Why Granville?

This question is always posed when I tell folks about the literacy/arts education project I’m currently working on in Jamaica.

Why not, is my usual response.

But the questions don’t usually end there: well, why didn’t you do it in Kingston?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Why does everything have to be in Kingston, is what I want to know.

Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says Kingston should be the center of attention?

To say that resources are unfairly and unequally distributed across the country is an understatement.   And the more I get this question, as if St. James is in another country – and in some ways, it is –  the more convinced I am that I made the right decision to begin somewhere else besides Kingston.

In reality, the more that I talked to people in my home district of Granville, St. James, the more apparent it became that I had the perfect location to begin with, with lower startup costs.  For starters, I know Montego Bay and the district sufficiently to find my way around.   My love of reading had also begun and been nurtured there.   Certainly, it has been through regular visits that I first became cognizant of how, under the guise of ‘development’, institutions and resources were being redistributed within the country and western region in a way that imposed more suffering on working class people.

For me, the most palpable reminder of the deepening crisis and the neglect of communities was the closure of the Granville Branch Library in the 1980s.   I had a personal relationship with that place.  Frankly, I still do not understand how someone could allow a library to be closed.  How could one possibly justify this?  Well, I did ask.   The explanation that I got from someone in Kingston – the folks who I spoke to in the St. James Parish Library didn’t even know there had ever been a library in Granville! – was that the building was being sold, and they didn’t have anywhere else to ‘put’ the library.   The woman told me this in the same tone of voice that she might have used to tell me the cost of a photocopy.   I got the sense that this decision wasn’t a really big deal at all, then or now.

The space occupied by the library was taken up by a supermarket; this was supermarket No. 2 on that same small plaza that was occupied by the post office, a snack shop, a variety store that sold clothing, toiletries, etc. and a small grocery store.   The new one called itself a ‘wholesale’ supermarket and was owned by one of the Fisher’s.  They have since sold it to a Chinese family (indeed, all the locally owned supermarkets have since been sold to Chinese families).


How to begin?

After a trip to Granville in December 2010 to float the idea of doing some kind of reading programme at the Granville All-Age School, I participated in some rather intense conversations in a FB group called “Professional Jamaicans for Jamaica” (I’ve since been kicked out of the group for ideological differences with the organiser; no surprise there).  While mulling over the various positions that other participants were talking, it seemed to me that the Jamaican government’s lopsided approach to addressing illiteracy was part of the problem.  That recognition pushed me to commit to doing something more long-term and focused on an issue that I care very deeply about.

To me, it seemed as if the best way to respond to the problem of illiteracy was to go to the root of the problem.   And the problem didn’t begin in schools, although that’s where the majority of effort – money, time, resources, debate – was being spent.   Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means.  It just doesn’t make sense to me that a single entity – the Ministry of Education – with its heavy reliance on autocratic styles of leadership and hostile relationship to teachers, parents and children alike – should be allowed to declare the issue as its territory.  Furthermore, none of the policies enacted thus far suggest that the MoE has any clue about how to solve the problem!

Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means: a child, a book, consistent individualized attention by an adult.

Where is home & community in the mix?

All the research on literacy, intellectual and cognitive development among children points to the same causal factor: illiteracy begins at home and in community.

One could say that illiteracy is the parents’ fault, but the mechanisms are not so straightforward.   One main problem that I see is the restrictive social structure parents have to navigate, and which determine who has authority over whom, and who gets to decide one’s value.  In this setup, parents are presumed to have nothing else to teach their children but moral values, including the age-old “education is the key to success.”   What parents are being blamed for is not providing the ‘right’ orientation to education that would make children easier to teach, and where children would immediately ‘want to learn’.   As such, there is far less attention and resources given to the role that parents need to play, and which is closer to what the teachers imagine is purely in their purview: that of introducing the child to the written word from birth.   It’s not rocket science: find a way to engage the parents, and you can accomplish a lot more.

It’s been all about the schools, but shouldn’t be…

Instead, well-funded and well-intended projects and initiatives focus in on the schools because that’s where the children are.   But they are also giving more resources and responsibility to teachers who already have shown they don’t have the skills to do literacy work in the first place!  Teachers don’t just need more resources; they also need to be retrained, and that can’t happen in a 3- hour session.   As we like to say, wha’ gawn bad a mawnin’ kyaa cum gud a even’n.

So, the blame game about illiteracy continues, becomes quite intense at and hovers around the Grade 3 and 4 children like a cloud of toxic smoke.  Their parents are accused of never having supervised homework adequately, or at all, and foregoing the purchase of textbooks in favour of the latest hairstyle or fashion accessory.   Apparently, just having the textbooks means that one can actually read what’s in it.  There’s usually a throwaway observation that the parents are probably illiterate too, but not much in the way of policy recommendations for how to fix this.  One would think JFLL would have developed some kind of intervention around parents by now.  That hasn’t happened either.

