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 The Field
01/28/2013 12:04 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

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 The Field
08/23/2012 6:00 AM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

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 The Field
06/19/2012 5:29 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

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 The Field
05/29/2012 7:52 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

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 The Field
05/21/2012 7:39 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

Girl Changes Course of Education in her Village

Karen in Child Aid Library, Pasaq, Guatemala

Karen reads a book in a Child Aid library in Guatemala's rugged Boca Costa region.

Without knowing it, Karen Manuela (age 9) changed the course of education in her village. She lives in a tiny place called Santa Rosa, a community of former refugees from Guatemala’s civil war in the country’s rugged Boca Costa region. Two years ago, shortly after Karen began second grade, her teacher, Mr. Choc, noticed that her reading abilities had greatly improved. While most of the children in her classroom struggled with reading, Karen excelled.

When Mr. Choc asked her about it, she told him she participated in a summer reading program, called Adventures in Reading, in the nearby village of Pasaq. It was a Child Aid program.

Mr. Choc spent the next six months talking to his fellow teachers about Karen’s success and Child Aid’s work. Eventually, the community requested we bring our full Reading for Life literacy program to Xojolá. In 2011, we helped the village create a new library, which now fills with children every day. We delivered hundreds of books and provide ongoing training for the town’s 20 teachers. Karen’s reading started it all.

How You Helped:

Karen excelled as a reader because Child Aid donors helped us create a library in Pasaq and launch the reading program that fueled her desire to learn. With your support, we were able to stock Pasaq’s library with bookshelves, tables, chairs, a computer and hundreds of high quality children’s books. We helped the community hire and train a librarian, a woman named Alberta Guarchaj, who eventually ran the Adventures in Reading program that turned Karen into a star reader in her class. None of this could have happened without our donors.

Categories: Stories From The Field
05/6/2012 1:20 AM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

In a Rural Classroom, A Teacher Excels

teacher in Xecotoj Guatemala

Gerson Barreno is an elementary school teacher in the remote village of Xecotoj, Guatemala. His classroom has flimsy, corrugated metal walls, dirt floors and no windows. It is dimly lit by a tiny light bulb in the center of the ceiling. In summer it’s like an oven inside. When it rains, he says, it’s so loud no one can think.

Mr. Barreno used to struggle to teach reading to his first- and second-grade students. He had almost no training in how to teach reading and was never given classroom management skills at the vocational high school he attended. On top of these challenges, his classroom lacked books

Rural Classroom in Xecotoj, Guatemala

Mr. Barreno engages his students with a reading activity learned from a Child Aid teacher training workshop.

Things began changing for Mr. Barreno in 2011, when we began our Reading for Life program in Xecotoj. We delivered hundreds of children’s books to the sch
ool and began our teacher training program for the village’s four teachers. Through classroom-based instruction, group workshops, one-on-one coaching and ongoing mentorship, we provided Mr. Barreno and his fellow teachers the training they never received in vocational school. To our knowledge, no other organization, and certainly no government program, in Guatemala offers this level of training to rural teachers.

Following just a year’s worth of training, Mr. Barreno tells us he has a far better handle on ways he can engage his students in books and inspire them to read.

He has watched his students, formerly disengaged and uninterested in reading, become lovers of storybooks and active participants in classroom reading activities. In Guatemala, where most indigenous children read, on average, fewer than 15 minutes a day, this is a tremendous achievement.

Mr. Barreno’s achievements are equally impressive. He has become a better teacher and is continuing to improve his skills. “The techniques I’ve learned through Child Aid have been a great help to me in my teaching in general,” Mr. Barreno says. “I’ve integrated them into other subjects besides reading.” Mr. Barreno’s improvements as a teacher will help children in Xecotoj for years to come. In our opinion, this is true sustainability.

Categories: Stories From The Field
05/5/2012 11:07 PM | 0 Comments
Stories from the Field

Against Odds, Elsa is Closer to her Dream

Elsa smiles during a reading activity with her fellow classmates.

Like many Mayan children in rural Guatemala, Elsa Marina (age 10) lives in a house with a dirt floor and corrugated metal walls. To get to her tiny school, she walks along a narrow, muddy path that passes a dozen or so ramshackle homes like her own. Her parents were refugees from Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and relocated to the poor village of Santa Rosa, where Elsa is now growing up.

Until recently, Elsa and her fellow students had almost no books in their classroom and none in their homes. Because their teacher, Maide Ramírez, received little training in how to teach reading, literacy activities and reading practice were simply not a part of daily life in school. Without books they lacked even the means to practice. Nearly every child in Elsa’s class struggled with reading.

Child Aid supporters helped us bring Reading for Life to Santa Rosa, which has made Elsa and her classmates better readers, increasing the odds they will stay in school. The 94 children in Elsa’s school now have access to high-quality, Spanish language books, which they use in daily Child Aid reading activities. And every teacher in Santa Rosa is learning how to teach reading more effectively.

Since partnering with Child Aid, says Ms. Ramírez, “The children have improved so much they can actually read a newspaper.” In fact, she says, “Many of the parents now buy a newspaper so their kids can read it to them.”

Thanks to Child Aid supporters, Elsa is now the top reader in her class and takes a book home every day. Her dream? “I want to be a teacher,” she told us on our last visit.

Categories: Stories From The Field
05/4/2012 1:42 PM | 0 Comments
Stories From The Field

How Reading Programs Create Opportunity for a Guatemalan Village

Tzantinamit (sawn-teen-ah-MEET) is a tiny village high above Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala. It’s surrounded by dusty fields, forested peaks and a smattering of small adobe houses in various states of disrepair. When we visited last month, the corn had long been harvested, and the fields were barren. It was cold out, and only a few families could be seen working their hillside plots from the dirt road we drove in on.

From afar, Tzantinamit is like any other indigenous village in the Highlands. The school is tiny, no bigger than a garage from the suburban United States, dropped into the middle of a Central American mountain range. There isn’t a paved road in sight.

When we arrived, the school director, a man named José Luís Can Chay, walked out of his unlit classroom to greet us. There is no electricity here. Excited for our visit, Mr. Can smiled warmly, shook our hands and insisted we come with him to see how they set up the new bookshelves and books we provided.

Last month, Tzantinamit began its third year of our Reading for Life program. We provided the books as part of our training program so the teachers would have something to read to their students. Although the children who attend the school are now reading more than they ever have – roughly three times the amount most children read in nearby schools – they still face tremendous challenges. Most will drop out by fifth or sixth grade.

Still, a sense of hope fills the classrooms of this tiny school.

Tzantinamit Guatemala

Tzantinamit's tiny school is now a Child Aid partner.

As children and teachers in Tzantinamit continue in our program, lives improve. Parents see progress in the classroom and are beginning to feel school might have real economic benefits for their children. Teachers, for the first time, feel they can actually teach reading effectively. And the kids? Classroom participation and reading levels have soared.

Even if these children only make it through sixth grade, their ability to read and think critically – the two most important outcomes of our program – will help them get living-wage jobs as adults. For families in extreme poverty, even a small advance such as this can put food on the table, pay for medicine or generate enough additional income to improve a plot of land.

We share this story with you because your support is, quite literally, changing people’s lives. In Tzantinamit, we are providing ongoing reading programs for every young student in the village. We’re delivering hundreds of high-quality children’s books and providing continued and intensive literacy training for each of the school’s teachers.

If you are interested in contributing directly to our work in Tzantinamit, or if you would like to hold a fundraiser for this or any other of the more than 50 communities participating in our Reading for Life program, please contact us at 503-720-6686.

Categories: Stories From The Field
04/19/2012 10:34 AM | 0 Comments