Ridin’ bikes and readin’ books

I would  that you can still recall the title of your favorite bedtime story, the one you begged your parents to read you night after night. Or maybe it’s storytime when you sat in a circle with your classmates that you remember best. Perhaps you have a memory of checking out a book with your first library card or staying up all night to finish a novel that was too good to put down. Reading is a big part of growing up for nearly every child in America.

But in The Gambia, that is just not the case. Many schools still don’t have a library although Peace Corps and other development agencies are working to change that statistic. It’s even rarer for kids to have books at home since most parents can’t afford them or read. So while it is natural for us to read aloud to our children, younger siblings or students – many Gambians don’t even realize the importance of it.

To celebrate World Read Aloud Day, Peace Corps volunteers from all sectors across the country teamed up to get our communities excited about reading. Each team biked from school to school throughout the week and taught teachers how to do read alouds along the way.

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Map by Dan Tanner

My literacy bike trek team! Malcolm, Mallory, me, Kimia and Bill

My literacy bike trek team! Malcolm, Mallory, me, Kimia and Bill

Since it is such a new concept, the task was much more difficult than it sounds. Most of the teachers didn’t realize that you could ask questions throughout the story and not only at the end. Some didn’t understand how to teach reading strategies (context clues, predicting, summarizing, etc.) either.  One thought the fictional story “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” was really about learning how to hunt.

During the workshop, we modeled good read alouds while the teachers pretended they were students. It was fun to see how much they enjoy children’s books since they never experienced storytime for themselves when they were kids. We also helped them develop lesson plans and let them practice doing a read aloud on their own.

Me modeling a read aloud at Ndemban Lower Basic School

Me modeling a read aloud at Ndemban Lower Basic School. / Photo by Kimia Pakdaman

Listening to teachers practice read alouds at Sutusinjang Basic Cycle School

Mallory and I helping teachers plan read alouds at Sutusinjang Basic Cycle School.             / Photo by Kimia Pakdaman

Mallory and Malcolm

Mallory and Malcolm explaining how to use storybooks to teach different content.

At my school, a first year teacher trainee who I work with a lot even helped teach the workshop. He had attended a more comprehensive Peace Corps workshop with me a few weeks earlier and had been practicing read alouds in his classroom ever since. He read the classic, “The Hungry Caterpillar,” and absolutely nailed it. Watching Abdou proudly teach what he had learned to his peers was definitely the best part of trek for me. Plus, Gambians always listen to other Gambians better than they do to us, so I think it made the workshop more effective.

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My counterpart, Abdou, modeling a read aloud for his colleagues at Sibanor Lower Basic School.

My counterparts, fifth grade teacher trainees, planning a read aloud lesson at my school, Sibanor Lower Basic

My counterparts, fifth grade teacher trainees, planning a read aloud lesson at out school.

Although I had worried that the teachers didn’t entirely comprehend the techniques we were trying to teach, I’ve seen that they are improving as they practice with their students. It’s nice that they sometimes ask me to observe them for feedback as they work to implement reading aloud into their lessons. Even better was walking into the library one day to find a teacher reading aloud even though I wasn’t there to observe. Perhaps the best yet is the few students who visited to tell me about a story their teacher read to them in class one day. Maybe for those students, that read aloud will even become a lifelong memory.

–JDF