Stories From Guatemala

New Books Help School Launch a Weekend Lending Program

La Vega Students exchange badges for books in the school's weekend lending program.

La Vega Students exchange badges for books in the school’s weekend lending program.

Earlier this year, the tiny school of La Vega near Patzun, Guatemala started something new for their 40 students. Every Friday, a group of student leaders, called the Gobierno Escolar, selects books from the school’s small library and visits classrooms to distribute the books to their fellow students. The students hand in their ID badges as collateral and are free to take the books home for the weekend to read and share with their parents and siblings.

The weekend lending program seems like a simple idea, but it is revolutionary for the students of La Vega and their families, who rarely have books in their homes. Now students have more time to practice their reading skills and develop a love of reading.

Students at the La Vega school read the new books during their recess.

Students at the La Vega school read the new books during their recess.

“The students are motivated now and don’t have to be pressured to read on their own,” says La Vega teacher Maily Perez Canu. “Every day they want to exchange books and find something new that interests them.”

It’s also a program that wasn’t possible a until a few months ago.

One of the advantages for schools in participating in Child Aid’s Reading For Life program is they receive high-quality children’s books. The principal at La Vega, Juana Mactzul Mucia, says she has always wanted to do a lending program for her students, but never had enough books in the school to make it possible.

La Vega joined Reading for Life last school year and recieved their first new books in January. Once she had a reliable supply of books through Child Aid, Mactzul Mucia says she finally had the confidence to start loaning them out to students.

“We distribute books to schools and provide training, but we don’t necessarily know how they are going to choose use them,” says Child Aid Country Director John van Keppel. “The key for us is that they are finding ways to get the books closer to the kids so they can use and interact with them. La Vega is a small school, so this weekend lending program is a great solution for them. I especially like that it is helping get the books into the student’s homes where parents can see them.”

“We have had chats with the mothers of every child that they will be bringing books home on the weekends,” says teacher Perez Canu. “Then the mothers are involved in the program. They know to expect that the children will be bringing books home and can make the time to read the books with their children.”

Osbin reads to his mother and brothers outside their home.

Osbin reads to his mother and brothers outside their home.

Erita Loyda Parlopez’s son Osbin is a member of the Gobierno Escolar at La Vega and is an enthusiastic reader. She says her two sons bring home books every weekend and Osbin enjoys reading to his baby brother. “He likes all the books,” she says. “I can tell he is thriving because I see the change in his reading ability.”

Weekend lending is an example of ways schools are encouraging students to develop a habit of reading, one of the key objectives of the Reading for Life program.

“The skills of reading have to be practiced,” says van Keppel. “We try to encourage any opportunity for kids to read on their own time and develop a love for reading. Independent reading helps the reader improve their vocabulary, increase comprehension and build the confidence they need to read at higher levels and expand their interests.”

La Vega received it’s second delivery of new books early last month, which included over 800 storybooks and non-fiction books and two bookshelves on wheels to make it easier to move them between classrooms and make them available to students during recess.

Teacher Perez Canu says the recent arrivals have helped the school expand the lending program and have stimulated even more interest in reading in her students.

“During recess, after they have finished their homework, the students often come to get books,” she says. Not all the kids like to play all the time, some like to read. Now it is expected that a child that wants to read can find a book. And they are reading them in the schoolyard and on the swings. It has been really good.”

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
09/16/2013 7:09 AM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Librarians Get a New Tool for Book Lending

Agua Escondida Library

Agua Escondida Librarian Clara Luz Mox Umul helps students check out books from the library.

When Child Aid Country Director John van Keppel and Library Coordinator Carlos Pos visited the library at the public school in Agua Escondida earlier this month, they were thrilled to see the librarian, Clara Luz Mox Umul, and a group of students huddled around a small plastic box.  They were using a new checkout system, introduced at a Child Aid librarian training just a few weeks earlier and designed to help promote and facilitate book lending at our partner libraries.

“It’s great to see Clara using the box already and that kids are checking out books,” commented van Keppel as he flipped through the student cards, filled with the names of books they had borrowed. “It’s a simple tool, but one that will hopefully help us get more books in the hands of kids.”

