Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

Year 4 of Summer Arts Workshop

I really felt more hopeful this year. Even though some of the same obstacles were in place, I felt a bit more familiar with the terrain – the political bullshit, the posturing and petty misuse of power among the educated/jobbed/credentialed ones, the wisdom and the terror involved when things are moving slowly, the helpfulness of ordinary people, the moments of “yes! this is why we do this!” that keep us going.

Jakki and I, we got this.

Major problem — finding a suitable place for the program

The community center was not going to work for this year.
More to the point, staff – instructors, volunteers – refused to return there.  And I can’t say that I blame them.

I wasn’t there for the entire six weeks, but they had a lot of stories to share as we wrapped up last year.  They weren’t pretty.

For me, the complaints about and the subsequent removal of the furniture last year sent one helluva statement about what people think is ok to do to children simply because they are poor and their parents don’t have economic clout (center staff said the chairs and tables were removed unintentionally; GRAP did not press them to return what they didn’t want to share; instead, the children worked on the floor for 4 weeks of the program.  Yes.  I said, the floor.)

Just try to imagine that being done to children in Ironshore, or Coral Gardens, or Mango Walk. Nope.

Requests made to churches have mostly been met by lack of response over the years.

One church flatly refused to even entertain the request: children are going to dirty up the place, one church leader said. In his mind – and what he shared at length – the community’s children are uncontrollable, they are “bad”, little more than sources of blight and blemish, and should be scorned, kept away from the pristine space that is his church.

Ironically, that’s the same sentiment expressed in 2013 by the representative from the Parish Council who also oversees the community center.  When I met with him and the community group to discuss the policies concerning fair use of the center, he talked about the importance of keeping the place “sterile”.  Folks seem to be really hung up on the issue of cleaning: they don’t want to spend time cleaning the space, and when people use it, it gets dirty.  So, to achieve that sterility, children need to be kept outside and away from the very resources that are put there for them.

So here’s another example of how public space is treated like it’s the private domain of those who are in charge.  It’s the same way that many people behave around their private homes: once it is cleaned, children are put outside or told to stay away or in designated places so as not to “dirty up the place”.  Children as contaminants.  There’s a theme here.

Another church leader told me, in a tone of voice that I find it difficult to describe, that I should take my request to the church that I used to attend.  Apparently, the proposal was so preposterous that the only place that was bound to entertain it was one that would be more forgiving of me – kind of like how your mother will put up with your blemishes in a way that nobody else will? I did do as she directed though.

That pastor told me that the church was used for one week in August to hold Vacation Bible School.  To him, that singular event nullified any possibility of the program using the space for the other five.

Another told me, equally bluntly, that the community people don’t know how to behave and treat the property with respect, so they are not allowed to hold any events there.  Apparently, the group did not have a plan in place for cleaning up the garbage and debris after use.

On one hand, yes, I can understand being pissed off when people mistreat your space.

But, on the other hand, the blatant willingness to discriminate against the children and deny them access is something that requires a different response.   There is this presumption that all community people, and thus this program because it serves the community, are incompetent when it comes to managing children, and again, preventing dirt and damage.

There’s definitely something to the laissez-faire and class-specific way that children are supervised in non-school events.  Chaos ensues, and not even the organized form.  Children are ignored, then yelled at, then punished.  It’s almost as if adults don’t know how to deal with children when they are *not* in uniform.  Once they are out of uniform, the adults are afraid of them (I’ve heard people say as much even though I’m being very tentative), or don’t know how to provide the appropriate guidelines for how they need the children to behave in these settings.  I’ve certainly seen this disposition at work in previous years in this program.

So, it seems like GRAP now has to prove that we can manage the community’s children in a way that is satisfactory to those who think they are uncontrollable and hell-bent on destroying everything in their path.

Where else? Sam Sharpe Teachers College rejected the request for two years:  Already hosting a summer program they said.  No space they said.  This year’s strategy: ask someone who’s higher in the social hierarchy to ask them to help find a space.  That didn’t work either.

One of the basic schools in the community.  None were open to the idea, although one did make me write a letter posthaste, but then the letter somehow never made it to the person who would decide.  And yet, the performance around directing us to write a letter was also interesting.  I started to wonder if the contents of the letter were as important as the letter itself.   I”m learning that email is a funny thing among Jamaicans who don’t depend on it for work.   Between intermittent access to internet, and a general nonchalance about using technology, communication is really still person-to-person, very much in Granville, but also in St. James.

