As the Clock Winds Down

Although 27 months seems like an extraordinarily long time to be away from home, it did not feel like I’ve been gone that long and yet have less than three months left. I hope that I made a difference. I hope that I inspired at least a few more kids to discover their love of reading. I put so much passion into my time here and sharing my love of books.  I hope that they will take the things I’ve taught them and continue even when I am not there. I hope that it’s sustainable. I don’t want to give these people such a wonderful opportunity in the library, a thousand new books and then have it be neglected.

Despite my preparation and expectations, it was quite an eye-opening experience to walk into Blankenburg Primary School on my first day.  One large room created a noisy, crowded environment for the 60 or so rambunctious students and teachers.  I noticed that the students were easily distracted by the chaotic space and lack of educational resources, particularly books. Almost instantly, I vowed that before I completed my Peace Corps service, I would see to the construction of a dedicated space for quiet reading and learning in a vibrant, book-filled library.

I wanted to make the library the best place it could be. This was a project that took almost a year and a half from start to completion, so I was going to make sure that I put everything into it.

With the encouragement and generous financial support of USAID, the local community and Ministry of Education, family, and friends, I got to work to plan, design, budget, and build a library.  The Headmistress determined where the library could fit on the school grounds, then I got going with my sketch pad to design everything from walls, roof, doors, and windows to bookshelves, tables, and chairs.

 

It was a bit intimidating for a “first time architect,” but exciting.  The 6th grade teacher helped with the materials budget, then a local team of workers did the building and shelving construction and an amazing woodworker built tables and chairs for both students and librarian.

 

In order to make the space what I envisioned, I had to design my own furniture. I took a number of trips to local shops but there was nothing even remotely like what we needed. I found very few desks and the only large tables available were ornate dining sets that looked like they belonged more in the Baroque era than modern day. Thankfully we were able to locate a carpenter that made the items to my exact specifications and it turned out beautifully. They are perfect pieces in the library.

 

I painted bright, welcoming colors and inspirational quotes on the walls and decorated with lots of handmade posters.  I painted the walls and even attempted to paint quotes and inspirational messages to liven up the space. It was a major challenge because the walls were a very rough cement, which did not lend itself to precision work. The paint here is also very different from what I’m used to in the US, and they don’t sell it in small quantities so you have to buy a larger size of a color you want and then try to mix it with other things to get what you’re imagining.

 

I created a visual system of color-coordinated stickers on the books and bookshelves by subject and reading level to make it easy to follow and maintain after I’m gone.  I’ve done literacy testing at the start and end of each school year and documented the easy-medium-hard reading level for each student that coordinates with the books’ stickers. This visual system is particularly good for students that aren’t strong readers. For sustainability, I trained one teacher and several student “junior librarians” on how to run the library.

 

The students could hardly wait for the library to open! Each day a number would poke their heads in through the door and ask when it would be done – or to exclaim how beautiful it was.

 

The library is now open five days a week from 8:30 am until 3:15 pm with 30 students visiting daily for reading or literacy lessons. Lots of reading is done in the library, but several books are checked out daily – the most popular being ones published by Disney. The happy, quiet environment encourages students’ reading and learning.

4th-grader Ezekiel and 5th grader Johnny can’t visit enough, coming every chance they get. What a reward it was to hear Ezekiel exclaim, “When I grow up, I want to have a library.  It’s beautiful!” This project has turned out far better than I could ever have dared to hope and I could not be more proud to step back and let this school community manage and enjoy their library for years to come.

Library Update

My Primary School is in desperate need of educational resources and adequate space to store these materials. In particular, the school has very few fiction and non-fiction books and lacks a dedicated library space to store these books in a quiet environment for the students’ reading enjoyment.  As such, I wrote a grant to assist the community in funding the construction of a library addition and just found out that the cheque is ready! The purpose of G-LIFE in Guyana is to allow students and teachers to “gain access to personal, professional, and academic development opportunities through literacy.” Construction of the library room, filled with books and other educational resources, meets this purpose by giving the students and the local community greater access to literature, and hopefully, encourage the love of reading and knowledge gathering.

The school building itself is a “one room schoolhouse,” reminiscent of colonial-era American classrooms, and quite small for the 60+ children in grades 1 through 6 who attend. Room dividers separate each of the “classrooms,” which are cramped and barely large enough to house the teachers’ desk, tables, chairs, and basic educational resource materials.  Children can often be found tripping over benches and chalkboards as they attempt to navigate their way through the school. Two to three students are seated at each desk to make the best use of the small classrooms. Some of the teachers have small cupboards for their supplies, but these are barely large enough to hold the required textbooks and Ministry-supplied biscuits/juice.