Child Aid’s work with libraries is based on the belief that the more kids have access to books the more opportunities they will have to read and learn. We focus on creating libraries that are resources for literacy in their schools and communities by providing hundreds of high-quality children’s books, including story books, textbooks and reference books.

Library Coordinator Carlos Paz holds up an example of the library's new lending cards.

Library Coordinator Carlos Pos holds up an example of the library’s new lending cards.

But even with these additional resources, there can be other barriers. For example, because books in these communities are an expensive and rare resource, rural libraries can be reluctant to lend them out and do not have a reliable circulation system for lending to students. Books can sit on shelves – sometimes behind lock and key – and be inaccessible to readers.

In Child Aid’s librarian trainings, librarians like Clara learn skills to help them make their libraries more accessible to the community. They learn how to transform their libraries into welcoming environments, run programs and activities that promote literacy, and set up systems to lend books to schools, students and community members.

But earlier this year, van Keppel and the Library Development team noticed that the partner libraries were not checking out books to students as much as they had hoped.

“Every library we work with does lending a bit differently,” says van Keppel, “and many do not do it very well.”

A page from the a library ledger book

A page from the a library ledger book

Librarians often use a ledger book, writing down each book and its due date chronologically as it is checked out. The process is laborious and makes it difficult to keep track of when books are due and which books are overdue.

“We realized that if we wanted to promote lending, we needed to introduce a system that was easy to use and would be consistent across all our partner libraries.”

So Pos and the rest of the Child Aid staff set to work designing a simple checkout system that would be cheap to set up and easy for librarians to implement. Now every student has a card with their book titles and due dates recorded on a single page. Overdue cards go into a red folder for tracking and reminders, making it easier for librarians to manage their inventories and prevent losses.

“It seems to be working well so far,” says Pos. “I have visited three or four other libraries that have already implemented the lending system. We’ll continue to follow-up with the librarians and make improvements as we go along.”

Van Keppel hopes that having all the libraries on a single system will allow Child Aid’s staff to provide better support to librarians and make lending a routine part of the libraries’ work. It may also set the stage for future improvements such as tracking usage and reading habits of students or creating a digitized checkout system.

It is one of Child Aid’s many small innovations that are helping overcome barriers to literacy in these rural communities and giving students access to the books they need to learn and grow.

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
09/2/2013 11:17 AM | 1 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Teaching Kids to Read in Many Languages

Child Aid Reading Promoter Graciela Landa Pichiyá works with a classroom in the K’iche village of Xojolá. In addition to Spanish, Graciela speaks K’iche and two other Mayan languages.

How might a teacher in Guatemala say “good morning, how are you?” to a student as they enter the classroom?

In Spanish: “Buenos días, ¿cómo estás?”
In Kaqchikel: “Xsaqer, utz awach?”
In K’iche: “Saqarik, jasmächa?”
In Tz’utujil: “Saqari, utz awach?”

Girls from the Kaqchikel village of Santa Catarina Palopó read storybooks donated by Child Aid.

Roughly the size of the state of Ohio, Guatemala is home to just over 14 million people – and an incredible 23 languages. Talk about a communication and teaching challenge! Spanish is the national language used for business and education, while 21 of the 22 other languages have Mayan origins.

Many of the kids we work with grow up speaking only a Mayan language at home. When students head off to school for the first time, it’s like stepping into a new world with a brand new language: Spanish. Moreover, many teachers don’t speak the students’ native language. This language barrier coupled with inadequate reading and classroom materials presents a real hardship for both students and teachers. Many indigenous students feel lost from the moment they start their education. Guatemala’s school system does little to address this problem. And while most students learn Spanish as they go along in class; those who are unable to typically drop out of school.

In order to reach all students and improve reading skills, Child Aid not only provides books and materials to teachers but also hires literacy trainers who are fluent in the local Mayan language of the region where we work (e.g. Kaqchikel, K’iche, and Tz’utujil). Our staff uses techniques which help teachers learn how to take a bilingual approach to in their lesson planning and teaching.

Librarian Juana Sissay Gómez works with kids from the Tz’utujil village of Tzanchaj.

For example, a teacher starts the lesson in the students’ native language, uses a book or reading material mostly in Spanish, then enters into a discussion between students in their native language, ending with a lesson review in Spanish. This technique helps students develop literacy skills in their own language while also helping them fully understand and incorporate Spanish materials.

