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"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Surely we would all find some truth in that proverb (while also recognizing that there's nothing wrong with full buckets).
For two years, we've been planning our new Discovery World and Learning Center, to be built on 3 hectares (8 acres) on the outskirs of Luang Prabang. This month, after a baci ceremony to bless the land, construction began.
This is several inter-related projects: A small library; a set of hands-on, interactive educational activities; and a center for longer-term learning. We invite you to read full details:
Discovery World and Learning Center and then, please consider becoming a Founder.
Many deaf children in rural Lao villages have no way to learn language at all. We're developing ways to help them, and their classmates, learn sign language so they can communicate. Here's one.
This skit is based on the popular Lao folktale, "The Cat That Meditated." A cat promises to behave better, stop eating mice, and only eat vegetables. In return, the mice promise to bring fresh vegetables to the cat every day. Two deaf members of our staff play the role of cat and the lead mouse. They have a conversation in sign language, while someone else reads aloud, in Lao, what they are saying. Volunteers from the audience play walk-on roles as mice who deliver fresh lettuce to the cat.
In this scene, a little mouse brings the cat his food. Soon after, in the climax of the play, the good-for-nothing, two-timing, fur-faced, not-gonna-go-to-heaven-after-all cat scornfully tosses the lettuce aside and eats the mouse. This brings down the house.
Even this small production, however, highlighted some of the difficulties we'll face. Suliphone (left) can read simple Lao, but he mis-read one word and at first used the sign for "decide" instead of "meditate". Sali (right) reads much less, and didn't understand the concept of acting. But after three days of rehearsal, we were able to do this performance; then he saw the point. Afterwards, we repeated the skit, but with the whole audience joining to do the signs.
Seven-year-old children!!! Reading aloud!!! It's hard to believe -- see it on the video!!!
In the past two years we've developed a daily reading program, made changes based on classroom experience, and conducted evaluations to show that it really does improve reading skills. Now the challenge is: Getting teachers to believe it helps.
Teachers in Laos grew up with a teacher-and-blackboard system, and they aren't convinced that anything else will work. Sometimes, instead of following a program that is different from what they know, they revert to habit.
With support from the Global Fund for Children, we've developed our video skills, and we put them to use: At a teacher workshop we showed a video of 7-year-old children reading aloud!!! Where you live, that might not earn so many exclamation points. But here, it's widely accepted that children won't learn to read until grade 3, or later. The video is one of several approaches we're using to show teachers that our "Sustained Silent Reading" program really works.
Six tons of books! We're making our first trip to the far south of Laos. It's a three-day drive to Xekong and Attapeu, two of the country's poorest provinces. Our teams will be away for 3 weeks going to some hard-to-reach schools, which are thrilled that somebody remembers them. In this picture, each bundle of books is enough for one classroom; a typical school will get 5 bundles, and we had to rent a bigger truck to transport them all.
Souliphone joined our staff earlier this year as an artist. He's deaf, so we've all been learning some sign language. He came along with our book party team to a nearby school recently and offered a new activity: sign language lessons. This was a new concept and it took children a few minutes to understand what it was about but soon they were enthusiastically signing the words for buffalo, horns, and wide.
By chance, this village had a 4-year-old boy who is nearly deaf, and socially isolated. We're exploring ways we might teach sign language to him and his age-mates.
Our evaluations showed that a daily reading program does improve reading skills. We learned much more, too. One observation: Reading skills improved far more in some classrooms than in others. We invited teachers whose classes had improved the most to come to a one-day workshop, where we could ask if they had used any special techniques, that might benefit others.
As it turns out, they had not. Then we split them into three groups, and asked each group to discuss what were the elements of good teaching.
Nearly all the teachers we meet seem to believe that education consists of a teacher and a blackboard. That's how they grew up, and that's what they use. We had a problem during the trial of our reading progam, because after agreeing to do it, some teachers got nervous that "just" letting kids read was a failure to do their job, and reverted to teacher-and-blackboard mode.
So we were heartened when each of the three groups, in giving a report, said that other activities, including games and reading, were important too. Everyone reading this probably already thought so, but those are new ideas in Laos. Now we know that the teachers with this approach also have the classrooms that show the greatest improvement. That's one more bit of information we can use, as we encourage teachers to occasionally step away from the blackboard, and try other techniques.
Does our daily reading program ("Sustained Silent Reading") make any difference? The short answer is: Yes, but...
