The first opportunity to facilitate a major event at site came for us on March 17th. On a day normally reserved for celebrating Irish heritage for St. Patrick’s Day, people all over Uganda stopped what they were doing to read for a minimum of 20 minutes in celebration of the third annual National DEAR Day, a Peace Corps initiative in partnership with Uganda’s Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, and Sports.
Working with the Principal of the Primary Teachers’ College, who included her experiences with DEAR Day in her recently completed doctoral thesis, Matthew worked to replicate and build on previous DEAR Day efforts at the school. After developing a program, Matthew and the Principal reviewed the concept of DEAR Day with PTC students and staff as well as the day’s program.
The program included 50 first-year PTC students traveling on DEAR Day to Victoria’s primary school (which is also the PTC’s “Demonstration School”) to read to pupils. In preparation, Matthew’s counterpart suggested we let first-year students select books ahead of time to familiarize themselves with the text before reading aloud.
Unfortunately, virtually all of the books are from the U.S. or U.K., and the content reflects that. Even back in the States, teachers struggle to find culturally relevant children’s books. In Uganda, the distance between content and audience was that much greater. Blonde princesses and firefighters in trucks abounded. A rosy interpretation of this problem could be that reading these books accomplishes Peace Corps Uganda’s second goal, to share American culture with Ugandans. But as we all know, even the American cultures represented in these books fail to represent so many Americans, and it certainly does not reflect the lived experience of the teachers and pupils reading these books here in Uganda. Furthermore, the amount of cross-cultural exposure is overwhelmingly one-sided: “western culture” is omnipresent even in Uganda, whereas one would be hard-pressed to find images of Ugandan beauty or manifestations of Ugandan values in the U.S.
At one point, Matt and his counterpart considered choosing one text for all students to read to be able to have common ground for discussion afterward. When selecting texts for Matt’s middle and high school students in the States, the formula was simple (probably to a fault) for finding an ideal text:
- Is it written by someone other than a dead white/Christian/American/etc. man?
- Is it thought-provoking, challenging, critical, or rigorous?
Matt lit up when he found a story by Mildred D. Taylor (author of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), and it seemed like a predetermined match when Matt discovered reading the author’s biography that Mildred D. Taylor served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia in the 1960s where she taught English and history.
But where Matt sought to expose his high school students to underrepresented cultural identities in the States, Taylor’s story, “The Gold Cadillac,” presented its own framing needs before reading in the context of the PTC students’ lives. It requires a discussion about African-Americans, specifically in the 1950s, to account for varying levels of familiarity with the history of slavery and the struggle for Civil Rights in America.
The central problem in the short story is an African-American family in Ohio gets a gold Cadillac, a car which carries a set of specific and important connotations in American culture of wealth and class. The child characters ask, “Are we rich?” when from a Ugandan perspective the question is moot; if you have a car, you are rich. The family travels to visit relatives in Mississippi and encounter hostile police on the way. Their dialogue is marked with the colloquialisms and vernacular English Mildred D. Taylor grew up hearing and speaking, a language unfamiliar to Ugandans taught British English in schools.
All of these are rich opportunities for broadening Ugandans’ (and Americans’) perspective of what an American is. The “problem” Taylor’s “Gold Cadillac” brings is effectively and compassionately communicating the unique set of challenges intersectionality brings for any American with a marginalized identity: “yes, I’m an American, but I’m also x, y, and z.” Ultimately, Matt never had to facilitate this discussion about Taylor’s “Gold Cadillac.”
In consultation with the principal, it was decided that each student should pick his or her own book to read for silent reading. The literature the students choose from often promotes white, “western” cultural values and uses language that is both literally and figuratively foreign. Do we prevent students from accessing books we deem damaging by hiding or destroying them? Do we attempt to facilitate (without training or expertise) a volatile and sensitive discussion of the implications of these texts? Do we back off, and give students unimpeded access to the resources we have, regardless of their subtext? Being white Americans in a country with a colonial history like Uganda brings a quandary that is equally important as it is unsatisfactorily solvable.
Victoria worked with the principal to create a Writing Club for first-year PTC students. The club met two days before DEAR Day, and the 50 students who volunteered went to the PTC’s Resource Room to select age-appropriate reading material from the books available while the remainder of first-year PTC students wrote story-books in Writing Club.
