Reading and literacy workshops spread The Joy of Reading
In the rural villages of Laos, few people have ever had access to books. With the generous support of Planet Wheeler, in Australia, we've worked with villages in Muang Ngoi, a district about 3 hours north of Luang Prabang, to set up reading rooms in every village.
But setting it up is only the beginning. We then work with volunteers from each village, finding ways that they can spread a love of books, reading, literacy, and education. Sometimes our team goes to each villages. Other times, we bring people together for a 2-day workshop. Here's what we did at 3 such workshops, in December and January, 2010-2011.
The workshops are held in Nong Kiao, where the district's only paved road, and the main river (the Nam Ou) intersect. Some village volunteers can easily come by road, in one or two hours. Many others walk to the river from a remote village, then wait for a boat; they can spend six or eight hours traveling.
As we wait for everyone to arrive, we have board games to play. Here, several volunteers are learning Nine Men's Morris, a game that's popular in much of the world, but not known here. In fact, board games of this sort are entirely new here. While they aren't directly related to reading, they're fun, they encourage group social activity, and provide experience in new ways of thinking. Each village volunteer will get a set of games to take back. These games will become one more activity the reading room can provide, to generate interest within from both adults and children.
Getting to know each other
None of the attendees have ever been to an event like this before. Two people have come from each village. We invite the main reading room volunteer, of course. We also encourage them to bring another person, who has an interest in books and reading, and particularly someone with extra time and energy to help. Often this is a young adult who doesn't yet have full family and work responsibilities.
In nearly every case, two people come from each village. Usually they don't know anyone else. So we begin with small groups, where they can meet a few others, and share experiences from their villages.
A village reading room is a new concept. To fill all their potential, the village volunteers will need several new skills, but we can't teach everything in a two-day workshop. Our primary goal at these workshops is to encourage reading aloud. We chose this because after they overcome the initial shyness that is nearly universal Laos, it's a fun activity, which is likely to continue. It generates more interest in books and reading. It's also a skill that can spread to parents, teachers, and children in the village. We begin with one of our staff, in this case Sengdao, reading for the entire group.
Then, we again break into small groups, and offer suggestions about how to effectively read aloud: Change your voice. Pause for dramatic effect. Make eye contact with your audience. We've benefited enormously from Mem Fox's book Reading Magic, as we have developed these workshop presentations. Then, each participant selects a story, and practices alone for an hour, thinking about how to use those techniques in that particular story.
In addition to the book party teams, we have a kitchen staff of 5, preparing three meals a day for the workshop. After dinner, some of the staff performs traditional Lao and ethnic dances that they know. Nguak performs a sword dance that he learned as a novice monk. Sone, who runs the Joy of Reading project which is responsible for these workshops and other outreach, appears here in a traditional Lao dance costume.
Afterward, everyone joins in for traditional Lao line dancing.
Reading aloud is our top focus at these particular workshops. We also spend time on two other activities that will help volunteers generate interest and enthusiasm in their villages: games, and songs.
Our book party team has written five songs that they often perform and teach in schools. The themes include books, reading; and other subjects. The motorbike song is a big hit! Each song has an accompanying set of hand or dance motions. We break into small groups so everyone can learn one song, which they later perform for the full workshop.
Real-life reading practice
The next morning, we head out to a nearby village. In no time, more than 200 children and adults have gathered, enough to have five or six reading areas. Everyone gets a chance to tell the story they've been practicing.
We play games, too, and the entire village joins in. Village reading rooms are a new concept here, and we're all still experimenting to see what is effective. So far, we believe the reading rooms will be most effective if they become the hub for a variety of activities: some fun, some educational, some related to reading, some not. Now there will be two people in each village with new skills and confidence to make that happen. We expect the reading rooms will develop differently in each village, based on the needs and interest level of the people who live there, and the skills and personality of the volunteers who run it. Our goal is to give them some new ideas, experiences, and inspiration, on which to build.
Would you like to help? We now have more than 150 books for village reading rooms. They include traditional folktales, original new stories, books about science and nature, and books about health and sanitation that improve peoples lives.
When we only had 30 books, 150 seemed like it would be a lot. It's not. Villages are eagerly asking for more. But each book is possible only through the generosity of a sponsor. Please consider helping us get make more books available, by looking at our list of books that need a sponsor. Thank you!