ALC Part Two: Jinja Boogaloo

As far as attendees, Uganda had 6 volunteers and about 3-6 main staff members working on our presentations. The other 7 countries brought at least one staff member and one volunteer; some brought two staff. I know South Africa brought two volunteers.

The first official day of the conference started with introductions of the goals we had. We also talked about strengths we were bringing and any fears we may have had. This was pretty normal for any conference I’ve been to, but being that we are all about ENGAGING our participants (have some jargon), we did this in an interesting way. We used  The Library of Knowledge (cue dramatic music), where the bookshelves are our strengths, the books our goals, and the silverfish (which are not really fish, and I guess are small insects which eat books?) were our fears, eating away our knowledge.

The goal was that at the end of the week we would smash our fears (the fish) with our accomplished goals (the books). This was a pretty cool idea.

These posters were also standing around the room and surprised me because my group is represented on it, which I suppose makes sense (we’ve been here almost a year), but I guess I still see us as the new group. That is no longer true as there was a Health and Agriculture group who was just sworn in in August (whom we lovingly call HAAG), but we are the youngest Ed group.

So Uganda began the presentations. The other people on the team (see: second year Ed volunteers) did most of the presenting, along with Audrey, our fearless literacy leader. I didn’t take many pictures of this because it’s mainly things I’ve seen before.

Basically Uganda’s made some changes beginning with the Ed group before mine, focusing more attention on literacy in early grades versus later ones. Previous volunteers had been working in Secondary schools (like high schools), whereas some from the 2012 group and all of my (2013) group were placed in primary schools (like elementary) and PTCs (primary teacher colleges). This was to emphasize both doing reading interventions at lower grades (primary volunteers) and to train new teachers to incorporate literacy into their teaching practices (college volunteers).

Some successes include DEAR, Drop Everything and Read Day, where more than 35,000 pupils, faculty and staff stopped their normal daily activities to read for 20 minutes straight in a day. This sounds like a very simple thing, but when you work daily with challenges such as lack of books and low reading levels, it’s quite an accomplishment.

We’re also focused on improving  the amount of instructional materials used in classrooms. One of the biggest successes we’ve had are Big Books, which I’ve mentioned before. They’re large books with large text and pictures made from grain/rice sacks, materials which are easily available everywhere in the country, even deep in the village! The sacks can also be used to make charts, as seen in some of these pictures. We had a whole wall displaying instructional materials to reinforce literacy.

We also encourage (especially in higher grades, leaning towards comprehension in reading) teachers to ask learners to think more complexly about what they are reading. One example of this is Question and Response.

These techniques allow teachers to ask readers questions about the text that they either have to find evidence for or use prior knowledge for. This kind of reading is not done in Uganda, especially not from teachers to students or pupils. Most of their reading is rote repetition without any checks for understanding or comprehension.

We also discussed integrating literacy into different content areas, something which I work with when teaching my PTC students.

It was cool to hear what other Peace Corps countries are doing in terms of their education programs as well. I didn't get copies of all their presentations (some of them were just on paper, not Power Point), but I took some notes from all of them and here you go! One thing to note – I got pretty lucky in terms of language in Uganda – even if I don’t speak my local language that well, many people speak a few words of English so I can get along with the basics. In many other African countries, French or Portuguese is the main language, and so volunteers must learn and teach in that language, along with informally learning any local languages that may be around. I think I got the easy road on that one.
Some of these presentations were on different days, but I'm putting them all together here.

Literacy clubs in their schools. They also had after school clubs where each club had to produce a newsletter. They work with a trilingual community sometimes (French, Arabic, English), so they produced some HIV/AIDS murals where kids could write facts and awareness text in all three languages. They were also able to get books from Books For Africa (hint hint, look at one of my previous posts) in those three languages!
They have some challenges in terms of not having any sort of materials. A lot of times kids come to class with no notebooks or pens, the teachers don't have markers or large paper, and are only provided chalk.

A very large country where the official language is Portuguese! But many people don't speak it, and the children don't speak it either. As far as literacy goes, they said that 40% of third graders could not recognize any letters. Yikes. The volunteers only work in secondary schools, but have had some success with community libraries and after school tutoring to help with literacy. Literacy training is not currently a part of their PST.

Gambia had a program where some volunteers biked to 25 different primary schools to teach read alouds with teachers there – insane! they also have their own mobile library as their mail is brought to site by their Peace Corps vehicle

South Africa
PCVs here start teaching grades 5-7, then move up with their kids and teach 5-6-7 the next year. They can add teacher training to their model but the second year is less structured than the first.
They had had successes with English clubs and literacy through the arts. They also work with an organization called Biblionef (if I'm spelling this right?) in South Africa which has local language and English books.

Here there's about a 63% literacy rate, and many kids in Grade 6 cannot read a single word. All instruction is in English and if you don't know English you are looked down upon. The problem with this - many teachers are also not fluent, and they are using American textbooks which is just even more confusing. Some small success comes with a story about a student teaching a parent to read, but that seems to be the exception. They also talk about creativity and trying to play games with the students, but many of them just want to know what they have to to pass the test.

Burkina Faso
Here PCVs work in Junior High (Math, Science and English) and in Preschool! Eek, my heart goes out to them for preschool. If the preschool is nonformal, then the government doesn't give them any funding, so they have to find donations and volunteers for everything. Their teachers are even community volunteers and many don't have any teacher training. Sometimes these school can get UNICEF funding or donations. NGOs set up an expectation of everything being free, so it's difficult to get parents to contribute to help out their kids.

Sierra Leone -
 Even though their program is suspended pending the resolution of the Ebola crisis, they are still programming for when they begin receiving volunteers again. These guys were great to talk to. I think I was pulled away a bit during their presentation but maybe one of my readers can fill me in - this is what I remember. Basically they have a really good relationship with the government in terms of education, and whatever initiatives they want to try are fully supported. PCVs work in universities as well as more local colleges to try and improve the teaching techniques.

