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The Climb

Starting with the basics

I grew up surrounded by books. Under hypnosis, I’m confident I could recall the stories I heard my mother reading to my sisters, while I, little embryonic me, floated around in her belly. Once I arrived into this world, nursery rhymes and stories filled my ears and books drifted past my still blurred vision. That’s how soon the love of books was instilled in me.

Now let’s consider a different scenario. You grow up in a small rural village, your parents are illiterate, your family is just getting by, and there isn’t a single book in your home. Occasionally one of the children in your village who goes to school comes back with a book but when you hear them reading it’s hard to understand the words because they are so different from your own language. Your government doesn’t have much money to pay teachers so well educated people aren’t attracted to the profession, leaving the kids that do go to school with less than ideal teacher.

This is the reality for a vast amount of children in Liberia. With the literacy rate still sitting at a low 47% the odds are at least one parent can’t read.  In most rural communities there isn’t a strong culture of reading so children enter into the school system with very little knowledge of books and seeing words in print. To add to that, Liberian English, the common language here, is very different then the English used in books. The adults who teach these children grew up in the same environment so their ability to cultivate a passion for reading is limited as well.

At first the reading, writing and spelling ability of many young people I met shocked me. It’s not uncommon to hear about students that manage to graduate from high school with a reading level of about a grade 4. But, the more time I spend considering the language arts curriculum, the lack of exposure to books, and the language issue the less surprised I am.

Liberia isn’t unusual as this is a common story in most developing nations. Although the millennium development goals are showing great results globally with getting kids into school, the academic ability of those students often remains low. Fortunately in Liberia, the Ministry of Education in Liberia is facing the issue by working on teacher development as well as improving the curriculum. Unfortunately, it’s a process that requires time.

Currently, there’s a big push to get kids reading and our school is working hard to be a shining example of what’s possible.  We have an amazing library, some gifted readers in each grade already, a current goal of fortifying our language arts program for next year, and a school wide reading assessment under way so we can monitor progress. It’s going to be a great challenge for all of us.

When in Canada I seem to be surrounded by young families and I often see children dragging books around and asking their parents to read them a story – that’s not a common scenario in Liberia at all.  But the other day, the sensation of standing before a mountain shifted. Little Emmanuel Lagree, 7 years old and in grade 1, saddled up to me while I was sitting in the library. He quickly scanned the shelves and reached for a book.

“Janjay, I love this book-o!”

“ See the man?” he pointed, “He can drive the plane.”

And on and on he went until I knew every form of transportation and who drove it.

Suddenly, Everest turned in to the Grouse Grind and although I knew we’d all have to work really hard to get to the top, we’d be elated, and educated, when we got there.