We evaluated the impact of our program in 27 schools, and compared them with 13 schools that didn't get the program. The program did improve reading; given the low cost, it was a dramatic improvement. But we also found that many teachers, although they had agreed to do it, didn't actually do so. They were convinced that their job was to be at the blackboard teaching, and they would be shirking their duty if they simply let students read. We also found that reading levels were lower than had been reported. Few students in grades 1 and 2 could read even a simple word, and books didn't make a difference at those levels. Details of this evaluation are available as a PDF, please click for Evaluation Report: Sustained Silent Reading in Laos
Based on those (and other) findings, we've made changes in the program, found ways to improve implementation, and we're making a new series of books called I Can Read! which helps children learn to read. We'll continue with the improved program in September, and once again, will monitor and measure results.
A reading test in a rural Lao school. Yes, pictures of children reading are more satisfying to look at. But these tests are a vital part of what we do. We measure the reading levels in each grade. We measure improvement within each grade at each school over the course of a year, and also compare the improvement in schools that got our reading program, to schools that didn't yet get it.
Next month we'll get back results from the first comparative evaluation, but even without that, the process has helped us to greatly improve our reading program. ("Cooperation" is a wonderful thing in daily village life, but it reduces the value of the testing. So students next to each other get similar tests but with different pictures and words.)
"Children are coming to school early, so they can read." Our daily reading program got off to a slow start at many schools. Teachers agreed to do it, then got cold feet. "A teacher and a blackboard" was the only education system they grew up with, and they were reluctant to take time away from that, "just" to let children read.
But we've worked through that in many schools. Once they see results, teachers become reading enthusiasts. "School opens at 8:00, but children come at 7:30 so they can read," reported one. Another told us: "Before, I wrote on the board, then I read it, then children repeated what I said. Now they read it while I write."
The first picture books in our "I AM" series, featuring boys and girls from the Khmu and Hmong ethnic groups, have been big hits. For the very first time, young readers see pictures of people "just like me!" in a book. These girls are immersed in I am Soulinda, about a Hmong girl.
We've taken slightly different approaches with each book. A book about the Katang features three children instead of just one. The cover shows them getting water; picking edible leaves; and digging crickets which are a popular food;, and the sample page here shows an older brother casting a fishnet. These kids do play, too! But they help with household work often, and cheerfully.
"Wow!" says Big Brother Mouse, using a word that has also become part of the Lao vocabulary.
Emma Zalcman and Alex Van Der Meer Simo and their wedding guests generously donated enough to sponsor 2 books, as well as reading programs at 3 schools. One of the books is part of our new "I Can Read" series, which makes it fun for children to learn all the letters, one by one, by providing interesting things to read even when they know only a quarter of the letters. (Yes, that was a challenge to write!) Here's a photo from the wedding, showing Emma and friends, and one of the books.
We've posted many photos of children absorbed in their first book. Those are more exciting. But events like this workshop are part of that.
On the 5th and 6th of January we held workshops for teachers from schools where we've started daily reading programs. We got their feedback about the program was going, and how we could help. Traditionally in Laos, "education" means a teacher and a blackboard; the idea that reading is a good way for students to learn is still new. Officials from the district education office joined us, and helped us stress the importance of reading.
At the end, we give a set of new books to every teacher, to take back to their school.
How do you improve health in a rural village?
Good Nutrition for Mother and Baby was among the books that we gave to 4th and 5th grade classes for our new daily reading program. This new book delivers clear information using lots of photos. That was an experiment: Would children in grades 4 and 5 be interested in such a book?
Many were. (And many could not read even this simple Lao text; that's one reason for the reading program.) On her first day of reading, this girl chose "Good Nutrition" rather than a fairy tale, as the book she wanted to read.
The organization "Save the Children" provided financial support for "Good Nutrition for Mother and Baby," as well as creating the text and pictures. Thank you!
First day of a reading habit!
Lao children select a book to enjoy, for the first day of a daily reading program at their school. Scenes like this have taken place at more than 300 rural schools since early September, when we started "Sustained Silent Reading" programs in village schools.
Previously, most of these schools had absolutely no books that children could read for enjoyment. Now, every classroom has a set. For $70 you can sponsor a classroom reading program this year; $350 sponsors an entire school. You can donate at http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/donate.html. Either way, we'll send you photos and a report after the event.
