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A Small Beginning: The UCIBIDES reading project
Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2006

By Linda Edwards

This project, now completed at the Russell Latapy Secondary School on July 17 to 28, aimed at providing additional reading support services for children in the under-served areas of Morvant/Laventille, who were identified by their sending schools as being less advanced than their peers. In some cases, they could hardly read.

UCIBIDES represents Urban Children Beginning to make Decisions about Self Esteem. The project aimed at saturating the identified children with interesting age and reading appropriate materials, shared and taught by committed teachers who look like them. It was a small beginning aimed at removing locks from our doors due to fear of bandits, and locks of non-achievement from the minds of small children aged five to fourteen.

All of the registration for the programme was handled by the sending-schools, identified by the principal of the Russell Latapy Secondary School, Mrs. Monica Regisford-Douglin. These included St. Dominics, Morvant Anglican, Lower Morvant Government, Morvant New Government and Morvant Government School. In all sixty-five, children were assigned to the programme. Fifty-three attended. Calls to parents of the registrants who did not attend indicated a misconception by those parents that the programme had been cancelled. The form designed for the project had to be signed by the parent or caregiver and asked who was responsible for taking the child home. Safety was paramount to us.

The four teachers in the programme, all of whom live in the USA, and three of whom are Trinbagonians, came to Trinidad and Tobago at their own expense, purchased materials from their own funds, and from small sums provided to others, and taught for free so that these children would have the benefits of an enriched reading experience. The teacher-leader of the project, this writer, went even further. Stories written by her American students designed for this project were read to and by the children. Additional stories included one written by her specifically for this occasion, and one written by Rodney Foster, also a Trinbagonian; her former student from Mausica Teachers College.

Dire predictions of disaster by many proved to be totally unfounded. "Girl, you going into de belly of de beast". "Morvant? Yuh crazy or what?" "Those children up there wild." Most of these predictions were made by readers of local newspapers who respond to headlines about crime. They had never been to Morvant. The children turned out to be the sweetest group of lively young people, who were themselves afraid of crime in the neighborhood. On the final day of the programme, a police officer from the Morvant Police station spoke to them about staying safe for the rest of the holidays, based on the fears expressed by "Shawn" to his teacher that morning.

While we were tremendously impressed with the commitment and enthusiasm of the children, we were initially shocked at what they could not do. Oral reading skills were practically absent. Some in the youngest group did not know the letters of the alphabet. We had to remind ourselves that we had asked for the academically needy. Students were very good at discussing what they read or was read to them, but were poor at writing a reaction to the reading. Illustrations of the stories prepared especially for them, that I had hoped to take back and share with my students in Texas could not be done. Students were simply not used to illustrating stories. There was no lack of drawing paper, crayons, coloured pencils and magic markers. Doing it as homework was unrealistic since they tended not to have materials at home for this purpose. In colouring a map of Africa provided to them, the older children- the eleven to fourteen age group- experienced some difficulty following the instructions- they were not to have any two countries next to each other in the same colour. One child, not known in his sending-school for paying attention to detail, used three colours only, and painted the continent from top to bottom in three bright slices.

We were told that attendance in the area is a problem, but thirty-seven of the fifty-three children achieved perfect attendances during the ten-day period. One young man missed only the final day. His grandfather had died the night before.

What we learned about these children included their tremendous enthusiasm for learning and doing things, their willingness to please the teacher, their wanting to help: the early arrivals set out the learning material, and others assisted in packing up every day. They assisted, rushed to offer help to carry the heavy lunch box to the room daily, and generally followed the rules of the project.

We escorted our children to the restroom, no matter how big they were, and even when they attended the Russel Latapy School, as some six boys and two girls did. We did not allow them to consume excesses of sugary and fatty foods, which were purchased in the area around the school. We collected the cell-phones of the older ones and returned them at the end of the day. We escorted the walkers past the security post, since there were other children in the building over whom we had no control. We handed over small children directly to the parent or designated guardian. We adopted a no-nonsense, but friendly approach from day one, and stuck to it.

On the ninth day of the programme, we were interviewed by a local TV host, John Victor. This allowed three of the teachers to comment on our observations about learning and teaching. We talked about class size as a factor in achievement. What can a forth standard teacher achieve with thirty-five kids in a classroom when many are slow learners? As a professional, I found myself asking which came first: the slow learning, or the class size? Another question was; what variety of material exists in our schools for children to read from? We took to them more than sixty individual books, multiple copies of interesting student magazines, and multiple copies of seven short stories. How does that compare with their regular weekly reading material?

We varied our programme with large group presentations and small reading groups of five or six with a volunteer as leader. We read in the content area of Math and Social-Studies as well as "Reading". Late in the first week, the Ministry assigned three readers to the school for use in the summer project. By the time it was clarified that they were not for us, but for the other project, two groups had devoured, "A Grain of Rice", and the older group had read and learned the moral of, "The Greedy Triangle". These underserved children, the children of poverty, wanted to read and read enthusiastically, despite their difficulties. They were proud of finishing a book in a few days. They wanted to take the books home and read them there.

At the closing event on July 28th, thirty-seven of the fifty-three parents attended. Students went home with a bag of instructional material including books, magazines, pencils, pens, crayons, markers and paper. In a drug store near to where I stayed, I saw a small box of crayons going for eight dollars, and was glad that we could give away all that we brought.

We were asked repeatedly if we would do this again next year. We were asked if we could expand the project to other schools, or to other Caribbean countries. These questions require two answers. The first is an unqualified, "Yes", for me at least. The other three teachers are equally enthusiastic, but may not be able to commit their funds to this on a continuing basis. As to expansion, four teachers, in the interim between Trinidad's schools closing for the holidays, and our American schools in the South re-opening- the three Texas teachers are back in school this week- would find it difficult to do this in many venues.

What could be feasible would be running a model project from which others could learn some successful techniques for working with underserved children, and assisting in a "teacher-renewal" project through a series of workshops.

The four teachers in this first UCIBIDES project are committed to the idea that education reduces crime and invests in hope. It makes a difference in the lives of poor children.

We were pleased to use our own resources for this effort.

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