Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Nurturing a Culture of Learning: The Library Experiment
All PC volunteers understand that their service is filled with bipolar mood waves of ups and downs. A low can transform into a high within an hour and then reverse again, or a mood can last weeks at time. Me? I’ve had my share of lows and highs, which are noticeably amplified since there are so few distractions in my town. Yea, I can seek out some outlets—playing pick up soccer with high schoolers maybe. But sometimes I can’t help but miss things from back home: my mom’s chicken and dumplings, Wisconsin cheese, and the innocuous but typical conversation with another Chicagoan about how good the Bears’ second string quarterback is looking this year. But here and then you have those ‘Yes! I actually accomplished something’ moments, which are the highs, that make it all worth it.
Sitting here in my school on a sunny but brisk spring afternoon, I’m thinking about the time almost a year and a half ago when I had some sit down time in the ministry of education of Paraguay. A representative with whom the other volunteers and I were chatting said that the ministry would love to equip schools in more remote areas with books, but that often schools in areas where they have never had many books often either a) put the books into a corner and not let anyone touch them so as not to get them dirty or b) the books are soon lost, destroyed, brought to homes and never seen again. My friend asked the obvious catch 22: “How are communities and schools going to learn how to use books if no one ever gives them any?”
When I arrived to San Blas in May of 2010, I found myself confronted precisely by this chicken-egg dilemma. My school had an extremely limited quantity of kids’ books (about 20) collecting dust in the corner, but they were of poor quality. Without a solid selection of children’s books it was difficult to show even the teachers the benefits of integrating children’s literature into their classroom routines, let alone convince the parents of a poor community to use their limited resources to buy children’s books. The bitter irony is that communities like San Blas needs kids’ books the most.
Fortunately over the last year a few things happened that tipped the scales in our favor. First, I read a lot of books out loud in all of the grades. This became an especially effective activity when students started asking their teachers when is Professor Miguel going to be coming in again to read? Remember how hard it is to say “no” to cute 3rd graders who want to do something educational? At the same time, I received a few decent sized donations of books, one from a friend back in the states, one from an ex-pat, and another from an international book aid organization. These donations allowed the library to grow to its current size of about 140 books, or one shelf’s worth. Perhaps even more importantly, the books that we have now are awesome and pique the students’ interest. When I started reading classics like Where the Wild Things Are and The Hungry Caterpillar, all of the students, from kindergarten to 6th grade, started to ask me for more. I would read a book in 4th grade and 6th grade would hear through the walls and come up to me and ask me to read in their class. Sure, ndaipori problema. A little bit harder was to get the teachers to read the books to the kids in my place, but once I told them that if we weren’t using the books I would have to donate the books to a school that would use them, they went with it.
The culmination of all this was last week, when I had a meeting with the parents to discuss “the TRIAL PERIOD for a system of book loaning.” After taking into consideration the concerns of the teachers at San Blas that a school library loan system would only result in a loss of all the books, we decided to take a hard line: For the next month, we will loan books out to kids only from 3rd grade up. If a book goes missing that student has their book loaning privileges revoked. If enough books go missing, the ‘trial period’ will be over and the books will simply stay at the school. Every student, in order to borrow a book, must pass a small test on how to take care of books, delivered by myself. Students from kindergarten through 2nd grade can only borrow books if a parent or relative physically comes to the school to take out a book.
Yesterday was the big day. In 6th and 3rd grade we had very frank chats about how to take care of books and the consequences for not bringing the books back. After the students passed their test on how to be responsible for books, they were allowed to take home one book for a maximum of 7 days. Even I was somewhat surprised at the amount of enthusiasm that students showed in wanting to bring home the books to read.
A straw pole determined that almost all of the students from San Blas school do not have access to books at home. These are the kids most important to reach with school library programs like this. There are no major social problems in the area, like drugs and gangs which prevent some schools in cities from being effective. There are only the hurdles of bilingualism and the lack of a culture of learning not yet in place. So if it’s not there...put it in place. What else are schools for? The jury is out on the effectiveness and sustainability of the program, but the hope is that it will go a long way towards creating a higher student interest level in all kinds of books, increase reading levels of struggling readers, and generally create a culture of learning.
A big shot out to Prof. Dunn, Ann Marie Schafer, my aunt Marybeth, Darien Book Aid and my mom and sister for book/class supply donations. Know that your gifts are being put to good use!