"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.
Archived News from 2006-2007. From 2008. From 2009. From 2010. From 2011. From 2012.
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.