"Reading makes me happy," 9-year-old Khamla told us, holding the second book she's ever owned. That one was Animals of Africa; the first was a Buddhist folktale. She's quoted in a Thai newspaper, which contrasts the low reading levels in Thailand with the enthusiasm for books that Big Brother Mouse is creating in Laos.
Khamla isn't the only one who likes the books. Her school's headmaster, Phoonsook, believes it's important for students to develop reading habits. "These children are from poor families, but now they have books to read and learn about the world. Their reading skills have already improved a lot," he says.
You can read the full story here in the
Bangkok Post. (This photo shows children enjoying their new books from Big Brother Mouse.)
Monday, 16 Sept., marked a particularly exciting day: That's when we first introduced a daily reading program (known as "Sustained Silent Reading" in education circles) at primary schools in Laos.
This photo was taken in Kasi district, where we visited and set up programs at 26 schools in September. We're continuing the program there, and in other districts. Most schools reported that they had no library and no books at all, except textbooks, until Big Brother Mouse came. Not surprisingly, reading skills were weak: Many third-graders could not read a single word. They had never read a book for fun. Now they'll get practice. More important, they'll learn that reading is fun.
Our book party teams spend much of their time on the road, typically visiting 2 schools a day during the school year. It's satisfying but tiring. This summer, they'll stay in Luang Prabang for a month of "The Mouse Experience," made possible with support from the Global Fund for Children.
That's our name for the variety of activities that constitute education in its broadest sense. It's their opportunity to benefit from experiences that are part of growing up for children in developed countries, but not here. They make puppets and put on a puppet show; play board games; and do science experiments. Here they're revising our widely used booklet for teachers, Using Books in School.
After early May, schools get busy with end-of-the-year activities and we can't hold school book parties. But the 5 travel teams are still eager to get kids reading. So they travel to rural villages where we've set up reading rooms, and engage children in reading and other activities.
Here, Sone reads aloud from The Nose Book to children in Sopcham village. Our teams also introduce board games, make items described in our book Traditional Toys, and teach children how to read aloud with others.
Congratulations to Pom (Southida), a long-time member of our book party team, who was voted Staff Person of the Year by other team members.
As a result, she'll join 3 others for a very special trip to Bangkok, which combines several days of fun and sightseeing, plus selecting books to bring back for our library. (Thai and Lao are closely related languages; with some practice, Lao people can learn to read Thai, and thus have access to a vastly wider selection of reading material.) The group will also visit some museums and interactive learning centers, to get new ideas for our work here.
"Why does Indonesia have so many pieces?"
Jigsaw maps are the newest addition to our Discovery Days. And please note that we made separate pieces only for the biggest islands of Indonesia, otherwise the puzzle would never get completed.
Discovery Days give offer an opportunity for fun and hands-on learning. Teachers see new ways to get students excited about a subject. Young people have fun – and the next time they hear "Indonesia is a big country," they can reply, with feeling, "It sure is!"
We took our Discovery Days to Vientiane this month: 4 days at high schools on the outskirts of town, followed by a weekend event in the center of town. More than 4,000 attendees discovered that learning can be fun.
At each high school, we left 280 books for their library, if they had one. If they did not, we discussed with them how they could set up a simple library, in one case based in the main office and open at certain times for students to borrow books.
"We need very easy books that capture children's attention."
That's what UNICEF told us, when we were first getting started. The Big Chicken uses a limited number of simple vowels, introducing each one and using for several pages before moving to the next ... and it does so in the context of a fun, suspenseful story: Just why is that chicken so big? (Spoiler alert!) It's big because there are 10 chicks inside, who finally emerge one by one.
We're ready to print a small-format edition of this popular book, which children can choose from as their free book at the end of a book party. But first we need a sponsorship of just $900. Can you help? The Big Chicken tells more.
"It has horns!"
That was the first comment from a young person looking at the sun through our new solar telescope, donated by the U.S. Embassy for use at our Discovery Days. When we went to Kiu Kacham high school, high in the mountains south of Luang Prabang, there was always a line of students eager for a view. Indeed, two solar flares were shooting out from the sun at that particular time, one flare on the left, one on the right. Through the heavy filters of the scope, the sun has a bright red appearance, with solar flares and sunspots clearly visible.
At Discovery Days, we combine hands-on science, interactive activities, and colorful displays, with colorful and informative books that tell more. It's a new way to experience learning for these students, and they're eager for us to return.
