More than 775 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate. That’s 17 percent of the world’s adult population. Rotary’s goal is to strengthen the capacity of communities to support basic education and literacy, reduce gender disparity in education, and increase adult literacy. We support education for all children and literacy for children and adults.
Realizing that getting children into schools isn't enough to solve illiteracy, Rotary shifts to mentoring and coaching teachers. Two programs are described below, one in Guatamala and one in Napal. A video follows that gives further description.
By Arnold R. Grahl
On Carolyn Johnson’s second visit to the central highlands of Guatemala, she met a first-grade teacher who made a shocking confession. Before taking part in the Guatemala Literacy Project, the teacher was convinced that her students could not learn to read.
“She said ‘We were willing to go through the program because it was a day out of class and you gave us books and you provided us with a nice lunch, but we knew that you were crazy,’ ” says Johnson, a Rotarian who helped design the curriculum for the project and now serves as a technical adviser for the Guatemala Literacy Project.
That teacher and more than a hundred of her colleagues each received several in-classroom coaching sessions over eight months. They learned how to replace rote memorization drills and repetition of words on a blackboard with exercises that engage their students in critical thinking.
“She went on to tell me excitedly how 45 of her 50 students were moving on to second grade because they had learned to read,” Johnson says. “The program has made believers out of 90 percent of the teachers we have worked with. They are excited about being teachers again, and they go into their classrooms believing they can make a difference.”
After decades of investing in literacy projects, experts have realized that simply getting children into the classroom — either by removing attendance barriers or providing supplies — is not enough. Before students can succeed, the quality of the teaching in that classroom needs to improve.
Rotary projects like the Guatemala Literacy Project and Nepal Teacher Training Innovations (NTTI) in Nepal are leading the effort to advance childhood reading by empowering teachers to teach better.
Rotary, the United Nations, USAID, and other organizations are shifting their focus to helping teachers plan lessons that ensure students will actually learn. The entire effort is part of a larger goal to reduce extreme poverty, because knowing how to read and write increases a person’s earning potential and ability to build a better life.
Quentin Wodon, a lead economist at the World Bank, has studied education projects both from a professional standpoint and as a member of the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill (Washington, DC), U.S.A. Wodon agrees that teachers are critical to any attempt to improve learning.
“The best way to enable children to learn is to think broadly about teacher policies,” says Wodon. Training is one of eight key goals set by the World Bank, along with setting clear expectations for teachers, attracting the best candidates, matching teacher skills with student needs, having strong principals to lead teachers, monitoring, providing ongoing support, and motivating teachers to perform.
Wodon’s club is working with the Rotary Club of Kathmandu, Nepal, to support NTTI and the nongovernmental organization PHASE in transforming classrooms where students are silent, passive learners into centers of active learning.
“Improving teaching methods is not an easy task, but programs like this are making inroads,” says Wodon.
For example, before taking part in the NTTI program, one teacher relied heavily on memorization, having her students copy words off the blackboard. After training, the teacher made her lesson on animate and inanimate objects more interactive, says Ashley Hager, NTTI’s director. The teacher asked children to point to objects and describe how they were different. She then listed the differences on the board and paired students up to discuss them. As a final exercise, the class went outside to find examples in nature.
One student approached the teacher with a live ant in her hand and inquired, “This is an animate object, yes?” The teacher agreed. The child then squashed the ant and asked, “Is it still an animate object now?” Caught by surprise, the teacher asked the rest of the students what they thought, and a lively conversation followed.
Other teachers agree that the training taught them the value of interactive teaching.
“It’s transformed my way of teaching and given me brilliant ideas to employ the best teaching practices I have learned,” says Goma Khada, who teaches fourth grade at Shrijana Higher Secondary School in Thumpakhar.
Another project that’s succeeding is Johnson’s Guatemala Literacy Project. The program began 20 years ago, setting up computer labs and supplying textbooks for middle school students in the western and central highlands. It has evolved to center on teacher mentoring.
Johnson, a member of the Rotary Club of Yarmouth, Maine, U.S.A., visited the region in 2006, seeking a literacy project for her district. She ended up leaving her job as a primary school principal after seeing the potential to address a deeper problem — the students’ poor reading skills.
“The primary school teacher in me realized you don’t start reading in the seventh grade. You have to start in the first grade,” Johnson says.
Over the next year, she returned to Guatemala several times, meeting with nonprofits, teachers, community members, and school administrators. She developed a curriculum based on the Concentrated Language Encounter method used widely in other parts of the world. A partnership was formed with the nonprofit Cooperative for Education (CoEd), which has a strong presence in Guatemala.
Five trainers hired by CoEd, with the help of local Rotary members, lead three two-day training sessions, usually in January, April, and July, for about 150 primary school teachers. Between those sessions, each teacher receives in-class coaching.
The Guatemala Literacy Project still supplies textbooks and equips two computer centers where students get hands-on experience using standard business software like Windows, Word, and Excel for an hour a week. Fees collected by school administrators and managed by CoEd are used to replace books and equipment when they wear out.
Each year, a new global grant from The Rotary Foundation extends the effort to another 40 or so primary schools and a dozen middle schools selected after meetings with community leaders, parents, teachers, and administrators. More than 480 clubs in Guatemala, the United States, Canada, Cayman Islands, England, and Japan have provided financial support. Every year, about 50 Rotary volunteers take part by delivering materials and visiting classrooms.
After completing the training, most of the teachers continue to use what they’ve learned to enhance education in their communities.
“Does it always happen? No. But more often than not teachers continue to use the approach to learning, if not the specific model,” Johnson says.
This video shows how Rotary supports education for all.