I have been wanting to update you on my most recent trip to Uganda but I hit the ground running when I got home and have just now gotten the time I needed. The conference was focused on literacy again this time. When the ALI (Advancing Leaders International) team went in January, we decided to make literacy training a priority because 85% of South Sudanese are illiterate. War has disrupted education for millions and for years. In the process of the January conference. we recognized the teachers are not great readers. Some of them grew up in the camps during the previous war, went home, and are now back again with their own kids.
All of them speak English, but speaking it and reading it are two different things. For some of them English is their third or fourth language, behind Arabic, and their tribal languages. When we taught letter sounds it was as if the sky opened up and a million light bulbs went off at the same time. They were amazed. We were stunned they didn’t know the sounds. A lesson we thought was basic and for the preschool teachers to use with their students, turned into a lesson for the teachers themselves. Without fail, the end of conference surveys all mentioned learning letter sounds. Some of the teachers even made charts of the sounds to take to their huts so they could practice at home. Therefore, we made the choice to continue our literacy focus for the May conference.
Our ALI team this time was two teachers, me and Winnie, who is a Ugandan and goes into the camps once a month to help coach the teachers. She is ALI’s boots on the ground. Our other teachers were unable to be there in person, but were there in spirit. Our generous supporters sent me with 150 lbs. of books. Books were all I took this time. No other teaching aids, or games, or supplies. I took as many books as my suitcases would allow because it is hard to teach reading if you don’t have any books!
We found out the day before the conference, that the Ugandan facilitators who usually co-lead the conference would not be able to attend. This meant we were responsible for all the sessions, instead of half. However, it also allowed us to go deeper with our content. Instead of taking a shotgun approach, we were able to be more direct in our sessions and build in some practice time. We covered topics like book selection, book care, lesson planning, co-teaching, teaching to the exam vs. teaching to inspire learning, letter sounds, developmental stages in learning to read, among other things.
However, we also gave them time to read. Every. Single. Day. We had a read aloud novel each morning which kept them wondering where the story was going. We saved the last part of the day to just allow them to pick from the children’s picture books I brought and to sit and read. We put them in subject area groups and allowed them to read books for the content they teach. Reading. Reading. And more reading.
I wish I could show you what it looked like. I wish you could hear the conversations about the books they had in their groups, or when we talked all together about the novel we read. I wish you could see the excitement when they discovered new words in the books they chose for themselves. It was the beginning. Of a seed being planted. Of hunger to learn. Not every teacher bought in, but many of them did. I can’t show you, but I can tell you their responses to a question on our survey. I have bolded the more profound answers.
How did you like the free reading time/ small group reading time?
- It is more valuable because I find many new words, and because I can know and reflect on my life.
- Free reading is encouraging, interesting and educative. I feel if taken seriously I can change my life in the near future.
- It helped me to interact with my neighbors and with the discovery of new words.
- It helped me learn some new words from the members of the group.
- It encourages people to work. It can help us to share knowledge.
- I like it because it develops my skills and desire to read books.
- It was good, makes one to be fresh in thinking.
- It helps with development of ideas, new discovery of words.
- It aroused my curiosity.
- It made the school compound quiet. It will make pupils learn in reading.
- It makes me to know new words.
- It develops a reading culture.
- It makes you to think more.
- Helped me get more knowledge, improve pronunciation, build confidence, and allowed me to think creatively.
- It engages the attention of everyone for easy understanding.
- It was interesting and enjoyable. It moves me to learn more meanings of new words coupled with improving my reading skills.
- Free reading time is very important because it makes you improve in reading.
- By reading together as a small group it will help you to identify students or people who have difficulty in reading and pronunciation of some words.
- It increases the level of mental development.
- I like free reading time because it teaches us to have reading culture every day. It is also because it will bring good performance in schools.
- I liked the free reading so much because it reminds me of what happened in the past.
- I liked it because it was enjoyable interesting and can keep us busy.
- Free reading time was something that has never happened in my life before. It is very encouraging. It promotes a very good skill.
- By learning different learning skills like reading, listening and writing skills.
- It allows the learners and the teachers to fluent and explore a variety of information.
- Absolutely amazing.
We will be going back again. We will take more books. We will read. We will water the seeds we planted, and like farmers, we will be patient and wait for them to grow and bear fruit.