DEAR Day began with all PTC students meeting for morning assembly. Matthew and his counterpart reminded the PTC students of the day’s purpose and schedule before all first-year students reported to the Multi-Purpose Room, where a variety of chapter books were displayed for them to choose from (despite the aforementioned lack of culturally relevant texts). Students and tutors spent 1.5 hours reading silently and keeping a summary log of what they read, interrupted only by Matt stopping all the teachers halfway through for a movement break with help from “The Hokey-Pokey.”
Afterwards, Matt led a Read-Aloud Workshop, demonstrating best practices for reading aloud to pupils such as picture-walks, expressive reading, and ensuring visibility of the book for pupils while reading as well as comprehension strategies such as making connections, asking questions, inferring, paraphrasing, visualizing, evaluating, etc.
After break tea, Matt travelled the 30-minute walk with the 50 students to Victoria’s primary school. There, the pupils gathered in an assembly where a primary school teacher reviewed the importance of literacy and DEAR Day.
We read a poem Victoria wrote in Luganda about our love for reading, alternating lines and saying the last line in each stanza in unison:
Twagala kusoma nnyo
Twagala kusoma mu musana
Oba enkuba bweba etonnya nnyo
Twagala okusoma n’abayizi
Twagala okusoma n’abafumbi
Twagala okusoma newankubadde tetuwulira bulungi
Oluusi tuteeka wansi essowani zaffe
Oluusi tuteeka wansi amenvu gaffe
Oluusi tuteeka wansi enkoko zaffe
Oluusi tuteeka wansi nkofila zaffe
Tuteeka wansi ebintu bingi kubanga twagala okusoma
Tuteeka wansi ebintu bingi kubanga bwe tusoma tusobola okugenda wala
Tunyumirwa! Teeka wansi kyolina osome!
We love to read
We love to read very much
We love to read in sunshine
Or when it’s raining very much
We love to read with students
We love to read with cooks
We love to read, even though we don’t feel well
Sometimes we put down our plates
Sometimes we put down our bananas
Sometimes we put down our chickens
Sometimes we put down our hats
We put down many things because we love to read
We put down many things because when we read we can go far
We are excited! Put down what you have and read!
PTC students and pupils then separated according to grade level and read in small groups of about four to eight pupils for one hour. During this hour, primary school teachers supervised or read some novels Victoria brought to the teacher workroom while we circulated, occasionally sitting in on groups and taking pictures for Peace Corps reporting purposes, wary of interrupting. Many pupils and students spent the entire hour clustered around books, although students also did some activities such as “energizers” (think “Hokey-Pokey,” something to get pupils up and moving to help concentration), practice-writing on the chalkboard, or singing the alphabet. After a reluctant parting, Matt and the students returned to the PTC for lunch.
After lunch, the students who read to pupils shared their experience with their colleagues who remained to practice reading aloud at the college: “Today was a day not to be forgotten,” one student said. “I read a book to P7 pupils called Junie B. Jones Is a Graduation Girl. As the pupils read, they told me that they had not graduated yet, but I told them that soon they will. Reading this book made us all think about graduations in our own lives, and I hope you will read this book if you get the chance.”
After sharing, Matt’s counterpart led a Writing Workshop. Students brainstormed topics they were passionate about and then discussed different genres to communicate these topics and publish in the PTC’s college magazine.
The pupils were less articulate than the college students describing their DEAR Day experience. Victoria’s probing went something like this:
Q: Did you like DEAR Day?
A: Yes! We like DEAR Day.
Q: Why did you like DEAR Day?
A: We like DEAR Day because it was perfect.
Q: Would you like to read more?
A: Yes! We would like to read more.
While pupils couldn’t explain DEAR Day to Victoria, we don’t know that we can do any better for Bloganda’s readers. DEAR Day was practically perfect, not because it rained and was oddly cold, or because the pupils were forced to read inside with the students due to the poor weather. It wasn’t perfect because only five novels were brought for 10 primary school teachers to read. It wasn’t perfect because of the culturally irrelevant books (one was like a teen-bop magazine in book form about a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio). It was perfect because the PTC students and primary school pupils 1) read and 2) wanted to keep reading.
While planning for DEAR Day was stressful, the celebration was sweet.