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What I Learned in Liberia

By Dr. Wendy Saul

In January 2014, CODE expert-volunteer and International Book Bank (IBB) Executive Director Dr. Wendy Saul traveled to Liberia. Dr. Saul was in the country to witness how IBB-donated books were being used in classrooms, as well as provide prospective children's authors, illustrators and photographers with training on how to write high-quality children's literature as part of CODE's Reading Liberia program. View the original post on the IBB website

What I Learned in Liberia

I am always suspicious when I walk into a school in the developing world and see students being passed brand new, shiny books. Of course, I am delighted that each young person has a book in his/her own hands, but signs of use provide an “unobtrusive measure” that the books have done their work and gotten into not only the hands, but the minds of the young people for whom they were intended.

But this was not the problem I noticed at one school we visited in Liberia. Students were in the middle of an anthology that IBB had sent and were reading with comprehension. The teacher had written several words on the blackboard that all appeared in the story and as she pointed to them, the students chanted the words aloud in unison.

“I wonder what would happen if I tried some onset and rime exercises” I thought to myself. And so I walked to the blackboard where the teacher had written the word “air” for her first graders, and wrote the words hair and fair and pair. The students could read all these words, and I was delighted. “What is a pair” I asked, and there were many responses. “A pair of shoes,” “A pair of butterflies,” “A pair of twins.”

I began looking carefully at the books the students were using. They looked pretty well battered.

“How long have the children had these books?’ I asked.
“About a month” answered the teacher.

As she went on with her lesson I watched her turn the page of the book she was using, grabbing the page in the middle, the way someone might grab a piece of trash on the street or a paper towel from a stack on the counter. No wonder these pages looked so mangled. And then I noticed children doing the same thing.

The monitor from We-Care and I looked at one another. We talked about the need to teach students ways of book handling and browsing. She spoke to one of the children: “These books are our treasures” she began. “How do we treat something we care about, something that we want to last?”

She then demonstrated the way a reader should pick up a page from the corner and turn the paper carefully. And the students looked at her model and followed her lead.

It is all about balance, I thought to myself. The books should not to be put away to keep them pristine, but they do need to be handled with respect.

This was an easy lesson that all of our recipients could pass on, I thought to myself.

We learn so much from visiting real classrooms.

*Photo by B.D. Colen

Wendy Saul is a Professor and the Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Chair in Education and International Studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis. has worked with teachers and teacher educators in Eastern and Central Europe, Central Asia, and Latin America under the auspices of the Open Society Institute. Her recent work in Liberia, supported by CODE  has helped her to better understand how few children really learn to read and write from the blackboard. Dr. Saul has received over $8 million in grants from the National Science Foundation for her work on reading and writing science.