This tree filled with leaves, each leaf representing one book read by a student, as part of the Year 2 Readathon at Melbourne Girls Grammar School. We've already put these funds to use to visit two rural schools, and soon we'll get to nine more.
Students asked family, friends and neighbors to sponsor them as they read books during the Readathon. The donations were used to sponsor an astounding 11 book parties at rural primary schools in Laos, with more than a thousand children getting their first book. Can you match what they did? Please come see the tree full of leaves, and read more about the Melbourne Readathon
Food and literacy in Denver: Thank you to everyone who has enjoyed the food at Yatai, the food cart in the financial district of Denver (USA), and to Brittany Bisk, who runs it. Yatai shares 10% of its profits with those in need, and they've just sponsored 6 book parties for children in Laos.
Sonesoulilat got kids excited about reading back in 2006, at our very first book party. He's run more than 2,000 of these events since then. Now he manages five teams that travel to rural schools through our "Joy of Reading" program. More than a quarter of a million Lao children have had the thrill of getting their very first book, thanks to Sone's efforts.
He's also found time to write 8 books, including Traditional Toys, What's In The Market? and a book about reading aloud, also called The Joy of Reading. He organizes our training workshops for village reading-room volunteers, and for teachers. And this year, he celebrated his 22nd birthday.
So we're proud, but not entirely surprised, that Sone is a finalist to be a youth delegates at the Terre Des Hommes convention to be held in Germany next year. Terre Des Hommes is an international organization that has provided support for many organizations world-wide, including Big Brother Mouse, that make life better for children. UPDATE! At the end of October, Sone was selected as the youth delegate from the Southeast Asia region.
At our "Books and Discovery Days" festival we had booths for reading, for listening to stories, and for learning to read aloud. We had fun and educational toys and games. We also had exhibits that linked various types of displays to the content of our books. In this photo, several girls use both a model, and a book, to learn about the human body.
Two honored guests came from Vientiane and spoke: Duang Sai, the most prolific and famous writer in Laos; and Sivienkhek, head of the Publishing division at the Ministry of Information and Culture. Both had the same comment: "Please have a festival like this in Vientiane!"
Duang Sai has dedicated his life to writing, and to providing encouragement for new writers. He met several times with small groups of enthusiastic young writers and would-be writers from Luang Prabang.
In the fall, we'll take this festival to several Luang Prabang provincial high schools. We're also at work to see if we can do it in Vientiane.
Village Reading Rooms: We've worked with local volunteers to set up reading rooms in nearly 200 rural villages. These volunteers are eager to help their villages and to promote reading and education, but they grew up without books and have no skills or background in doing such work. So we regularly look for opportunities to support them.
This month, our teams visited villages in mountainous Phou Khoun district to take more books, and to work with the volunteers to get more children reading. They came back with lots of photos of just that, as well as using books to initiate other activities. Our Photo Album reports on some of these visits.
Teachers who love to read: We've always felt it was important to help teachers gain better skills to use books in school. They grew up in homes, and schools, that didn't have books. But for our first five years, simply creating high-quality books occupied all our time. Now, we're able to give some attention to teacher training. In July, we held workshops for 600 teachers, from more than 500 villages throughout northern Laos, who came to Luang Prabang to improve their skills at the Teacher Training College (TTC).
Having seen our previous work, the TTC administration invited us to offer four 1-day workshops, with a group of 150 of these teachers each time. We followed the model we had already been using, with a strong emphasis on encouraging teachers to read aloud. Then they got some live practice, reading to children in nearby villages.
At the end of each day, we gave 70 books to every participant.
Now, there's a highly motivated teacher in each of Lao 500 villages. They're excited about reading, they've got books to read and share, and they've learned skills for transmitting their excitement to students. Many of them, in fact, asked us to come to their village and provide this training for other teachers. We're looking for ways to cover the costs of that.
We've illustrated this news item by showing a few of those kids absorbed in their books, because after all, that's what it is all about.
The Mouse Experience: Several years ago, we created the first "Mouse Experience." It was an opportunity for our book party teams, who spend much of their time on the road (or on the river) going to rural schools, to do something different. For a week, they enjoy and benefit from the range of experiences that young people take for granted in western countries, but that are rare in Laos: Playing board games, conducting science experiments, speaking before small groups, using a digital camera, and much more. We continue to offer Mouse Experience weeks for our staff, four or five times a year.