Even the ones who ought to be able to claim expertise on children’s reading skills  – teachers – haven’t spent any time articulating what parents need to do at home well before the children reach Grade 3!    Count them – there are far more newspaper articles that go on about the stressors that teachers face – chaotic and overcrowded classrooms, few resources, low pay and esteem, lack of professional development – and the depressed conditions that children live in – insufficient love, care and support by parents, including absent fathers (this is a favorite!) are the top ones.   Not once do they point to the most basic issue of all:   The children have not grown up with books!   They encounter the books when they go to school, interact with them as required tools of education and testing.  Once they leave the classroom, the books are no longer relevant, and are certainly not ones they would voluntarily pick up to read.   The problem is and remains the lack of unmediated access to books.

So, with all the chatter and blaming of parents for not paying enough attention to the children’s homework, or having the right values that would make their children easier to handle in the classroom, a key piece of information was still being overlooked.   Where are children going to get the material to read?  They still don’t have access to quality reading material.

Where’s the Jamaica Library Service in the race to literacy, you ask?  Certainly, not where it ought to be, which is taking leadership on the issue.  What other institution ought to know best about getting books into the hands of children? And yet, that’s not what obtains.   Indeed, the majority of the buzz about libraries is coming from folks who are stepping into the gap and creating independent libraries and reading rooms!

Over the last year, whenever I visited Granville, I performed my Labour of Love routine there too, walking the streets, handing out puzzles and reading material to adults, who devoured them.  I also gave books to and read with children, as well as explained to adults that they need to read with their kids for 20 minutes a day.   Mostly, I got a lot of “yes ma’ams” to shut me up; I don’t think they realised that I would be coming back.   Walking the streets  made me pay much closer attention to what was going on.

The reading gap is very evident in Granville.   We already know there’s no library.  At the school level, the children’s test scores on reading and comprehension are abysmal.   Once they leave the school compound, there is practically nothing to read in the community.   Even the number of newspaper vendors have been drastically reduced, compared to when I lived there as a child and adolescent.

I rarely, if ever, saw someone reading as much as a flyer.  Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, ironically, are the only source of free reading material in low-income communities where I’ve been, were sitting in the shade of an abandoned shop, far enough away from any foot traffic that would have allowed someone to quickly grab a magazine or two.

There weren’t even the usual plethora of painted or printed advertisements for upcoming dances (I notice that vehicles are being used as billboards now).   The place was a desert, when it came to the printed word.

Nobody I talked to could remember the last time the book mobile from the St. James Parish Library came by.  It turns out that it doesn’t come to Granville.  The librarian I talked to told me she didn’t know but then acted like she did:  “the library that used to be there was closed which shows it wasn’t being used it doesn’t make sense for the mobile unit to go there/the book mobile only goes to rural areas/Granville is in ‘town’ so it’s close (but Tucker is not?)”   Look here.

She did tell me that I could write a letter requesting that the mobile unit go to Granville; I think I will do just that.

To me, if children aren’t reading in school, it’s because they aren’t reading at home either.  And if they aren’t reading at home, that’s because adults around them aren’t reading at home, and they don’t have ready access to books.  No library in the community sure doesn’t help that situation.

The solution seemed simple:  turn communities into literacy centers.

Create a reading room and a community-based program that is open and available to children who live in the district.

Give books to babies and young children in the clinics.  Create free summer programs so the children can attend.

Create newsletters, public art projects, book kiosks, etc. that are freely accessible and always available.

Basically, make it impossible for children to go through reading withdrawal once they leave the school grounds, wherever it is they go to school.

Make it difficult for adults to spend most of their time sitting down and staring into space with nothing to do.   If you notice, there’s a lot of this “doing nothing” activity in Granville, as in other places in Jamaica.  In fact, the overwhelming feeling in the towns is of adults – mostly men it seems – sitting around and waiting for something to happen to them.   I figure something worse than reading could happen, so why not offer them the choice to read?

None of these ideas are new.  I certainly didn’t come up with them; they exist in some material form everywhere that people care about literacy.

But, demonstrating an intentional approach to creating alternative institutions that supplement the [failing] school-based approach?  Way bigger and harder and more challenging to pull off.   Of course.  Why wouldn’t it be? The love is in the labour.

And so, I went at it.  Hours and hours and hours of research and writing as I tried to craft an outline of this programme that captured my vision and philosophy of education, taking account of how parents and families can be integrated into and transformed by this community-based process.  A whole lot of work.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard on anything else – not even my dissertation – as I have on bringing this idea to fruition, in its most basic state.   Along the way of course, it hit me.   I think this is IT!  This project contains and offers possibilities of engendering the kind of social transformation that I only dared to dream about in graduate seminars on social theory and social change.   Haven’t I been saying and teaching university students that interdisciplinarity is at the heart of every movement for liberation?  All the research and anecdotal evidence points towards arts education as a critical and necessary tool for addressing the deficits in literacy and critical thinking that mar public education.

So, why not try this in Jamaica? What does anybody, including me, have to lose?  And what is this opportunity except the perfect moment to meld everything I’ve ever learned and experienced about education as a praxis of freedom?

And that is how the Granville Reading & Art Programme came to be.

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