At present, students, their parents, siblings, and the community at large have little to no access to books, unless they travel to Georgetown to purchase them or visit the national library. For economic reasons, this is not feasible for many of the residents.  The School has less than 100 non-text books available to the students to read.  These books are currently disorganized, strewn haphazardly throughout the school, and displayed in piles on tables filled with old projects, posters, papers and broken globes. As a Peace Corps volunteer with a core mission to improve children’s literacy, I resolved to do what I could do find the funding to build an addition onto the school to serve as a reading room or library. This room will be open to students and filled with a variety of fiction and non-fiction books that they can read during their breaks or borrow to read at home.

By constructing a dedicated library space, filled with a wide variety of books, I hope to ignite a passion and lifelong love of reading in my students.  I firmly believe that when the children experience this environment, they will exert much more energy and enthusiasm in learning how to read solely for the joy of reading. Learning their A-B-Cs and entering the world of reading and literacy is like opening a door a crack, letting in little bits of knowledge, growing ever wider as their literacy increases, and finally, bursting wide open to let in a world of endless opportunities to learn, grow, and feed their imaginations and their intellectual curiosity.

The students that I work with each day are those that cannot read; their skill level ranges from those that cannot identify any of the letters of the alphabet, to those who can identify their A-B-Cs, but have trouble sounding out letters and translating those sounds into words. Most students have never had access to books and have no idea that there is a treasure trove of stories that they could discover at a library.  In an effort to encourage reading, I offered a reading competition to the children and found that even students that cannot read are lighting up at the prospect of be able to read a book. I’ve observed that they put greater effort into their literacy studies and dream of becoming readers. One third grader in particular has been applying herself much more since I began reading to her.  She has made great strides, now identifying the entire alphabet, getting 100-percentage on a recent vocabulary test, and taking her first steps in learning to read. It seems that books have ignited a flame within her, pushing her to achieve more and strive to perform better in school.

The expanded use of a library or ICT resources is objective 2.3 of G-LIFE, which is what we are attempting to do with the proper creation of a library at the School. It will also be a space that can be utilized for tutoring, after-school programs or clubs, and literacy sessions. I have been writing to various organizations and using my own money to purchase books for the school. With the creation of a library and space to house these books, the students will be able to access resources that they have never had before and compliment their literacy development. The separate room also offers a quiet environment, away from the noise of the classrooms, where students can focus on their literacy studies and reading.

Working together to establish a dedicated library space at the School encourages community involvement through the planning, funding, construction, and communal use of the library by students, families, and residents. The library is a community resource where local history and culture can be collected, displayed, and discovered and provides an uncluttered, safe, and quiet environment for both children and adults to promote learning and literacy. The library space will also have room allotted for/to a computer lab/ICT centre. This will allow the school to organize and improve its ICT resources.

The idea is to begin to educate teachers, students, and the community on the function and values of the library. Students, in particular, will be taught how to use the library, proper library behavior, and will be allowed to borrow books for reading at home.  With respect to the students, the objective is to change their attitudes towards reading and knowledge, to improve literacy, and to see better results on school work by the end of the library’s first full year of operation.

To keep the library sustainable, library assistants (grades 5-6) will train the younger, junior librarians (grades 3-4) to be their successors. The ICT will be open to students during the school day and potentially opened to the community for adult computer classes after school. Older students will also be given the responsibility to care for the ICT centre (like the assistant/junior librarians) and ensure that other are utilizing it properly. They will be trained by knowledgeable teachers and community members.

The project will be sustainable in a variety of ways. Once the library building is constructed, general maintenance and utilities will be provided by the school department, as is done with the existing school building. Teachers, with the assistance of the students, will organize materials, label, and keep inventory of books. To fund the upkeep of the library structure and purchasing of new books and other resources, the children will be charged a nominal fee to “check out” books for home reading. The specific amount will be determined by the library committee, but working figures include $20 per week, $100 per month, a one-time fee of $1,000, or some other figure and time frame that the committee decides is satisfactory.   The PTA has agreed to hold fund raisers to purchase additional books or replace lost or damaged materials. To keep the centre sustainable, students will be charged a fee per week for the use of the computers and a fee per page to print. This will help the school afford to upkeep the computers, purchase new paper and ink, as well as possibly afford Internet access.

