Monday, September 16, 2013

Fighting Illiteracy

To this day I recall quite vividly my first day at Nueva Mercedes school back in February. Quite nervous and soft-spoken—uncharacteristic of myself--I decided to spend the day with the second grade, as I find children in this age group to be more often easy-going, compared to hormonal fifth and sixth graders. One of my first simple acts of assistance to Instructor Marta consisted of me passing out chapter books to the children, saying hello, repeating my name endlessly, and then walking around the room and listening to them read, sometimes helping them sound out a long word. Discovering that the majority of the class could sound out most of the words and read out-loud (sometimes to a point of obnoxiously yelling), my first relieving thought was, “Phew, at least they know how to read.” However, this conclusion I would come to discredit in time, as I have discovered the school, the community, and the entire region is plagued by illiteracy.

Upon realizing that almost all of the children-- grades 1 to 6--were reading in the exact same lifeless, monotone voice, even during sentences with question marks, exclamation points, and quotations, I sensed that something was inherently wrong. After examining closely the teaching methods in first and second grade I concluded that the teachers had been successful in implementing the phonics method of teaching reading but have failed in instructing the children to the convert the letters' phonetics into comprehensible written language. Considering the undeniable importance of literacy being at the basis of education, as well as its service as an invaluable tool to many children who will finish school after sixth grade and begin working, I say if a school should give a child anything it must be the ability to decipher text.

In a lecture held one day in the third grade, Instructor Elda discussed the problems of illiteracy having negative impacts in the communities of Guatemala. To make her point further clear, she asked the children in the room to raise their hands if their parent's knew how to read and write. In a class of twenty-five students, six raised their hands. Furthermore provoking, and a testament to the results of this exercise, in a study revealed in the national newspaper Presa Libre, the municipality of Panzos, where Mercedes is located, is red-flagged and identified as having the second highest percentage rate of illiteracy in the country (47.38%).

The numbers' are clearly daunting, however, we are going to fight this simply by planting seeds for the future and our solution to this is getting books inside the house for the kids to read. Whether it be due to cultural or financial reasons, currently the families of Nueva Mercedes do not own books therefore the children appear to be estranged to them. With hope of reversing this we have begun to provide books to the children via a small library system where they are given the opportunity to check-out a book for a number of days at a time to bring home or elsewhere. As of now we have forty books, varying in reading level and subject matter, and the plan is to increase this number substantially, diversifying as much as possible, including not only fiction but historical, scientific, and environmental topics. Operating for about three weeks now, it has become popular among a small group of students and I believe that we will see greater participation with the accumulation of more books.

We are currently writing a “Donation Call” similar to that which we made for our laptops to request books from individuals, as well as sharing our small campaign with our friends CampusTech and Empresarios por la Educacion in the city who both have expressed interest in helping promote our cause. With the summer approaching it will be a very straight-forward objective for Li Ch'utam to raise books for the 2014 school year and formally introduce it at the start of the school year to acclimate the children to the process.

 Of course, simply providing books will not improve the situation alone. It is going to take a great amount of joint effort between the volunteers and teachers, and with their evidently being lack of communication between the two parties, a common objective such as increasing literacy could be a means of bringing us closer together.

 “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 
                                                                                         -Dr. Seuss

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