered it.

“They said, ‘Please teach us English,’ ” Purnell said.

Haiti is a Creole-speaking former colony of France, but English has also mattered, given the history of U.S. interventions and involvement here, and because 800,000 Haitians and their descendants live in the United States. Anglophone pop artists such as 50 Cent are big in Haiti, though few Haitians speak English fluently.

The aftermath of the earthquake has drawn legions of foreign aid workers, religious volunteers, contractors, journalists and others, and English often seems to be the unofficial language of the international relief and rebuilding effort, which is expected to last for years.

Many Haitians say mastering English may offer the best path to getting back on their feet.

So far, 150 people have joined the video English classes, which are free and held in three locations: next to the improvised tent camp; in the earthquake-cracked home of Purnell’s Haitian assistant, Stanley Simon; and in a sprawling slum called Cite Soleil.

The project offers learning when many schools and universities remain closed and countless workplaces lie in ruins. Forty people showed up for one recent class, more than triple the target size. The classes have attracted some teenagers, but most of the students so far are older than 20.

Emmanuella Fortunat, a 21-year-old college student attending her first class, needed only rudimentary English to explain why she was there.

“For finding job,” she said. “A good job.”

Patrick Etienne, a 24-year-old neighborhood activist, put it in blunter terms. Speaking in Creole through an interpreter, he said, “There are a lot of Americans in this country and I want to benefit.”

Etienne said he would like to land a job with UNICEF or some other international aid agency. “English is the language that really everybody uses. It’s all over the world,” he said.

The class textbook, “A New House in Haiti,” is a fictional story about a Haitian family that lost its home in the quake. The tale, written by Purnell and Kazickas, highlights terms much in evidence these days: Rubble. Shovel. Destroy.

Students take turns reading dialogue in front of the webcam, grappling with the alien sounds. The word “earthquake,” for example, comes out as if it began with a hard “h,” as in “hurt.”

It is no easy feat to teach online when connections are often balky and power supplies spotty. Simon, the assistant, loads the router and computers into his weathered Toyota to move them from one classroom site to another. He charges laptop batteries by generator every two days.

Instruction is sometimes interrupted by dropped video calls and technological hiccups that leave the teachers on the monitor frozen and mute for minutes at a time.

But such hurdles are minor irritations to students who for months have slept under tarps near their smashed homes.

At one recent class, Damier Phenel, 23, got to read the part of plucky Francois, who dreams of rebuilding.

Phenel’s own house was ruined in the quake. He too harbors plans: to be an auto mechanic and, one day, to have a home again.

In an interview after class, Phenel sounded as resolute as the book’s character. He said youth was his strength; there was time to overcome the hardships dealt by the quake.

“I will never give up,” he said.