This month, for the first time, we offered a 3-day version of The Mouse Experience for other young people in town. We invited several organizations and projects to send a few members of their staff; The Living Land, an organic farm on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, generously provided space. Participants used a microscope for the first time, watched a movie and discussed how the plot and characters were developed, and learned some tips for reading aloud. On the last day, children from a nearby orphanage school came for a story time.
A well-rounded education has many components. These workshops give young people a range of new experiences that will help them become better citizens in the new Laos. They also get more exposure to books, and learn read-aloud skills, that help with our goal of getting books into every home.
A BIG 200: A small school in a rural village in Udom Xai province was the site of a particularly notable book party. It was the 200th book party sponsored by our long-time supporter, Manoj Paul of the U.S.A. By choosing to live thriftily and share what he earns, one person has made it possible for more than 20,000 children to get their first book, and 200 schools to get a small library.
Manoj has told us that his greatest reward is seeing the photos of kids with their books, so we've added some extra pictures of children reading to our photo album page for this school. Please come have a look. Will you help us reach more children in more schools?
Peter Rabbit Visits Laos: Students and parents at Dunannie School in Hampshire, England already have sponsored a book party in Laos, and The Slow Loris, a book about Lao animals. Now, they're helping again. An art auction raised money for the new printing of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.Then the fundraising continued, and the school will sponsor at least 2 rural book parties in Laos, as well as the book!
Things like this don't just happen. Somebody makes them happen, and we'd particularly like to thank Samantha Wade for her work to help children in Laos discover the joy of reading, and Alison Pike for holding a successful fundraising art auction at school.
Helping Children Develop: Children need play, just as they need food, shelter, and love. But the need for play isn't as obvious as the other needs. Four years ago, we published "Baby Care," our first experiment to see if people in rural villages, who had no tradition of getting useful information from books, would find it help. They did, and they eagerly asked for more. This booklet, adapted from work by the Child-to-Child Trust in England and by Save the Children, explains the needs of babies up to the age of 15 months. It offers suggestions for parents, older sisters and brothers, relatives, and others, about how to stimulate a small child's mental development through play.
Literacy in Timor Leste: Several organizations have translated and published Big Brother Mouse books for distribution in their countries. At the beginning of March, we held a "Literacy, Libraries, and Books" seminar in Luang Prabang, to share ideas and experiences. Big Brother Mouse staff described techniques for writing short, fun books; and for establishing reading rooms. The Ermera Library in Timor Leste (East Timor) told about a special program they've developed, to encourage parents to enjoy books with their children, even if the parents themselves cannot read. Here, while observing a book party at the local high school, the Timor Leste group presents their edition of New Improved Buffalo to Big Brother Mouse.
Recognition for Khamla:This month Khamla, the head of Big Brother Mouse, became a finalist for the prestigious Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize.
This award was created two years ago to recognize "individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change." He was nominated in November by the Global Fund for Children. Then, from hundreds of highly qualified young people worldwide, he was one of 25 to become a finalist.
Three young people will be chosen to receive the prize, which comes with a $100,000 cash prize as well as participation in a week of related activities. We of course are eagerly awaiting the decision. Whether or not he is among the final winners, we consider it a great tribute to his leadership and work, and that of everyone at Big Brother Mouse.
(Update, June: Khamla was not selected as one of the award recipients, but we are still very happy that he was a finalist... and he's still eligible for another decade.)
Also in February: For two years, our "Mouse Experience" has provided opportunities for our staff to get new experiences and learn in new ways. From those events, we've built up a repertoire of more than 30 games, puzzles, activities, educational toys, displays and other ways to encourage learning and creativity.
This month we held our first Discovery Days, where we shared these opportunities with a larger audience. They were a great success. Children (and some adult participants) had fun, learned new things, and got experiences. Our staff was thrilled to have a chance to share the new experiences that they'd taken part in. Click here to jump into our Photo Album to see pictures from our first Discovery Days.
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Every morning, we invite visitors to come to our shop in Luang Prabang, and help young people in Laos practice their English. It gets quite full some days. Morever, because of jobs and school schedules, many students can't come in the morning. So we've expanded the hours for English practice: It's now 7 days a week, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It's a drop-in event: We encourage everyone to come promptly at 9 a.m. or 5 p.m., but if you can't come until later, that's okay. Stay for the full 2 hours, or leave earlier if you need to.
We've been offering these sessions for 5 years. As you travel in northern Laos, you'll probably meet young people working in restaurants or shops, or as guides, who learned their English at Big Brother Mouse.