The other thing I learned early: don’t ever leave a voicemail message, just keep calling.  Nobody leaves them either.  They also expect you to notice and return “missed calls”.

Fairfield Theatre – ideal setting but too far for the children to get to everyday, especially the younger ones.  Perfect for weekend and occasional programs as well as for a field trip though.

Granville All-Age School.  We were really reluctant about this option for obvious reasons:  if the whole point of doing the summer program is to create new learning spaces in the community, then going to the school reinforces what people already think: only schools should be doing education.   That’s exactly the message that GRAP doesn’t want to send.

But, that’s where the program ended up, after messy and muddled negotiations – calls that were never made, letters never delivered, keys not available, contracts not prepared – that caused the program to be delayed by two days.

To be honest, the condition of the space was in a word, horrible.  In some ways, it was worse than the community center.  We were assigned to what felt like a storage shed  that was dirty, filled with old and decrepit furniture, had a leaking roof and was infested with wasps.

This was the auditorium, the principal said.  The teachers don’t want their classrooms to be used, the principal said.

We did transform the shed into a learning space, but couldn’t keep the water out.  No amount of cleaning, mopping and dressing up the space could hide the cracked floors, termite-eaten desks, broken windows, water stains on the walls.  Then there were the broken toilets and pipes. The staff tried to ignore all of it.  I think they did a valiant job.  Parents noticed the squalid conditions too.  And they commented.  What they saw told them a lot.  The place that is made available to the program says something about the value being placed on the program by others. I agree.

And so, parents, donors, passersby decided that the school was having a summer program.  Not so.  But spending energy to counter that impression wasn’t a priority.  Who knows what could come of that unintended association?  So we let it slide.

I do hope there is an upside to the summer program being held at the school.  It certainly brought a new kind of visibility to the conditions under which the community’s children are being educated.  So maybe one of those groups will return to fix up the place and make it habitable for children?  Not just prettifying by painting and cleaning up the yard.  Replacing the roof, windows and doors, making the place seem like something for human beings, makes more sense.   It also raised the question of why the school has not been providing a summer learning experience for children, and whether it wants to consider doing so.  The entire community benefits in a way that only produces good feelings all around.

We will see how these issues unfold in the months to come.

In the meantime, we are thinking that we are at the end of the road, where spaces in the community are concerned.  The idea that we have to beg people to open up spaces to educate children is a little surreal, but that’s what it has been.   it’s now time to build a learning centre!

All we need to begin:  two shipping containers and a piece of land.   The money will come.

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Year 3 of Summer Arts Workshop

July 8, 2013

Image

It’s amazing what a picture can do, what hope it can inspire, and what questions it can provoke.

Let me tell you what you are seeing:

** This is the first day of the third year of Summer Arts Workshop, a summer program held in Granville, St. James.
** We are at the Granville Community Centre (later renamed Granville Restorative Justice Centre), located on the border of Granville and Pitfour.
** There are 70-odd children in this room; they signed up when we only had capacity for 45-50 people; Jakki Strong-Rhoden, the coordinator, could not turn them away.
** There are six interns from the National Youth Service’s Summer Programme; two instructors who are students at Sam Sharpe Teachers College; a handful of volunteers
** We are doing introductions, just before we launch into the song “If I had a hammer”

July 21, 2013

What you cannot see:
* The excitement in the faces of the interns as we met at the Youth Information Centre on Humber Avenue, and the range of emotions that they experienced: awe, bemusement, confusion, annoyance, joy, contemplation as they worked with the participants over six weeks and saw the challenges that the program itself faced to merely exist.
* The patience of the instructors mapping out lesson plans, learning new techniques, talking and sitting with participants to keep them from fighting, cheering on the staff when spirits were low
* The sweat washing the body of the father of one of the interns as he pushed his wheelchair-bound son up the rocky path to get to the center, everyday, on time, in the hot sun.
* The frustration as Jakki and/or I repeatedly try to convey to the center’s staff our need to be able to inhabit the space in a way that fosters a sense of safety for the children and respect for the process of learning. “No” to yelling at, insulting and mistreating the children; “Yes” to modeling for the children how we want them to behave and relate to each other;  “Yes” to being able to use the bathroom inside; “No” to chasing the children out of the center facilities
* The worrying about finding enough money to feed the children each day
* The generosity in the gifts from parents, community members, visiting writers and storytellers who came to affirm the importance of the program
* The righteous anger at the disrespect meted out to the program each day by the center’s staff who treated the participants and staff as if they were trespassing on private property
* The disappointment as a child lapses into a violent tirade that we had worked so hard to prevent
* The exhaustion on the part of the Ministry of Youth administrator who packed all the interns into her car and brought them to the center every morning and picked them up every evening.
*The stoicism and wry looks as program staff navigated around the obstacles while providing a rich learning experience for the participants
* The curiosity, gratitude and appreciation on the faces of the parents who came to see their children’s work
*The love, the love, the love that moved every person to come every day, despite many reasons why they could have stayed home: a less than desirable location, transportation issues, children with lots of emotional needs and not enough time to address them, difficult work environment.

