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.