By using both Spanish and local Mayan languages in teaching activities, staff and teachers find they are able to teach with more enthusiasm and confidence, and the kids are more engaged, inspired and successful in class.

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
03/27/2013 10:37 AM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Student Profile: Erick Patzán Ramírez

Ethical Bean Scholarship recipient, Erick Patzán Ramírez.

Erick Patzán Ramírez is a hard worker. Now 17 and in his fifth (or junior) year at Pedro Molina High School, Erick wants to use his academic skills and knowledge to pursue a career in Computer Technology after graduation. The oldest of four siblings, Erick is on track to be the first of his family to finish school.

Erick’s value of “work hard to reach your goals in life” was encouraged early on by his parents. His family runs a small bakery out of their home in La Alameda, Chimaltenango. After school, Erick and his siblings help his father prepare and sell bread. His mother works as a housemaid during the day and returns home to work in the bakery after hours.

Because families such as Erick’s lack the financial resources for their kids to continue beyond primary school, many drop out so they can help provide more immediate support for their family. Most never even begin high school, let alone finish.

Erik is able to go to school because of a scholarship he receives through FUNDIT, Child Aid’s non-profit partner in the town El Tejar, Guatemala. FUNDIT (Foundation for the Integral Development of El Tejar) consists of a Montessori-type preschool, a community library, a music program and the Ethical Bean Scholarship Fund, which serves primary, middle and high school age kids.

Named after the Vancouver, BC coffee company that supports it, the Ethical Bean Scholarship Fund helps over 100 Guatemalan students like Erick pay for books, uniforms, school fees and supplies. Scholarship students are also encouraged to participate in volunteer and mentoring activities in other FUNDIT programs.

Last month, Erick volunteered the most hours of any scholarship student in the El Tejar library. “Erick is a big contributor and helps out all year long with our library’s reading program,” says Silvia García, FUNDIT’s Executive Director. “Erick loves school. He wants to study and graduate so he can make a better life for himself and his family.”

Because of the educational opportunities provided by Child Aid and the Ethical Bean Scholarship Fund, Erick’s dreams will soon become a reality, and he can help his family break the cycle of poverty. Way to go, Erick!

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
03/27/2013 10:37 AM | 0 Comments
Staff Profile

Jorge Sanum Buch Leads Kids by Example

Jorge Sanum Buch knows both the importance and the value of education – something that gives him much joy (and smiles) when working with kids in Child Aid’s Reading for Life literacy program.

Jorge grew up in the Kaqchikel-speaking village of El Sitio, Guatemala. His childhood was similar to other indigenous Mayan children raised in the campo (countryside). When not in school, Jorge worked to help his family make ends meet, spending afternoons on the milpa (a plot of land where crops such as corn are grown) with his father or in the forest gathering firewood so his mother could cook for the family.

Jorge (center) en route to a village school to work with teachers and students in Reading for Life.

Coming from a family whose daily earnings barely allowed them to survive, Jorge and his parents wanted more for his future and sacrificed much of their means for him to continue his studies. On top of that, because Jorge only spoke Kaqchikel, school was a struggle (as Spanish is the primary language used in Guatemalan schools). These circumstances fueled Jorge’s perseverance to complete high school and earn his diploma in something he loved: education – the first of his family to do so.

Jorge joined Child Aid’s literacy staff in 2011. Not only does he implement our program in rural schools and libraries, he also leads our teacher training initiative for students interested in becoming educators. The trainings offer students the tools and resources to implement literacy programs and reading promotion in their future classrooms. In addition to his own education, Jorge’s success hails from his ability to share the culture and language of the people he works with, helping make our program trainings, resources and materials much more effective and relevant.

With his famous smile, Jorge reads with a few girls from the village of Xojolá.

When asked if he misses working on the milpa, Jorge smiles and says “no, not at all!” He still likes to help out with his father when possible, but Jorge’s fulfillment stems from his every day job, which not only helps support his family, but also allows him to share his passion for education.