August 16, 2013
55 children completed the program; that is, they attended at least 75 percent of the time.
The staff is exhausted.
The children don’t want the program to end.
The parents wanted to know if this happens every year, and why it can’t happen throughout the year.

SAW 2013 happened because we cared enough to make it happen.

Let’s see where our energies take us in the next year.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Pt. 1

 Girl reading “Running the Road to ABC” in Mother’s on Half-Way-Tree while her mother provided Suduko instruction (below).  The book is by Haitian poet Denize Lauture, and features six Haitian children making their way to school (Aug 25 2010).

Since I returned from doing my Labor of Love project in Jamaica in August 2010, I’d been mulling over how to expand my mobile literacy project.   Originally, I had decided to focus on Kingston – I had begun the work there, and made a lot of contacts with artists and community organisations; I even had my eye on a building at 61-63 Orange Street.  It turns out that the building, decrepit and dirty though it is, will not become mine anytime soon.  According to the owner, Abraham Joseph, there’s no way he’s going to rent or lease it to me; as he put it quite succinctly “Listen to me – I’m not a generous person; I don’t care about helping people; the only think I care about is making a profit.”

Suduko expert gives quick tutorial to fellow customer at Mother's, Half-Way-Tree (August 25, 2010)

At the outset, I decided that this year would be the pilot phase, when I would assemble as many of the programme’s components as possible, put the whole thing in motion, and then take careful notes on how everything flowed.   I was aware that I didn’t have everything I needed, money for one thing.   In this experimental phase, the actual results didn’t matter as much as getting an understanding about how the different pieces – environment, resources, people, politics, etc. – interacted and worked together, or not.  From there, I could figure out what I would need to tweak in the subsequent years to get the results I wanted.

Jan – March 2011 – write proposal

March 2011 – visit Granville; meet with community folks & potential sponsors; investigate sites; spread the word about the programme

April – May 2011 – send out letters of inquiry; applications for monies

May – June 2011 – drives for books and art supplies; more fundraising; ship 4 barrels of books, art supplies, puzzles, games, etc. to Granville; line up accommodation, transportation, publicity, volunteers, co-instructor, storage

July 10, 2011 – arrive in Jamaica with seven pieces of luggage (yes, excess fees galore) after missing flight twice

July 11, 2011 –  The adventure begins with posturing by one gov’t agency that claims to “run” the community centre where I was scheduled to do the pilot programme!

July 11-15, 2011 – Did outreach within the district, talked with parents, shopkeepers, taxidrivers, JP’s, tradespeople, children, folks who I knew since I was a child, etc.  I met some awesome people – really ordinary and very smart – they got the link between arts & community development without me even saying much!  I bet people usually write them off as ‘mad’.   I also met a few naysayers who didn’t like the location of the programme, didn’t believe that any children would come, or that anybody would support it.  I did challenge them on their negative perceptions and what they chose to see as obstacles.  Issue of violence raised several times.  Definitely more conversations to be had.

July 15, 2011 – Registration begins.  Parents & children showed up. So did four volunteers!!

One parent came ready to fight somebody – she had heard that the person had told somebody something and somebody else overhead and told her daughter who told her – it went just like that – a preview of things to come?

Number was supposed to be capped at 30; registered 45 children.  I couldn’t turn the pre-schoolers (5 years old) away.  This was my chance to hook them into reading and I wasn’t going to give it up.

My other major task was to go in search of a certain school administrator who has been missing in action since June; he was in charge of clearing the barrels from the wharf, but had not responded to any calls, email, text or personal messages I’d sent to him. Nor had he gone to get the waiver from the Ministry of Education to clear the items.   I was on a mission to get these barrels cleared.  I called the school and found out that he was there at that moment.  I showed up, re-wrote the letter requesting the waiver, handed it to him to have him sign it (I also provided the pen), and then took it to the MoE’s regional office.
A bit of gumption rescued me from the stonewalling of the administrative assistant.  When I gave her the letter, she told me that I needed to fax more information to her before she would pass it on to be signed by the Regional Officer.  And that wasn’t going to happen for at least another day.  But I wanted to talk to him directly;  she informed me that he was ” not available at the moment.”  Right then, guess who walks out of his office? Naturally, I pounced.  And that was that for the waiver.

