Letter to Editor: Thank you, St. Maarteners


“Is that your ninth notebook already Teacher? Teacher Jodi, you write too much!” That is the comment of one of the 6th graders when I pull out my notebook. Over the past nine months he has kept trace of my work and has explained to others who I am and what I do. “She is learning from us about living on St. Maarten, how we learn and how we teach. And she writes down all the crazy things we say. This is her ninth book!”

This 6th grader is one of the future citizens of St. Maarten, who has been teaching me about living together on this beautiful island. Since August 2015, I have been living and learning on St. Maarten in order to better understand the ways in which primary school pupils imagine belonging on St. Maarten. My work is part of a collaborative effort between the University of Amsterdam, the University of Utrecht and the University of St. Martin, funded by the NWO, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The effort is entitled “Imagining the nation in the classroom.”

In 2014, the NWO decided to invest in research in the Dutch Kingdom, focusing on transitions after 10-10-10. They gave funding to different research groups. One group that you might have heard about is that from the KITLV headed by the well-known Caribbeanist Dr. Gert Oostindie. His Confronting Caribbean Challenges group has been doing research on the different islands in the Dutch Caribbean. One of their methods used by one of his staff, Dr. Wouter Veenendaal, you might have heard about, is a large-scale survey involving the Department of Statistics (STAT), the governmental statistics agency on St. Maarten, in which opinions about the developments after 10-10-10 were measured.

The research group that I am part of is headed by Dr. Francio Guadeloupe, researcher at the University of Amsterdam and the president of USM. Instead of using surveys or questionnaires, we have chosen to invest in long-term in-depth fieldwork on St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. I am the lucky PhD candidate who was assigned to do fieldwork on St. Maarten. I was invited to teach at USM and to live and learn amongst all of you.

My research has focused on the way national belonging is taught and learned in the primary schools on the island. An important tool in creating this sense of US, making children see themselves as St. Maarteners instead of say Sabans or Dominicans, is socialization in the classrooms: singing the St. Maarten song, learning about the island’s flora and fauna, doing traditional dances, participating in festivities such as St. Maarten’s Day celebrations, carnival, etc. Of equal importance is how the teachers address the students. Do they call them St. Maarteners next to the various ethnic backgrounds of their parents?

To get a grasp of what is happening in the classrooms, I have spent time in five different schools on the island. The boards welcomed me, and the managers of the different schools introduced me to their staff and allowed me to join students in different classrooms. After this initial three-month introduction period, school manager Mr. Stuart Johnson welcomed me to Martin Luther King Jr. Primary School. There I became a teaching assistant in grade 3 and 6. This allowed me to learn from the students while I helped them master their math problems and practice their language skills.

What I have learnt in the classroom from your children is mind-blowing. They take all that the adults present them with—religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and national identities—and create something new: a way of relating to each other that includes while critically embracing differences; an open and inclusive belonging, hospitable to the national particularity of St. Maarten. I have come to the realization that I and my fellow academics and policy makers, here and in the wider Kingdom, can learn as much from them as we must teach them.

It is now May and even though I have been able to extend my stay a little, my notebooks are filled and it is time for me to take some distance to try and make sense of all that I have learned. And as I go back to the Netherlands, that other part of our Kingdom, I wish to thank you. First and foremost, I want to thank all the students that I have worked with. I thank each of you for allowing me into your conversations, your jokes and your games. I thank you for having patience with me and for repeating your words when my grasp of St. Maarten English was so lousy.

Secondly, I want to thank all the teaching and supporting staff of the Martin Luther King School. Together with the committed managers Mr. Stuart Johnson and Ms. Dorothy Radjouki you have made me feel very much at home. A special thank you goes to teacher LaCroes and Teacher Narine, who let me into their classrooms for so many months. Coach Kevin, thank you for letting me play soccer with you and teacher Rudi, thank you for all your dance lessons. Hopefully we continue playing and dancing after the summer.

A last thank you needs to be extended to the management and teachers of the other four schools that welcomed me and allowed me to conduct this research. In particular, I would like to thank Mrs. Marva Sam who helped me and a team of interns from Iselinge Hogeschool, in collaboration with the USM, to develop and test a lesson-plan on Slavery and Human Rights.

This month-long lesson-plan allows teachers and youngsters of St. Maarten to discuss and think about the important ways in which Caribbean history is an important part of world history.

This lesson-plan has been developed on the island, and as a first it will also be taught in the Netherlands. I hope it contributes to an understanding in which all of us in the Kingdom, on each side of “the Big Lake,” realize that respect is a two-way street. Herein we must be willing to learn from each other and grow together. The time in which all teaching methods came from the Netherlands to St. Maarten and rest of the islands should be passé.

The USM will be organizing an event within two weeks whereby the lesson-plan will be presented to the Minister of Education, Members of Parliament, who are part of educational committee, the Dutch representation on the island, representatives of school boards. The lesson plan will also be shared with Ministers and Commissioners of Education from the other Dutch Caribbean isles.

Persons interested in viewing a video on the presentation of the outcome of the pilot studies on implementation of the lesson plan, should go to YouTube page https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4t6M_w67_x4.

After the summer I will return to continue learning from you, the people of this island. If you wish to be part of it, I would love to hear from you.

Jordi Halfman jordihalfman@yahoo.co.uk