Rupununi Learners Foundation

Yupukari Libraries

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Since May 2005 we have built four libraries in Yupukari: three classroom libraries and a public library.


The nursery school library

This large, one-room cinderblock schoolhouse accommodates forty children and two teachers, Lucy Andrews and Melvina Holden.  In May 2005 it was empty, except for tables and chairs. 

After about a month of three-way discussions between the RLF and the school teachers, inspired by the influx of new materials, we began to carve eight learning centers out of the cavernous space:

  • A playhouse, furnished with a doll family, their hammocks, pets and miniature household tools
  • A dress-up center
  • A place for water play
  • An art space
  • A math center
  • A science center
  • A store
  • A traditional "classroom- facing-a-blackboard" space.

Now we had a lively school – much livelier! So much so, the need for a read-aloud space became apparent. Fortunately the school has a pair of storerooms, one of which became a Story Room.

One mayu (community service) day a group of village women scrubbed the space from top to bottom, and Combrencent Ernest painted the floor and walls in preparation for his mural, “The Story of Yupukari.”

Florine Dorrick was inspired by a packet of paper patterns and a box of North American scraps to sew sixteen zippered floor cushions and a pair of curtains.

Hamizad Khan and son Kemal fabricated the face-out shelves (and the playhouse).

The nursery school playground

It has been discussed in Council and approved by the village that every Yupukari household (72 in all) will give 1000 Guyana dollars (five US dollars) toward the construction of a playground alongside the nursery school.   As you can see by this signboard, only a small percentage of residents have come forward.  However the design process is still in the early stages, and dunning has yet to begin…

Lower primary school

This building is 90 by 30 feet, another concrete, one-room schoolhouse, where currently about 160 children are divided into five grades – by blackboards, there are no interior walls.

The Termites, the Yupukari youth woodworking group, harvested the timber and constructed the face-out (or "raingutter") bookshelves, which run the entire inner perimeter of the building in two and three tiers.

You can also see the impact of abundant paper and art supplies, as teachers are now able to make learning aids and to engage the students in bookmaking as a literacy activity.

Our current approach to the teaching of reading in English

About 5500 books – new and used, donated and purchased -- were brought to Yupukari from the US in May 2005.  As previously arranged, the nine schoolteachers (eight plus the Headmaster) agreed to meet weekly with Alice Layton for ninety minutes of "training" – more accurately, exploration, of ways to improve English-language learning in this Macushi-speaking, isolated, under-resourced context.

The large influx of books (and the types of books that were selected) was inspired by twenty-plus years of research by (retired) professor Warwick Elley (Univ. of Canterbury, New Zealand) among indigenous language-speaking schoolchildren in former British colonies of the South Pacific, the closest analog and model Layton could find to the Yupukari situation.

It quickly became apparent that the books posed a significant challenge to the teachers, and that the training in using books and teaching reading we had prepared was in fact going to be needed. There is nothing new or exciting about this training: in fact it is a very pared-down version of very ordinary language arts activity. But in these village schools a broad selection of storybooks, paper with no lines on it, and crayons numerous enough to occupy a whole classroom simultaneously are stimulating for students and teachers.

The essence of the program is building motivation to read by means of enjoyable story and art experiences that entail the hearing, speaking, writing and reading of English on a daily basis. As suggested by our library survey, entertainment is a strongly felt lack and need in the village. And the challenge of learning to read in a foreign language in which you are not immersed is sufficiently daunting that motivation and ongoing support must be strong indeed for learning to occur.

How we approach the use of books in the second-language classroom

  1. Select books to read aloud
    Since reading aloud is an unfamiliar skill, teachers were not prepared to select read-alouds for their students, nor were they adept at reading aloud to them. Together we learned to level read-alouds by selecting titles in which a five-to-ten minute experience of hearing a story presented no more than eight new English words to the class.

  2. Identify and present the new words
    Once the title has been selected, and the day's new words have been identified, a read-aloud session begins with putting the new words on the board and defining them, using mnemonic devices, e.g. pictures on the board, or action gestures, such as having everyone stand up and jump at the word "jump," or "chop" their desk at the word "chop."

