Nothing makes me feel more like a Peace Corps Volunteer than being the lone caucasian walking through a racially disparate neighborhood with a cadre of half a dozen loud, boistrous, and totally incomprehensible dark-skinned youngsters in tow.
That's about where I was earlier today, being led by these kids from house to house along the Guyana's Essequibo Coast, visiting families to ask them about how well and how often they read. The kids were there to show me which houses they knew were inhabited by families worth interviewing, and not just stodgy old bachelors or toothsome guard dogs. They also gave a sense of legitimacy to my presence; a lone, out-of-place-looking stranger from a strange land asking a mother of 3 if she reads newspapers looks less peculiar when six or seven of the mother's son's friends are vouching for him.
But don't worry, there's a purpose to my intellectual lurking habits – it actually is a legitimate part of my job here. I've been assigned the task of helping the Imam Bacchus Library, a new and growing public library in the middle of this stretch of coastline promote itself and expand its programs. The goal is to get more people to use the library, which would in turn promote literacy throughout the community, something that seems to be lacking. Before getting to any of that though, the last three weeks were spent observing, interviewing, and fact-finding throughout the library's greater zone of influence. My first week here had me feeling like Billy Madison as I spent my days in nursery and primary school classrooms, enjoying story-times, reading classes, sing-alongs, art projects. A highlight: one nursery school graduation rehearsal where the kids practiced their performance of Vitamin C's "Graduation Song," which I'm amazed actually enjoys the same role in Guyana as it does in the U.S. as the unofficial day school graduation anthem.
During this initial period, I observed what seemed to be strong foundations from the schools' end concerning reading education, but since I was only able to get a superficial glance at the end of the school year, there was no doubt that I was missing a lot. As I began my observations of the secondary schools the next week, I began to see the outcome of the early years of education. As one would find anywhere, there was a wide range of ability in the students, despite all coming from basically the same education background – with universal school curriculums designed by the national Ministry of Education. There were plenty of kids who were bright, literate, and enthusiastic learners, but there were a surprising number of kids who literally could not read. Remember my last post where I quoted that writing sample from one of the star students in the seventh grade remedial class? That was one of the better examples from that class. The weakest of the weak students wrote literally gibberish. Words resembling "iggitbidf" or "luberkrad" were typical and the authors could not remember what they had actually written, and certainly couldn't read it.
My next step was to take a stab at figuring out why this could be the case, so I started asking the different constituent groups what they thought. The results were about as uselessly varied as I'd been expecting. Students blamed the teachers. Teachers blamed the parents. Parents blamed their kids. Chickens blamed their eggs. And I realized that this whole question probably doesn't matter all that much to me. I'm only here for six months, I have a undergraduate degree, and I have neither the time, expertise, or interest in trying to tackle a vast issue like the illiteracy culture of this country, certainly not compared to much more qualified folks who are working on that very issue already. Peace Corps is all about doing grassroots empowerment, not large-scale cultural overhauls.
Besides, it's not as if the system is hopeless. As I said, there are plenty of successful students graduating schools and getting quality educations, by Guyanese standards at least, and there aren't so few of them that they would be considered outliers. The good students share the system with the weaker ones, at least in the early years. It's only when they enter secondary school that their grades begin to determine their placement in classes and the quality of the education they are given, since school budgets are also higher at the more selective schools.
So what am I going to do? What I was asked to: make this library awesome! Attacking the problem one symptom at a time seems the right way to go about my job, and since the library hired me to help encourage literacy, I'll use the library to do it. The theory is this: Make the library more fun and give more people reasons to go there --> More people using the library most likely results in more people reading, learning, and associating positively with those things --> More kids get into the habit of reading and self-educating, and more parents start to see this as an activity for their kids which is easy to encourage, rather than an unnecessary alternative to watching TV and playing cricket --> Attitudes towards literacy improves.
Which leads to my posse and me running around town to knock on doors and find out who does and doesn't already use the library, why they do or don't, and what we can do to change that. My supervisor – the library's founder and head – and I have been brainstorming possible activities and allures, such as contests and "read-a-thons" like I had back in elementary school, filming the story-time hours and puppet shows we already run and have them broadcast on the public access TV station, holding literacy and computer training classes for all ages, but especially for those out of school, and creating our own homemade version of one of my favorite childhood shows, Reading Rainbow.
We'll see how far we get, but I'm hopeful that we can make the library one of the major cultural institutions of the Essequibo Coast, and transform how the people here view literacy and education. Who knows how much potential innovation can be tapped from people who don't even know how creative they can be until they're given a chance and a reason to try?