 

 

 

Additionally, to monitor progress and ensure the achievement of objectives, literacy assessments will be given, reading habits logged, computer science quizzes given, and materials created to showcase achievement. For example, a poster would be created and posted in the school that details the percentage of the school population that are “readers,” read at grade level, and read above grade level. It will also detail how many books each student has read in the previous term, how many books they have read in the current term, and their goals by the end-of-term.

Students already had their literacy levels recorded by myself at the beginning of the year, which was updated at the end of this school year. This provides an accurate baseline from which to compare to their abilities before and after the construction and utilization of the library. Each term, the number of books each student reads recreationally has already been recorded; this can easily be used to compare with the at-home reading numbers once the library is being utilized.

Think Outside the Envelope: 13 Activities to Expand and Grow Your Intercultural Exchanges

Everyone loves a letter, but it’s time to start thinking outside the envelope. Historically, World Wise Schools (WWS) relationships between a Peace Corps Volunteer’s (PCV) host country and U.S. stu…

Source: Think Outside the Envelope: 13 Activities to Expand and Grow Your Intercultural Exchanges

Mash Madness

The kids spent weeks preparing for the Mash competition with poetry, a dance routine and a number of songs. Mash, or Mashramani, is Guyana’s celebration of becoming a Republic in 1970. If you were to travel to town on February 23rd, you’d see tons of colourful costumes, parades, steel drum bands and so much more. Our competition was in Uigvlugt (sounds like eye-flood) on February 4th. We filled two minibuses with students and almost our entire school came out to cheer their fellow students on. They didn’t place in poetry or song but got third for their dance.

Later on in the month, we had our Mash celebration at school. There was an assembly outside where each of the grades contributed something to the program, which culminated in a cook-out. All of the items from the competition were performed here, as well as some poetry from grades two and four, a song from grade two and school-wide singing of national and folk songs.

There was just a quick get-together at Genelle’s for her birthday, in attendance were the volunteers of Region 3 and a giant spider.

At the end of the month, we took grades one through three on a tour (or field trip) to Georgetown. The first stop was the National Museum, unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures there. They have fossils, animals in jars, rocks, many different taxidermy creatures, and a giant sloth. By giant, I mean it’s about two stories tall and meant to show what the giant sloths used to look like in South America. There was a quick in bus tour of the University of Guyana, which the kids didn’t pay much attention to. At this point, the students were getting hungry so we headed to the Botanical Garden and Zoo. The kids loved seeing the big cats, monkeys, birds, alligators, sloths, otters, and snakes. I’ve been spoiled by Roger William’s Zoo, so it’s not what I am used to but it’s great that the kids do have someplace like this to go. I do wish that they allowed for more educational opportunities. The kids had been clamouring for it all day, a trip to the Princess Casino and their Fun City arcade. They even had fun “playing” the demo video that shows on the screen to entice people to play the game. That’s one way for parents to save money at an arcade. The day ended with ice cream for all the kids and one student throwing their fried rice all over the floor of the minibus.

This term ended with a teacher cooking competition that split the school into two teams. The left side of the school had the three teachers from grades three to six, as well as myself and we were the blue team. We had matching aprons, hats, and fancy name tags. The right side of the school had the two teachers from grades one and two, the Head Mistress, and the woman who cleans the school and they were the orange team. They wore matching orange t-shirts and aprons. There were two judges and even an official score sheet. Each team created a different meal, although both were heavily rice-based. It was a close competition, but the blue team won by two points!

I was invited out to a Mandir for their celebration the night before Phagwah (or Holi). Phagwah is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. It was a lovely one-and-a-half-hour ceremony with chanting and Holi songs that I, unfortunately, couldn’t understand. I’m sure they told stories of the holiday, of Holika and the king, but I don’t speak Hindi and thus it was just beautiful music. After the event, we went to an open field with a huge pyre. It was at least one hundred feet tall, but it was hard to estimate. It was quite impressive once they set it ablaze, although it only took about ten minutes to topple. A few mischievous people were out powdering people and a couple of other volunteers got hit pretty substantially. Even after they washed the neon orange powder off, they were red 0-plike lobsters for the rest of the night (and, a;t least three days afterwards). Traditionally, you would wear white on Phagwah so that your clothes are a rainbow of colours once you’re done.