Categories: Staff Profile, Stories From Guatemala
01/28/2013 12:04 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Training Student Teachers in Guatemala

Meet Fabiola Chioc, a teacher in training at a school for indigenous women in San Andres, Guatemala. Child Aid works in partnership with Fabiola’s school to help the students learn how to teach and promote reading. Most teachers in rural Guatemala never learn the basics of how to teach children to read, which is one of the reasons the country has the lowest literacy rate in all of Latin America.

“Child Aid has helped us so much,” Fabiola told us. “Norma [the Child Aid literacy trainer who works in her school] has really helped me understand how to explain books and reading. Other teachers don’t teach this.”

Fabiola is also the first in her family to make it to high school. Congratulations, Fabiola! And thanks to all of you who support our work and enable us to provide training to Fabiola and her fellow student teachers.

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
08/23/2012 6:00 AM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Tackling Illiteracy with Bilingual Education

Kaqchikel children delight at a story that Child Aid Literacy Trainer, Carlos Pos Ben, translates from Spanish into Kaqchikel.

Carlos Pos Ben is a Child Aid literacy trainer and a native speaker of Kaqchikel, one of Guatemala’s 21 indigenous Mayan languages. He works in several remote Kaqchikel communities in Guatemala’s Central Highlands, helping undertrained teachers in neglected schools become better bilingual educators.

Most of the more than 50 towns and villages where we work are indigenous. Children in these communities speak Mayan languages – K’iché, Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil – and enter school speaking very little Spanish. Because books are out of financial reach for their parents (and because most of their parents cannot read anyway), the majority of the children we work with have minimal, if any, experience with books. When these kids enter school at age 5, they face incredible challenges when trying to learn to read.

Through our Reading for Life literacy program, we pay special attention to these children by employing and training local, indigenous staff and by creating reading activities and programs that incorporate children’s first languages. Through the hard work of our bilingual staff, we arm undertrained teachers with applicable and effective bilingual education skills that can change children’s lives.

Engaging indigenous children through their first language is critical to creating good readers.

Child Aid literacy trainers visit hundreds of classrooms every year. One of the key things they do during their classroom visits is demonstrate how to read Spanish-language storybooks using two, sometimes three languages. (Very few books are published in Mayan languages.) Most rural teachers lack training in teaching children to read, and they find it difficult, if not impossible, to engage their students. The result is that indigenous children fail to learn to read well, and many drop out early.

“It doesn’t matter how many books you deliver to a school,” explains John van Keppel, Child Aid’s National Director in Guatemala. “If you read a story in Spanish to a classroom of first graders who are still struggling with Spanish, you’ll get minimal comprehension, minimal participation and lots of frustration.” By delivering quality children’s books to rural schools and helping teachers develop bilingual teaching skills, we change the old narrative altogether.

In a country like Guatemala, where illiteracy runs deep and resources are few, getting children to engage in books is critical to creating readers at an early age. It’s imperative to turning at-risk children into active, participatory students who will have a far better chance at succeeding in school.

“If you ask the kids in Spanish what color the big dog in the story was,” explains Carlos, “they’ll say ‘red.’ At most. But if you ask them in Kaqchikel or K’iché, they’ll tell you that the dog is red, that their own dog is brown, that their neighbor’s dog ran away last week, and on and on. They relate the story to their life, and they suddenly have an interest in it.

By giving primary-school teachers straightforward teaching techniques like this, we help 
kids develop literacy skills that are fundamental to lifting themselves from poverty.

If they develop those critical thinking and comprehension skills in their mother tongue, they can easily transfer them later to Spanish, the language of commerce and higher education in Guatemala.

A Kaqchikel girl reads a book in her classroom in Santa Catarina, Guatemala.

“If you wait until these kids are in seventh grade – if they make it to seventh grade – it’s far more difficult to teach these types of skills,” explains John van Keppel. “Most indigenous kids come to school and they’re completely lost. But when we help their teachers expose them to stories and activities in their mother tongue, they light up. They jump out of their seats. Then they plow head-first into school. It’s amazing to see.” These are the results we want, and they are the results we see from Reading for Life.

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
06/19/2012 5:29 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

The Power of an Inspired Librarian

A Child Aid literacy trainer reads storybooks to children during a reading festival organized by the town’s librarian.

