Literacy charities play it by the book

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am

A five-year-old boy stares at a brightly-coloured comic book, engrossed to the point where he is all but oblivious to the world around him.

It may be a scene that is repeated in libraries and reading corners across the globe, but for this Primary One student in a rural school in southwestern Shaanxi province, it is a new experience.

Older pupils surround the boy as he sits reading at a rickety desk, unpacking and sorting stacks of books donated by the Hong Kong-based China Literacy Foundation.

The gift is part of a pilot project the foundation has initiated to boost literacy levels and promote the joy of reading in some of the mainland's most underprivileged regions.

'Of course we had books before,' said principal Cai Huaibiao. 'But the students are not interested in them. They are too old - from the last century, from the 1970s and '80s. We have no money to buy books on our own, so almost all the ones we have are textbooks. There is only so much learning you can get from textbooks. The rest comes from other types of books.'

On the face of it, Ganheba Primary School is not doing as badly as many in less-developed regions.

It sits at the foot of a relatively fertile valley, where last year a new tarmac road was built to replace the dirt track which served the community. The school's facilities are basic but clean and in good condition - an American educational foundation last year rebuilt some of its buildings and paid for other renovation work. Other donations have provided televisions and DVD players in most of its five classrooms.

'Some charities have been very good to us,' Mr Cai said, adding that the school also had a computer. 'But I don't really know how to use it.'

However, the library was seriously limited - books stored in a small, dingy room, piled up on dusty shelves and mildewed.

'The students did not use the library much,' Mr Cai said.

There is more to the library gift than books and literacy. The package also contained donations of board games such as Chinese checkers and sports equipment including basketballs, table-tennis bats and balls, and badminton rackets and shuttlecocks. And there were DVDs of classic cartoons, films for the older students, and teaching materials for the staff plus dozens of calligraphy brushes.

As the packages were opened, the students began poring hungrily over the brightly coloured new books, and the playground is filled with the excited whoops and yells that accompany friendly ball games.

The foundation aims to produce a sustainable model for its support project. At each school, a group of university students on scholarships from the charity, spend a week setting up the new library and organising activities for the pupils.

Most primary teachers in rural schools - particularly in the less-developed regions - have had only minimal teacher training, if any.

'On this trip, I have found the principal's attitude is the most important factor,' said Simon Kwok Leung-cheung, a volunteer overseeing the China Literacy Foundation project. 'Most of them are quite passive, so it is hard to know how much of a lasting effect our visit will have.

'When you have a pro-active principal it makes all the difference. One in particular had an excellent approach. As soon as we arrived, he wanted to discuss with us what the aims of the visit were and how he could get the most out of it. He compared our books with ones the school already had and then discussed how they could be used. He really embraced the idea of change and made it his own - and by his example his teachers also got very involved.

'Conversely, if we simply come and give the students a week of fun but then everything stays the same when we leave, then it is not very meaningful.'

And rather than provide the school with a ready-made library, he said it was important the whole school played a part in setting it up, making decisions on how it should be arranged. 'That way it gives them ownership,' he said.

Two of the foundation's student volunteers spent nearly three days teaching students how to catalogue the collection.

'I found that they really don't have much reading experience,' said Shi Huahua, one of the university students. 'They don't even know how to separate the books into fact and fiction.'

With a little coaching along the way, several hundred sticky labels had been filled out and attached to the spines of assorted picture books, children's novels and reference books, and the collection was ready to move into its new home. One classroom had been set aside to house the library, with four large study desks set in the centre.

'We want it to be more inviting to the students, so they need more space,' Mr Cai said.

Those efforts seemed to be appreciated by the pupils.

'This is so much better than the old library,' said Primary Five student, Li Rui.

China Literacy Foundation is far from the only local charity working to promote literacy in dusty, disadvantaged remote regions all over the mainland.

This summer, more than a dozen such groups met in Hong Kong at a conference organised by the Chen Yet-sen Family Foundation aimed at sharing best practice.

Yang Liansheng, deputy education commissioner for Dehong County in Yunnan province, which has been receiving assistance from the Chen foundation, said improving school libraries was not just a simple matter of buying more books. 'The first question we need to consider is this: do our schools have any books in their libraries? The answer is always a definite yes,' Mr Yang said. 'But the second question is why don't the students read the books that you have? The first reason is that the books are old and the students don't like them. But the second point is that the children have never developed a reading habit.'

Mr Yang said the human factor was as important as providing the right books.

'Previously, the librarian's most important job was to look after the key. We need to change that mentality to think about how best to get students interested in reading.'

Associate professor James Henri and lecturer Peter Warning, both from the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Education's Division of Information and Technology Studies, who have been conducting an impact assessment study for the Chen foundation over the past 10 months, said organisations needed to be careful in choosing partners and what projects to support.

'There is an almost infinite number of causes for them to support,' said Mr Warning. 'You could go into almost any village in China and find someone who is worthy of help.'

However, the two academics said that with limited resources, organisations needed to draw up a checklist that meant they supported only projects which matched their own areas of specialisation.

'Foundations go into business because they can see there is a need, but they don't necessarily have a lot of experience,' Dr Henri said. 'They also need to learn how to say 'no'.'

Those were precisely the tough choices faced by China Literacy's volunteers in Ganheba village.

Poverty levels remain high in the valley. Even though the local government has been using Ganheba to pilot a series of schemes to reduce poverty since the late 1990s, most families exist just above subsistence farming.

Mr Cai said the average farming family made only 500 yuan to 600 yuan a year, inducing large numbers to seek work in the cities. Migrant workers often came back after a year with savings of 4,000 to 5,000 yuan.

As a result, about 70 to 80 per cent of the school's 150 pupils came from a home where at least one parent was a migrant worker, he said. About one in four was being raised by their extended family as both parents had left to seek work in the cities.

Chen Fang, one of the student volunteers, found the situation difficult to bear.

'Some of their home lives, the conditions are appalling,' she said. 'We visited one student, Li Dong, who lives alone with his grandmother and she was not really able to look after him properly. His clothes hadn't been washed in a very long time, and he desperately needed new bedclothes.'

But although her initial response was to plan ways to donate clothing and other essentials, the group decided to focus their efforts on their main goal of setting up the library.

'I think we need to think carefully about what we can actually achieve on this visit,' said her teammate Xie Wenpei. 'We want this to be the beginning of a longer relationship, so we will still come back and give more assistance.'