July 16, 2011 – Had to get on an early morning bus (Knutsford Express) to go to Kingston to pick up food from Food for the Poor location in Spanish Town.  Noone could explain why I couldn’t retrieve the order at the Montego Bay location.   I should have known this was going to take all day: I let somebody from a Jamaican agency insist that “all you have to do is come before twelve o’ clock, and just come to the gate and the security will call to go in and pick up what you ordered; no man, you don’t have to wait, you just tell the security the name of the agency and they will direct you”.  And I fell for it.  Wayne, a friend who volunteered to drive another friend’s pickup got me at the KE depot and we went directly to the Spanish Town location; got there before 10 am.  We joined the We did not drive out of there until after 3 PM.  That meant I did not have enough time to get back to Cherry Gardens, put up the stuff and then back to New Kingston to get on KE.   Instead, I found my way down to the bus park by Darling Street end of Coronation Market and got on a Coaster.  It was fine; in hindsight, the ride was just as (un)comfortable as the KE, so guess what I’ll be using to travel between Mobay and Kgn from now on, at 1/3 of the price?  Yep.

July 17, 2011 – first thing to tackle: install a bookshelf for the books.  Esther joins me in MoBay and we go shopping for plywood (it took five people  to sell me two sheets of construction plywood!) and rope (far cheaper in the store ironically named Efficient Hardware where it was sold by the pound, than in hoity-toity True Value where it was six times more expensive!).  Found someone to drill the hole in the ceiling and install the hooks.   Then four (volunteers Chris and Marcia, Esther and myself) of us strung, knotted and hung the shelves, somewhat haphazardly, into place.  The books didn’t actually arrive until Wednesday, since I was hit with a dose of passive-aggressiveness on the part of a certain school administrator.

Bookshelves in the designated library installed by Christopher (volunteer), Esther and I. (Photo by Nikolai Samuels, Aug. 12, 2011)

July 18 – August 12, 2011 – Granville Reading & Art Programme Lite.
What was I thinking?

This question passed my lips in whispers several times over the four-week period as I tried to keep the kids from killing each other (literally!); dealt with electricity outages, water lockoffs, sugar shortage, running out of toilet paper and soap; figured out how to feed the kids each day (the goods did not make it from Kingston to Mobay for another 3 weeks!) while not freaking out about how much money I was sucking out of my own checking account; did impromptu lessons to convey basic math & reasoning skills that children should already have learned in school; created ad hoc ‘behavior management plans’ for the particularly disruptive kids;  managed volunteers who needed to be told what to do & how to do it on practically every task that mattered; managed parents who didn’t know that they were supposed to behave like adults; intervened in abusive situations in the homes of individual children, all the while trying to get a good night’s sleep in order to be able to navigate the daily trip back and forth between Mt. Salem and Granville, to start all over again the next day.

All that said, within the chaos, things actually got done.  We even managed to have some fun.

More on Andrew Holness’s proposal for teaching English in Jamaican schools

This was written to respond to someone (and the many someones ) who claim that it is “romantic” to argue that Patwa should not be replaced by English, since the former does not help with Jamaica’s ‘competitiveness’ in the global economy.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

[His] comments are funny (and not in a ha-ha way) for how [he] vainly tried to disguise ideology with the same old neo-liberal hogwash about reason, competitiveness and what not. There’s no “reason” in [his]  comment, just defense of a system of thought that was never based on anything but a justification of the presumed superiority of all things European. Hence, the denigration of whatever the subaltern produced, no matter it’s ‘marketability’. What [he is] spouting is really an updated form of that ideology, you know, the one that says that speaking English is a marker of how civilized one is?

Our children don’t need to learn to read and write in English because of lofty macroeconomic claptrap. They need to learn because they are being excluded from membership in the society and are being denied the opportunity to make informed choices about how they want to live their lives.  Speaking English is not going to change the mega-exploitative tendencies of Jamaica’s ruling class (now called corporations) or guarantee people jobs with living wages.  It does guarantee that at least more people will have a chance to carve out alternatives within that structure, and that they will be able to figure out when they are being screwed and even be able to do something about it.