By John van Keppel, Guatemala National Director

I always find it amazing to see what one motivated librarian can accomplish when provided with training, support and resources.

I just returned from Patzún, Guatemala, where we recently began our Reading for Life program. Patzún is a small town in the country’s rugged Central Highlands, and most of the residents are indigenous Kaqchikel. There’s a small library here which, until recently, was of little use to children.

The librarian in Patzún is an indigenous woman named Marilene Ixel. She began participating in our Librarian Training Program this year, after hearing about the literacy work we’ve been doing in outlying rural schools. (Our program is open to any librarian who wants to attend, and the majority of the 60-plus participants had no resources or training before working with Child Aid.)

Marilene took immediately to the reading-promotion practices we teach in the workshops and soon decided she was ready to do something. She approached one of our literacy trainers with an outreach plan: First, she would invite a group of indigenous scholarship students to the library, and she would use the books provided by Child Aid to encourage them to visit independently and read on their own. In Guatemala, children rarely read independently, partly because books are extremely rare and partly because most teachers lack training in the basics of teaching and promoting reading.

Marilene went straight to work with the local indigenous council and, before we knew it, she had started reading hours for 135 scholarship students! These are school-age children who come from desperately poor families and who face high drop-out rates. Ongoing reading encouragement and access to books will be tremendously helpful for them.

Inside Patzún’s community center, a Child Aid literacy trainer talks to children about the importance of reading.

After Marilene set up the reading hours, she decided she wanted to hold a “Festival of Reading” to promote the library among schools in the Patzún area. She visited schools, talked to directors and drummed up interest from four schools. Her initial plan was to set up a two-hour reading program for each school. To make it happen, she enlisted the help of two of our literacy trainers, Graciela Pichaya and Jorge Buch. After planning the festival, the three of them realized they needed more help. So they roped in another Child Aid literacy trainer, Jeremías Morales, and two Child Aid interns, young indigenous women from the Patzún area. Then they made it happen.

When I heard about the festival, I initially imagined they would have kids come to the library, class by class, so the children could participate in reading hours. This is what I was expecting to see when I drove out to Patzún yesterday to attend the event. But what I found was an empty library. Little did I know, Marilene had far bigger plans.

I heard a bunch of commotion in the adjacent building, and then I heard Jorge’s voice over a loudspeaker. When I walked in, I found over 250 children competing in a word game that required them to create sentences out of a jumble of cardboard words that Marilene had written and cut out. Participants were being cheered on by the rest of the school children, who rooted for their classmates to finish first.

Indigenous girls look at new library books provided by Child Aid.

After the game, Marilene divided the children into small groups, and she and the Child Aid staff read stories out loud to each group. After that, they invited the kids into the library, class by class, to peruse the new storybooks and educational games. Then they did an “information treasure hunt,” a technique we use to teach children how to find information in a library on their own.

During the events, I talked to a few of the teachers who had come to the library for the first time. One told me that she never knew that promoting reading could actually be fun. Another said she had a hard time teaching reading and would try to get Marilene to come to her class to help.

In all, Patzún’s first annual “Festival of Reading” lasted two days and was, for Marilene and the community, a huge success. It gave four schools the opportunity to participate in reading activities that were entirely new to the teachers and the children. It turned hundreds of kids onto the joys of the library and the new children’s books inside. And it introduced over a dozen local teachers to Child Aid’s literacy program. It all happened because one librarian had the inspiration to make a change – and the support she needed to do it.

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
05/29/2012 7:52 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From Guatemala

Update from Xesampual Library

So many children use the library in Xesampual, the librarian often has to set up tables outside.

This is our third year of partnership with the village of Xesampual, a remote K’iché Mayan community in the department of Sololá, Guatemala. The library here has gotten so popular that that the librarian, a woman named Rosenda Yac Escún, regularly has to put tables outside to accommodate all the children who want to use it. Ms. Escún, local teachers and the school director have all been working hard to promote the library – and the importance of reading – in the community. And it’s paying off! More children than ever before are using the library and reading independently in Xesampual. Huge thanks to all of you for supporting our Reading for Life program in Guatemala. (You can read more about Rosenda and the library here.)

Categories: Stories From Guatemala
05/21/2012 7:39 PM | 0 Comments