Giving Thanks in Guyana

I may not have been able to go home for Thanksgiving, but I still managed to celebrate here in Guyana. Its strange not being home during the holidays. Ever since I can remember Thanksgiving has been at my house. I’ve always gotten up early to clean the house and decorate, more recently to help out with the cooking. (I usually make the pumpkin pie.) This is the first time that I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving. It also won’t be the last holiday that I miss in the next two years. The other volunteers in the country got together at various houses and celebrated like one giant Peace Corps family. I am not a fan of large group settings, other than family holidays, so I looked for an alternative… and that ended up being an amazing Friendsgiving with Haley. She lives in another region, so I had to travel… but she has an oven (which I do not) so it was worth it. You cannot celebrate Thanksgiving without pie. It’s probably illegal somewhere.

After going to the saturday market and meeting the nicest restaurant/shop owner on the way back to Haley’s house – we were finally ready to begin cooking our feast. (I’ll warn you, we didn’t do it in any logical order.. I just put the pictures in a normal progression to look like a regular meal.)

The appetizer was a nice cheese tray with crackers, pineapple, and apple slices. (We couldn’t cook on an empty stomach!) Dinner was roasted potatoes and carrots with dill, sauteed mushrooms, and corn. Dessert was apple crumble a la mode and pumpkin pie.

I knew the crust would take a while so we made that first, with the apple crumble-type dessert. Who said you needed to cook the regular food before dessert? As much as I love pie, I’m not sure if it beat the delicious simplicity of my plate of vegetables. (We were given mushrooms by a lovely local restaurant/shop owner. She also went in search of ice cream for us that wasn’t cherry orange swirl or something else strange, to top our pie. Who has apple pie without vanilla ice cream?) Honestly, I loved everything and it made for a wonderful Thanksgiving.

We had one small, shallow pie pan and the plan was to make half the pie pumpkin and the other half blueberry, but even cutting the recipe in half… we ended up with too much pumpkin pie mix for even the pan we had to hold and I decided to make tiny pies in the muffin pan. For the record, there is no such thing as too much pumpkin pie mix and must all be cooked. We didn’t end up making the blueberry pie, but I definitely plan to go back after Christmas to make all the other foods we didn’t get around to. (Blueberry pie, veggies and dip, mashed potatoes, etc.)

Breakfast was pumpkin pancakes, of course, with canned pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg. I do not make pancakes any other way. On a whim, I decided to make a mickey shaped pancake and things spiraled out of control. Haley jokingly requested that I make Flounder, Ariel and numerous other characters next… and I did, with just the batter and a spoon. Some were adorable and some were terrible. But all were delicious.

Just a quick update about sports and parties.

Did you actually say to yourself, did she just mention parties? I must have misread that because there is no way that she would be social and go to parties. It’s true, I happened to wander into a room where one was going on and had to immediately assume wall-flower defensive poses.

One of the goals of Peace Corps is to bring Guyanese culture to America, while another is bringing American culture to Guyana. I’m not sure if guacamole can be called a part of American culture, but I am going to claim it. Here, they call avocados pears… which can be confusing. But, one day I decided to make some guacamole with an avocado I was given. I walked into a PC get-together and was handed an avocado. It immediately reminded me of the episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor tells Rose to bring a banana to a party… except, I had a pear. I lost some of you, didn’t I?

always-take-a-banana

Anyway, I let my HF try the guacamole and they absolutely loved it. It was gone in less than 15 minutes and let me tell you, those avocados are not small. I’ve had to make it four times since then and sometimes I get a knock on my door at 9 pm to make it. So does that count as Peace Corps Goal 2? Maybe.

I finally was able to download some of my pictures since I’ve been here, so I wanted to do a quick post to show you whats been happening. September was education month, indigenous heritage month, and the start of school sports. The sports started in September, then we had inter-school sports in October, and now nationals are coming up. We actually have students who are going to nationals (for long jump, swimming, running, and throwing)! Its cool because we have such a tiny school and I’m proud of our students.

On a more exciting note, Diwali is Tuesday… or Wednesday. It really depends upon who you ask. Don’t ask me to explain it, please. Its confusing. But its the Hindu Festival of Lights (Tangled, anyone?) so I’m hoping to be able to get a lot of really pretty pictures. Then three weeks from now is Thanksgiving! A lot of volunteers are getting together in multiple locations, but Haley and I decided to have our own Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving I guess. I’m excited to plan the menu, maybe make some holiday decorations with whatever we can find, and of course take pictures. I’ll post our menu later!

