Indepedent Observation: Kristin Rosekrans
Kristin Rosekrans is an International Education Consultant who specializes in policy analysis, research, program design and the evaluation of educational programs. Ms. Rosekrans has worked internationally in her field for 15 years, primarily in Latin America and West Africa. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her school improvement work includes teaching professional development, participatory action research and curriculum design—particularly in the areas of language and literacy. Her publications, in both Spanish and English, include a book on action research, and various articles on education and development.
April 19, 2012
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing this letter to give my endorsement to the work that Child Aid carries out in partnership with community leaders and teachers in Guatemala through the Reading for Life literacy program. Over the past year, I carried out a formative evaluation with Child Aid, which entailed becoming familiar with their work and curriculum through visits to various Guatemalan communities.
I am quite impressed with Child Aid’s bottom-up approach to improving education opportunities in Guatemala. While many projects tend to grow too quickly in response to strong demand, the founders and staff of Child Aid, at all levels, have given careful thought to this process. They are continually learning, and improving the program, as well as thinking about the best ways to understand its effects and its impact on the lives of those involved. There is a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the members of the communities supported by Child Aid, which facilitates this bottom-up approach to implementation.
Through attending training sessions and visiting classrooms and libraries in several Guatemalan communities, I observed children and teachers engaging with reading and learning in ways that are different from what is typically seen in this context. It was encouraging to see such curiosity and enthusiasm for reading and writing, especially at a time that instructional policies in the U.S. and abroad are emphasizing rote learning and test scores for “underprivileged” children while strengthening critical thinking and the love of learning in more-privileged students.
I found Child Aid’s program very refreshing in this regard. While their curriculum helps to strengthen the literacy basics such as decoding letters and reading fluency, it does this through encouraging children’s love for reading and their curiosity about books. Their process combines the best elements from different approaches to literacy development. Below I highlight some of the key aspects of Child Aid’s program that I believe make the program unique and very promising:
Engaging children with stories: In several communities, I saw children light up and suddenly engage when teachers used one of the program’s teaching techniques while telling a story. For example, in a third-grade classroom in the village of Xojolá, the teacher began to read a story, using the “así no es” technique in which the reader changes the last part of a sentence and the children shout out “¡así no es!” (“it’s not like that!”) and then state what truly transpires in the story. I have rarely seen a class that goes from roughly 20 percent of the children engaged in learning to 100 percent of the children being fully engaged within five minutes. It was also quite encouraging to see children crowding into small community libraries at story time. These libraries were built by community members and supplied with books donated by Child Aid. Due to such interest, some librarians are now leading different story times for different age groups so that more children can actively participate in the reading activities.
Exposing children to books: While small libraries can be found in rural Guatemalan communities, not all have them, and most are not located within schools. I observed that the Books to Villages program makes books more accessible to kids, and offers titles that are pertinent to their interests. The program sends revolving collections of books, both fiction and nonfiction, from hub libraries to remote classrooms. Another way that children become familiar with books is through library read-alouds, which spark children’s curiosity. In several community libraries, I saw children stay in the library after a book was read to search for other books of interest. In one case, a librarian had been reading about hearing and the ear. Several children stayed after the story to find a book that explained in detail about the parts of the ear and the function of hearing.
Transforming pedagogy: The reading techniques learned and carried out by teachers spark children’s curiosity and ability to read and engage with books, which I observed in many of the classrooms I visited. These practices are not traditionally part of Guatemala’s education system. Teachers involved in the program must learn a new approach to teaching and learning. The program’s techniques can help teachers to learn new classroom practices, and over time they tend to internalize these practices, as I witnessed in schools that have received support for roughly two years.
Coaching to improve classroom practice: One-on-one coaching is among the most effective ways for teachers to learn new methods of teaching. Child Aid’s approach—to provide group workshops followed by extended follow-up visits to support teachers in their classrooms—is an effective professional development strategy. Each staff member is fluent in the local Mayan language of the region she/he supports, which helps to create a climate of trust.
Fostering library programs: Children are very enthusiastic about the community libraries supported by the program. They can be seen waiting outside for “story hour” beforehand and standing at the back of the room or outside to be able to listen, ask questions, and comment. These librarians, who have received training in reading promotion techniques, are from the communities where they work. They use fiction and non-fiction books and employ various techniques to engage the children in learning.
Coordinating with government: Child Aid’s approach of establishing relationships with communities, rather than accessing schools through government structures, allows them to avoid bureaucratic procedures and limitations imposed by government policies and practices. They maintain a relationship with district supervisors, however, which allows them to understand current instructional policies and assure that teachers will be able to attend scheduled workshops on a regular basis.
Working in a multilingual environment: Roughly three-fourths of the communities that Child Aid supports are Mayan-speaking (K’iche’ Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil). Trainers are assigned to communities for follow up and support based on their fluency in these Mayan languages, which is a very effective technique. In the Mayan-speaking communities that I visited, teachers often translated stories to the local language. There are also some writing techniques that emphasize children speaking, reading, and writing in their Mayan language. In these communities, Reading for Life techniques are very useful to developing oral fluency in Spanish. This is important, since children need opportunities to develop oral fluency prior to written fluency in a second language.
Expanding and scaling up the program: Child Aid is putting much thought into expanding their work, considering such questions as: 1) when is a community is able to implement the program without further support, 2) how can they assure communities receive the support that they need before deciding to expand to other places, and 3) what staff support is required to give the quantity and quality of trainings and follow-ups necessary for the intended practices and results. Presently, the organization’s focus is on strengthening practices and training for new staff before expanding work to other communities.
All this reflects some of the inspiring aspects of Child Aid’s work that I observed during the formative evaluation process. As with all programs, there are areas that would benefit from improvement. I included my suggestions as part of my formative evaluation report. Advances have already been made on the majority of these recommendations. Unlike most large, government-funded programs that have high management and overhead costs, Child Aid has grown through a need-based approach. It is my hope that they continue to receive the support they need to continue their work.
International Education Consultant