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Technology Helps Foster a Love of the Paper Novel

We often hear that virtual connections to classrooms in other countries can have a powerful impact on U.S. classrooms. But what about classrooms in other countries? Today, Alexis Kedo, a former Fulbright Teaching Assistant to Kenya, shares her experience helping with such a connection.

By guest blogger Alexis Kedo

"Sorry, I only have 10 copies, so we're going to have to sh—"

My apology is cut short by the sound of scraping metal chairs on the concrete floor of my classroom in rural Wamunyu, Kenya. Before I know it, all 30 of my students have configured themselves so that each is near a book.

I had thought that it was going to take some poking and prodding to ensure each student could follow along with the book during our read-aloud. However, my students—with 10 or so years of education in under-resourced Kenyan schools under their belts—were so well accustomed to sharing reading materials that I didn't even have to prompt them to share.

Sharing is generally good, but observing this was somewhat troubling. Indeed, this moment highlighted the fact that books were that scarce. I began to look for ways in which we could increase the number of books available at Mwaasua, so students could share less and read more. Eventually, I found myself an unlikely ally: the computer.

Combating Book Scarcity
giver3.jpegMore specifically, I was given the opportunity to facilitate a course focused on a cross-continental reading of the novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. A group of my students in Kenya were going to be paired with a group of students at a school in America—specifically in Connecticut. The computer-based "Global Conversations" course was created by the global education company Level Up Village, also based in Connecticut. The surprising result of this technology-infused, global book club was that many of my students were, for the first time, able to take ownership of their own reading.

This collaboration also marked a big step forward from what my students had experienced thus far in their education. In fact, the dearth of reading materials I observed in Wamunyu is representative of a countrywide scarcity. Even though Kenya is one of the more economically developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, illiteracy, especially amongst women, is widespread. A leading Kenyan news outlet recently reported that nearly 45 percent of mothers in Kenya are unable to read a second-grade level story in English. In 2015, the director of the Kenya National Library Service stated that almost 30 percent of counties in Kenya lack a library entirely.

Wamunyu, about three hours southeast of Nairobi, is largely a subsistence farming community. Families often live well below the poverty line of $1.90/day as defined by the World Bank. In Wamunyu, I completed a 9-month teaching assistantship through the Fulbright U.S. Student Engish Teaching Assistant Program at Mwaaasua Secondary School. When I arrived at Mwaasua, there were roughly three textbooks available per subject, for a student population of nearly 150. Teachers rely primarily on dictation to relay critical information to students.

It's easy for a Westerner such as myself to conclude that the solution is simply to make books more accessible, either by increasing their number or by making it easier for students to obtain them. Indeed, increasing the supply of and accessibility to reading materials is certainly vital to raising literacy levels.

However, this is only part of the puzzle. I noticed early on into my time in Kenya that the books most often requested by students were textbooks and coursebooks. In Kenya, students' entire academic careers often rested on a handful of high-stakes exams. Many see reading only as the means to an end—the end being a secondary school diploma.

Academic reading is, of course, of critical importance, but it also means that my students were missing out on leisure reading and its numerous benefits (among them, expanded vocabulary and a greater capacity to think creatively and critically). In fact, the lack of a leisure reading culture amongst youth in Kenya has been identified as a troubling and pervasive problem by the Kenya Publishers Association, which recently asked the country's counties to make room in their budgets for "other reading materials besides school textbooks."

Leisure Reading as Motivation
For the majority of my students, The Giver was the first novel many of them had read outside of school. The fact that they were accountable to a partner in the United States provided them substantial motivation to complete the book. Using an online global communication platform, both groups of students recorded and shared "virtual pen pal" videos about their own lives and about the novel. My students answered questions about life in Kenya, learned about American life, and documented their reactions to what they were reading.

Using Technology for Personal Connections
The curriculum allowed my students, many for the first time, to make personal connections to something they were reading independently. It also provided them with a platform to speak about problems in their society, and to think critically about the novel's exploration of utopian and dystopian themes.

One of the colonial legacies left behind by the British was a lecture-based, teacher-centric educational culture, one where authority and discipline are strictly enforced. More often than not, questions are posed with one "correct" answer in mind. Predictably, my students were initially hesitant in expressing their personal reactions to The Giver and needed reassurance when crafting responses to the questions posed by the Global Conversations curriculum. On top of that, many students were nervous about their video letters, hesitant to speak publicly in English (their third language). One female student was particularly reserved, rushing through her script and rarely making eye contact with the camera.  

Being exposed to the openness projected by their American partners, I believe, helped my students become more comfortable speaking for themselves. At the end of the weeks-long course, many were confidently pitching solutions for the problems they observed in their own village. And my shyest student? She was confidently chatting to her American partner about possible solutions to the environmental degradation she was witnessing in her own community. It was extraordinary to see all of my students go from camera-shy to composed, self-possessed speakers in a matter of weeks.

The course culminated in a live Skype session between my class and the American students, which was an opportunity for the students to get any last-minute burning questions answered and to exchange parting farewells. This was the first time my students had ever used any communications technology like Skype and they immediately asked about doing it again.

Of course, making books more readily available in places like Wamunyu is critical to curbing illiteracy. Yet enterprises like Level Up Village are proving that integrating human-centric technology amplifies the positive impact books can have in an under-resourced community. At Kenya Connect, the impact is already being felt: over 650 picture books and novels were checked out of the library in 2016, up from just over 100 the year before. In an academic culture at times permeated by drills and tests, our students are learning that there was inherent value in reading for one's own personal development, and that there was power in using one's own voice.

Connect with Level Up Village and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Kenya Connect.

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