So this has been kind of long so I'm gonna cut off here with a question - what programs or activities do you remember in your schools or communities which promoted literacy? Which ones did you really like or enjoy? Which ones were not so good?

Stay tuned for more posts on the conference!


Africa Literacy Conference: Part One!

So in mid-September I had the opportunity to attend Peace Corps' Africa Literacy Conference! It was the first regional literacy conference in Africa, so yay! Uganda hosted because we've had pretty good successes with our 'Teacher Boot Camp' model and other ways of integrating literacy into our teaching practices.

I left on a Saturday and my bus broke down (you can read about that in a different post...) but eventually made it to Kampala around 8pm. It takes generally a two days for me to get anywhere which is not in the North, because it takes all the daylight in one day to get to the capitol. I don't travel at night. Split a room with another volunteer going to the conference. Our rooms at this particular hotel are 20k Ush per night, which works out to about $8, which is almost the lowest you can get (and friendly for our Peace Corps budget!).

We got a ride out to the conference center in a Peace Corps vehicle, which is always preferable to taking public. On the way, we picked up some PC Washington folks, and some PC people from different countries. Also, my program manager (my direct supervisor) and our country director! So we headed out of Kampala to Jinja. They're doing some construction on that road (gasp!) so it took a little longer than we thought. Luckily (or if you have a small wallet, unluckily) being stuck in traffic means food and other items to buy just come to you. People walk up and down traffic jams in the middle of the road, between cars, right up to your window to try to sell you groundnuts, bananas, toilet paper, eggs, newspapers, you name it. If you sit long enough, someone will come by.

The first night was pretty relaxed - met a few people from the other countries and worked with the rest of the PC Uganda team on getting things ready for the conference in the morning. It helped to have a peaceful and beautiful place to be at; it just felt relaxing all the time. Stay tuned for more! Haven't figure out how many parts there will be yet...

Some 'action' shots from the first days of the conference.

View from the balcony!

Views of the Nile from my hotel room (bungalow?).


Books and books and books, oh my! - Books for Africa

Books have been a large part of my life since I can remember. From reading dinosaur books in kindergarden, to Goosebumps in middle school, to the Harry Potter craze which took over everyone I knew. Animorphs, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, Amelia Bedelia The Indian in the Cupboard; I’m sure I could list so many more series and authors given time to reminisce. There were book fairs, and reading competitions, and excited children's librarians, and well stocked libraries. There was Reading Rainbow. There were spelling bees and writing competitions and poetry slams.

As an adult it continues to amaze me how much I can enjoy from the new fiction books coming out, and how much I can learn from all the non-fiction: biographies, histories of conflict, histories of countries, and more, as well as poetry, essays, and well written news articles.

My parents passed on to me a tradition of reading, and in doing so opened up infinite worlds and information.

None of that exists in Uganda.

There are no favorite Ugandan authors, Ugandan book series which everyone talks about, or children who grow up reading books which are written for them. There are no reading clubs or national literacy drives (though we are working on that!) or well known organizations who go out to rural areas to improve literacy. There are no book clubs or newsletter clubs, and there is a general lack of printed material at all in rural areas.

The literacy rate in Uganda is around 70%, but that doesn’t really tell you the scope of the problem.
There are barely any libraries at schools. English class is more focused on grammar and repetition than hands on activities or helping kids learn to read. Phonics is pretty much non-existent.
Part of Peace Corps Uganda’s Education program is to help create or expand libraries and ICT centers.

Myself and nineteen other volunteers are trying to do that for our schools. We are working with an organization called Books for Africa which sends new books to needy places. The books are free, but we need to raise money for the shipping costs. Each dollar we raise means a book put in a primary school or teacher’s college library. 20,000 books! Each school gets 1000 for their library.
When the books arrive, we’re going to have trainings with our staff and students. Trainings on how to handle books, for example, such a "simple" skill that most Western kids would wonder why we are bothering. But kids here do not grow up with people around them reading. Many of their parents are illiterate. We teach how to open and close the books, how to use the table of contents and index, how to store the book, and how to treat the books so they will last a long time. Trainings on how to improve library storage and maintenance, and most importantly, how to set up systems of reading which will continue long after we the volunteers have left.

We are trying to impart the reading culture all of us loved as children to the children here in our villages. We all heard growing up that education and reading are gateways to better lives, and because most of us knew how to read and had decent education, we took it for granted. But here, we see it in action. Children like to learn. You just have to let them.

Here are some current pictures of my library.

Don't be fooled by the number of books you see!!! Many of these books are outdated curriculums, outdated sets of science books, outdated math books (sensing a theme here?). They rarely, if ever, get used, but they stay here because there is a culture of having things, but not using them. This is why we want NEW books in the libraries. Because then they will actually get checked out!

What you don't see on these shelves especially is children's books! I work at a teacher's college, and it's important for my students to get practice reading and planning lessons with children's books before they get in the classroom. Also lacking: any sort of appropriate fiction for my students, who are around my age (a little longer), but have reading levels around junior high or middle school level.

Also, when you donate, you are helping the volunteers who work at primary schools, many of which do not have a building for a library or books at all. When they receive books at these schools, the volunteers are working with their counterparts to create space for a library and a reading culture!

The link for our project, called "One-To-One Literacy Project (Peace Corps Volunteers) - Uganda"   is at this link


Stay tuned for videos of my staff and students, telling you exactly why they want new books.
Please share this with your friends, your teachers, your parents, your family, whoever you think loves reading and wants to help share that love across the world.
Try to let me know if you're thinking of donating - I want to know everyone who has helped and thank them personally if possible!