  3. Read aloud with expression - Students hear English
    Reading aloud with expression presented two main challenges to the teachers. First, most of them had little experience in reading aloud: the appropriate pacing, volume and clarity did not come easily. But expressiveness was a greater challenge: changing voices for different characters, using gesture and body language, seeing and using dramatic or comedic opportunities presented by texts, did not come naturally. It may be that the reported hunger for entertainment (and the observed enthusiasm for movies) comes into play here, as models for acting out stories appear to be lacking. (As of this writing the tradition and state of Macushi storytelling is unexplored by us -- something we would love a volunteer to take on.)

  4. The class retells the story - Students speak English
    The students retell the story aloud as a group, using the English words they already know, as well as incorporating the day's new words:
    • Teacher: "Who is this story about?"
    • Hands go up; one is selected.
    • Student: "This story is about Hansel and Gretel."
    • The teacher writes on the board: "1. This story is about Hansel and Gretel."
    • Teacher: "Who is Hansel?"
    • More hands.
    • Another student: "Hansel is a boy."
    • Teacher writes on the board: "2. Hansel is a boy."
    • The process continues until there are the same number of sentences on the board as there are students in the class.

  5. Make class books - Students write English
    Paper with no lines on it, rulers, and writing instruments that make color (pencils, markers, crayons) are handed out. Students fold the paper in half, then unfold it and use the folding line to divide their pages between illustration and text areas. Students rule lines to help them line up the letters of their sentences; Student 1 writes and illustrates Sentence 1; Student 2 works with Sentence 2, and so on.

  6. Display and extend class books - Students read English
    At the end of the class, pages are collected and hung up in story order to form a class book, which is read aloud as a class. The entire read-aloud/bookmaking process continues daily until the story is completely retold and illustrated. In subsequent sessions each student works on a complete book of the story, using the class book as a reference, and takes the finished individual book home to read aloud to the family.

Flaws in this approach

Some of the teachers loved this approach and found it intuitive to implement; some did not. It became apparent that teachers who were dissatisfied had found even the simple read-alouds too challenging for their heterogeneous classes (Macushi-speaking children have a surprisingly varied exposure to English, largely due to their parents' differing nonvillage work and language experiences.) At their request we turned our attention to teaching the teachers phonics, a subject they had heard about but said they had never been taught.

Using laminated (reusable) phonics worksheets, videos, and computer games projected on a big screen via a data projector and played by the whole class, we began to develop a multimedia phonics program for teachers and students, a process that is ongoing.

Multimedia experiments

The most successful multimedia curriculum has been the pairing of storybooks with matching video, generally Scholastic titles with matching Children's Circle videos/dvds. According to their teachers, the stories children saw on film were the ones they most sought to read, and also generated the most motivated bookmaking experiences. If we had the funds we would focus on a core classroom collection consisting of multiple paperback copies (enough for the whole class) of certain stories and matching dvds. Some of the most popular titles were, "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears;" "The Five Chinese Brothers," and among the nursery school children, the wordless "Changes, Changes."

Another experiment was the introduction of low-cost tape recorders, microphones and headphones to make read-aloud tapes. The teachers were trained on the equipment and permitted to use it at will. Our goal was to create an oral/aural program that would motivate students to read aloud a favorite story to the recorder and swap tapes with their friends, thus reading, speaking and hearing English in a peer-social context. Teachers were not comfortable setting aside time for this activity during this school day, although they were encouraged to send small groups to the public library for this purpose.

For similar reasons the availability of the Internet at the Yupukari Public Library has had limited impact on English-language learning, in that teachers are reluctant to send students in small groups to the library (we can accommodate six at a time). It would appear that those students who live close to the library are learning to use the Internet in their free time; the many others who have many miles to walk home, on an empty stomach, (there is at present no school lunch) do not appear to be using the library very much (we expect to launch a study of our public library users in the coming school year).