(I also think it really, really bothers English-only proponents that Jamaica’s major contributions to world culture have come through patwa and patwa-speakers. A bit of red-yeye *and* embarrassment, I think)

Teaching English with the assumption that children speak “broken” versions of such, is *not the same as* Teaching English with the assumption that children already have a different language structure in place. In the first instance, you spend a lot of time “correcting” rather than instructing, a technique which denigrates patwa as non-language, as essentially wrong in all facets, and not worth speaking except by the ones who were not lucky enough to be “corrected”.  Now, where have we heard and seen this strategy in use before?  Hmmm, just in most of the world where those Europeans who had claimed the right to dictate the cultural and political climate decided that their particular way of speaking was best.  And indigenous peoples around the world are still paying for those decisions.

In the second instance, you actually get improvement in command of both languages. (Oh drat, that’s not what the English-only folks want – it’s English or nothing.) To use [his]  example, the best way to teach Spanish to a Portuguese kid is to recognise that there is *both* overlap and divergence between the languages, and that the patterns in errors that the child may make is due to the child having prior knowledge of and facility in another language.   If you don’t know, or fail to point out that yo and eu do mean the same thing and are used in the same way, but are spelled and pronounced differently, then the child cannot appreciate that in many instances, s/he will be able to figure out the Portuguese equivalent (see that word?) to a term they already know in Spanish, or that you can say the same thing in different ways, depending on the language you are using.

As an aside: I totally blame people like Carolyn Cooper for unleashing the most heinous transliterations of patwa onto the public, as if they were ever accurate translations; that effort has only allowed the English-only folks to maintain their position that patwa is really broken English that can be ‘fixed up’ so respectable people can understand.

So, don’t even try that “all AH really wants is for Jamaican children to know English” line.  There are few who will miss how his personal prejudices taint an otherwise reasonable (yes, [his] word) and necessary step to improving children’s academic achievement.
Furthermore, if he had bothered to read the volumes of research written in ENGLISH, he would have noticed that one can teach a language with sensitivity and with excellent results.

And by the way, there is actually a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish – it’s called Portanol – that is spoken wherever Portuguese-speaking and Spanish-speaking people regularly interact with each other. And no matter which is the primary language, people who speaks it knows the difference between the three, and can switch from one to the other. But being educated in the fullest sense is not what is desired is it?  No, it’s indoctrination about the superiority of English. I’m sure that you don’t think the subtext of those hundreds of English language institutes that are popping up in Japan and China is that their indigenous language is cluttering up the airwaves, and is inferior to English? Nope, it’s about having another tool in the toolkit.

But somehow, the colonialist mentality has never left Jamaica. Too many of us not only want to fling wheh the existing tools – dem too ol an tan bad, dem nuh look modern – but wouldn’t mind ef di govament nuh jus’ fling whe’h di toolbox dem a dungle heap tuh.

Andrew Holness’s commentary on language use in school

Dear Mr. Holness:

I read your commentary in today’s Observer, and while I will comment
in a more public fashion later, I thought it more appropriate to
respond to you directly at this time.

For far too long, public policy in Jamaica has been crafted in a silo
– one defined by political allegiance and expediency, and completely
separate from (as well as contrary to) the mountains of relevant
research and scholarship that exists on a given topic.  The government’s lack of coherent policy on how to treat Patwa and English in the formal school system is a casualty of that silo approach.

Jamaica is neither special nor unique as a post-colonial society
possessing both an indigenous language and a formal, inherited language.  Nor is this country unique in treating the indigenous language as inferior to the inherited language.  What is different (and quite troubling) about the Jamaican context is the absence of reasoned discussion and focused understanding among policymakers about what issues are at stake, how the issues overlap, and concern about the unintended effects of any policy on the population in the short and long term.  No topic can be meaningfully understood by casting it in polarized terms.  A debate requires multiple points of view, not simply the ones that are loudest or best mesh with political agendas.  This silo approach to public policy is simply unacceptable and, as we have experienced for decades, detrimental to the social health of the society.

In my view, your comments reflect the problems created by such an approach.

It may be in vogue to claim that Jamaica needs to get its people ready to participate in the information age and become “key players” in the “global economy”, etc. etc.  However, the country already does that.  What is being asked – indirectly – is for all institutional systems to work together to improve that performance, and to expand how (and which?) Jamaicans participate.  What is also being presumed, but not made clear, is that better facility in English expands such participation, and to what end.  And yet, you have not presented any evidence to support this point of view; nobody has, to date.  As [outgoing] Minister of Education, it would behoove you to make this argument crystal clear, providing whatever systematic evidence that exists about how English will improve Jamaicans’ economic and social standing.

