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Our man in Haiti

Sue Balmer tells how her school formed links with French-speaking countries

Like every other modern language teacher, I'm always on the lookout for materials that will motivate students by making the subject relevant. Two years ago, I bought Allons en Haiti, published by ActionAid, and I read for the first time about an impoverished country in the Caribbean. Citizenship would soon be integrated into subject teaching; here was a way of addressing social issues and global responsibility through the medium of French.

In summer 2000, a chance meeting with a Haitian in the Dominican Republic brought a personal touch to the story. Students at Gosforth High School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne were introduced to Kimberlly Gassant, who had been forced to leave her country so she could go to school (parents have to pay for education in Haiti and her father was unable to find work).

Kimberlly became the focus of the project as Year 11 students began their study of Haiti. Her father, Saintivo, put us in touch with a school and mission in Cite Soleil, where he had lived with his family. He was the only one of them who could read and write. Through his letters, Gosforth students began to appreciate the desperate conditions in the shantytown. They especially liked his philosophy that: "La paix du monde commence avec l'education des enfants".

The Haitians are proud people and will not receive gifts without giving something in return. Saintivo sent us a painting of a Haitian market, while his friend Ezechias sent us photographs, newspapers and information.

At this point, 32 Year 11 students who had passed their GCSE French in Year 10 were studying life in Haiti as part of their enrichment course. We decided to sponsor a class in Haiti through Aide et Action, the French equivalent to ActionAid. In fact we were given a school in Senegal and it led to very interesting work and possibility of future visits. We send them money regularly from our fund for international links. It costs only pound;160 a year to sponsor a class and we receive letters and information in French from our village and photographs of all the students. Forty Year 10 students joined the project and researched information on the internet about the art, history, religion and the economic and political situations in both countries and completed a website to display their work.

They found surprising links between Haiti and Senegal because of the slave trade and even learned a bit of the local creole and Wolof languages. The European Year of Languages, 2001, was an ideal opportunity to share the project with others. The Year 10 students presented bilingual assemblies to the rest of the school and we raised money through sponsored language learning. We made several hundred pounds to send to Cite Soleil and it was wonderful to hear from Ezechias that the money would be used to buy chairs and a generator for the school.

Hundreds of students now know about the project and we were particularly proud to win a European Award for Languages for our work. Our next step is to raise more money through a library book sale and visit our new friends. Haiti is too dangerous for the children to visit, but it is possible for sponsors to go to their schools in some parts of Senegal and we are looking for funds for a small group of students to visit Dakar and our village in Velingara.

I hope more schools will join the project so that, unlike Kimberlly and so many other refugees, children can keep learning in their own countries. Two slogans from Aide et Action come to mind: "Chaque enfant a le droit d'aller ... l'ecole" and "L'ecole, un cadeau pour la vie."

Perhaps the most amazing result of our work is a poem (right), written by Year 10 student Frances Weightman and inspired by work on our citizenship project.

Sue Balmer is head of language college development at Gosforth High School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Allons en Haiti activity pack by Alison Rudd: Teacher's book and 20 A4 photos, pound;17.25.Allons en Haiti CD-Rom: interviews, activities, photographs and texts, pound;7.75. Special offer activity pack and CD-Rom pound;20. Available from ActionAid Education, Chataway House, Leach Road, Chard, Somerset TA20 1FR. Tel: 01460 238061;

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