Hope you enjoy the photos.

A Little Bit Book Obsessed

It has been a while since I posted, but summer break didn’t have a lot of fun updates. I essentially just made school resources, got my house and order, and met up with fellow volunteers a couple of times. Now that school is in session once more, I hope that I have more to talk about.

The first week was a whirlwind – education month planning, learning the ropes and attempting to do literacy assessments on the entire school (each one could take up to an hour per student!). Although my school is small, with just over 60 students that adds up. The students who are unable to read or even recognize their basic letters are with me for 15 minutes at most. Then there are others who do really well on the assessments and I have to keep bumping up the grade and continuing the test. Those may take 30-45 minutes. Surprisingly, the longest time is used by the middle students. The ones who don’t excel and quickly take the tests, but slowly work their way up and pass.. I had one student with me for 75 minutes! I’m happy to do the assessments because I really want to know what level each student is at (and learn their names).

The assessment is pretty simple. The student just reads the alphabet to me (upper and lower), gives me the letter sounds, reads some sight words, and finally ends with a short story and comprehension questions. I tried to make it a little more fun by writing out the words on coloured Popsicle sticks, that way I can say “Read all of the blue words to me” or “let’s try pink” and they would read the pre-primer or grade three words respectively.

I actually had one grade four student who aced my sight words up to grade six so I had to come up with grades seven through nine words! I was so impressed. He’s also one of the students I taught last term when I visited for a week (and yes he was very enthusiastic whenever I gave them a chance to read to the class). I have a video of him reading Holes out loud.
Today is the time this month that is dedicated to literacy, or at least 10 minutes of the day. For ten minutes today, students are supposed to “Drop Everything and Read”. They certainly tried, but only made it about five minutes in before all I heard was the dull roar of student chatter.

Each student was supposed to bring in a book to read and then trade it with a fellow pupil so they could go home with a new book. This should help with the reading competition that I started for education month. Each student was tasked with reading at least one book per week so that the school as a whole could reach their goal of 250 books. Once they read a book, they did a little project to show their knowledge of the story. Some options were poems, drawings, crafts (ex a story about a princess could find the student making a magic wand with a stick they find in the yard), a diary entry as the character, etc. So far, I’ve only received drawings but that’s okay – I’m hanging them up in my space so parents can see them when they look around and it brightens up the place!
My last few months have been very book obsessed. I wrote a numbers of emails to companies that donate and ship books to school oversees *fingers crossed* we’ll get a good number of books that are actually relevant to these students and their reading levels. Some of the things we have right now are so silly. My favourite was the unauthorized Hanson biography that I found in the grade 5 classroom. The only thing I remember about Hanson is that they had a track on the jukebox at Papa Gino’s in elementary school… When Papa Gino’s actually had a jukebox. What that song was? I have no idea. There are plenty of old, destroyed copies of books… Ones way beyond their reading levels like Shakespeare… And irrelevant texts like a Teacher’s Manual for the Tennessee Common Core.

My next goal is a library, which sounds grand but unfortunately there is no space in my school. It’s quite small, so there is nowhere that I could establish a library within the building. My only option is to fund-raise money or get a grant to build the structure in the back (and hope there’s a lot of community involvement). I would really love to see that happen so that they students have a nice place to quietly read, lots of relevant books that they enjoy reading (and are labelled by reading level of course), and maybe have it be a place I can take the students who are unable to read to give them individualized attention. When the school building is just one large room divided by chalkboards, it is understandable that the students get distracted and don’t focus as well as they should on learning to read.

My dad is also trying to petition his work to hold a book drive and pay the shipping cost to send some books to me – so that would be amazing if it worked. Shipping is much more expensive than I expected it to be. The only reasonable method of transportation I’ve found is purchasing a “barrel” from Laparkan and shipping it here. That method is less than $100 and you can fit a lot of stuff in those barrels. Plus I’ve heard that you don’t have to deal with customs and it is delivered directly to your door – which it would have to be because I cannot carry a four foot tall barrel back from Georgetown. Unfortunately, Laparkan is only in certain major cities like New York and Miami, so my family can’t use it. I honestly don’t think you can have too many good books. Too many ones that they kids can’t read? Okay maybe. But you need books to build a library and you need them to expose children to the wonders of reading.

Well I think that’s all I have for now, enjoy the photos!