Friday, July 4, 2014

on reading.

Volunteer Anne Pelsser read to students
three times a week for an entire semester.
We miss you Anne (and Pierre!)
I've said - quite frequently and to anyone who would listen - that most of the problems that we've dealt with in starting and running a school are not the problems that I foresaw. I expected irresponsibility with payments, lack of concern from parents and maybe some teacher truancy and attendance issues. There are some inherent problems due to the demographic that the school serves, but overall, I guess I expected some semblance of teacher preparation and training - after all, all but one of our teachers (the 3-year old class teacher) are trained, professional educators.

I've known that there is a deeply entrenched literacy poverty in the Dominican Republic - even among the upper class - that affects how our children think and learn. There are no public libraries and most schools - again, even in the fancy private school - are lacking books. Sure, there are text books, but there is a deficiency in any other type of text: few story books, few non-fiction books, few encyclopedias.

What comes with this lack of actual physical reading resources is a lack of understanding of the real, profound importance of teaching kids not just to sound out words, but how to actually read - to comprehend, to question, to analyze the words that are on the page. But, how does one even go about switching something so ingrained culturally?

Samil was in first grade this year. He fought learning to read - he dug his heels in and absolutely refused to practice. Homework was a dreaded task - for everyone involved. The "reading" that was happening was phonetic, and from what I could decipher consisted in sounding out long lists of words.

No sentences. No pictures to describe sentences. No stories.
Lists and lists of words.

As far as technical reading goes, the method works. The student learns basic phonetic combinations of consonants and vowels (ma, me, mi, mo, mu), and then combines those sounds into simple words, building upon the previous sounds learned.

What happens when the student has to not only decode words, but decipher meaning in sentences? Or read a story and figure out the meaning?
Learning the phonetic sounds using scoops of ice-cream!

It's tragic.

One of the first teachers who worked at school - teaching three year olds - told me that she didn't have time to read stories to her students. That she needed to be focusing on far more important skills, like making sure everyone was sitting at the right table. Another told me that, after reading one story book, she just didn't have time for something the students aren't interested in. She taught four year olds.

Loving reading is an acquired skill. Loving stories is, too.
Unfortunately, there just hasn't been an emphasis on reading as a means to better educational quality. It is so hard to incorporate simple reading into the curriculum because neither the parents nor the teachers understand the importance. Sadly, I don't think this is a Dominican Republic problem. I think we're taking the joy out of reading for most kids - be it for lack of exposure, or for forcing test-based-reading, or for just not providing quality texts.
There are some awesome organizations on the island that are working hard to enhance the culture of reading for our kids. Check them out:

Amely loves reading story books!
FUNDEBIBO - is an organization that works to train librarians and other "resource-arians" and to promote literacy in the Dominican Republic. Based in Santo Domingo.

Lleva un libro en la maleta - is a grassroots movement to motivate people to bring a book, many books and/or school supplies with them in their suitcase when they visit the island and then donate them to schools that need them.

Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi  - is located in Las Terrenas - a beautiful beach town on the Samana peninsula and offers library services with more than 7000 books to the community.

Biblioteca Comunitaria Dr. William House is, of course, my favorite literacy program on the island. Located in San Francisco de Macoris, the library offers programs ranging from story time to English classes to art hour.

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