It’s not enough to say that “English is a universal language.”  It could be argued that Jamaica does not observe other “universal” conventions, so what makes this situation different?  Indeed, is it true that we don’t speak it enough or adequately? Why should we speak it more than we currently do?  To me, good public policy is premised on being able to provide answers to the basic questions, rather than leave everyone guessing what those answers might be.

At this moment in the 21st century, there is also little value or sense in telling Jamaican youth that their future in a global environment rests [only?] on their ability to converse in the ‘universal’ tongue, English. The evidence simply doesn’t support that claim. To be “Jamaican” is already a distinct identity in the global marketplace, and one of those markers is that we possess a language of our own, Patwa, through which we convey what is unique to us.  It is a rather sorry state of affairs when Patwa speakers can be recognised as contributing to world culture but not to our own society. In case you weren’t aware, in a moment where hundreds of languages are dying every year, we have contributed a new one, and whose users grow every moment!

While I certainly agree that the quality of writing and speaking in mass media is paltry, that’s not about lack of respect for English (frankly, the warping/dancehall-izing of Patwa is just as bad), but about the generally low standard to which decision-makers hold and subject the population in all areas, from education to politics: appearance counts more than content.  Again, public opinion and impressions are not adequate bases for good public policy.

What you seem to be getting at, and which I do agree, is that not being able to speak, read and write English well does constrain the choices that individual Jamaicans do have and how much influence that one has over their lives. While facility in English does not remove all constraints, it is worthwhile to note that the limitations that youth may experience because of non-fluency in English are not created by the choices that they make.  Instead, those limitations are imposed by the kind of thinking that you are also guilty of, and which has already been embedded in the education system.

That is, there is no formal recognition that Patwa is a language, separate from English, and is not “broken English”. Those who come to school not speaking formal English are never taught to do so; they are dismissed as dunce, slow and backward, and treated accordingly. They are never given the tools they need to help them excel, and so leave school (often early)
feeling like they are not worthy members of the society.  In a similar vein, non-English speakers are treated with disdain in every quarter of the society except the ones where *only* Patwa speakers dwell.

It’s not a coincidence that those arenas are also the ones where you
won’t find well-stocked libraries, well-run schools, banks, effective
community organisations, etc. and where criminality and alternate
economies flourish.  So, it is indeed disingenuous for you to say that
you don’t “buy” the argument that non-recognition of Patwa in the
classroom is a form of marginalization, when the very working of the
institutions over which you are responsible is the touchstone of that
marginalization!

Unfortunately, your stance “It is not one or the other, we must be
able to speak English” is least supported by research-based
scholarship.  Perhaps you should have added “…as well”.  Jamaica is
a bilingual society; this is not about what one wishes or believes to
be true.  It simply is so.  Consequently, public policy on language
use in the classroom (and elsewhere) has to be crafted based on the
understanding of what that means for us, and what will work in the collective best interest of Jamaicans.  Cutting edge practices in
literacy and in Education today recognise that one cannot simply replace, ignore or wish away another language that already exists. Rather, one must figure out how to work with it to attain fluency in
another language.  This is a critical area of concern in your policy
recommendation, and which was never articulated clearly or addressed
properly in previous policy frameworks. For that reason, Jamaican
children have emerged from elementary education over the past two
decades as, at worst, illiterate in both languages and at best,
literate in one and completely ignorant of the other. And yet, this is
the precise area that will determine whether this new policy is
workable. I think everyone would appreciate some elaboration of how
you expect this to work, teachers included.

Getting Jamaican children fully fluent and literate in English does not lay in simply dictating that English be made the lingua franca of schools.  There has to be a process for making this so, one which takes note of the problematic way that Patwa is currently treated in schools i.e. as a non-language that is not being used to educate children in an adequate way.  In order for English language to become the formal language of school contexts, Patwa and English must first be treated as equal and complementary language systems. Administrators will have to communicate in the language.  Teachers will also have to treat Patwa as distinct from – not an inferior or broken form of – English, and be able to teach English as a language.

You must also deal with the systematic discrimination against people (including children) for not speaking English, including within the ministry’s jurisdiction.  In a context where value is attached to ability to
communicate in English, Patwa will retain its power as the language of
opposition, dissent and subversion.  How will this focus on English
affect how children (and staff) are treated when they don’t use English to respond to the authority figures? Does this expectation include non-teaching staff?

As you may be aware, the majority of teachers do not know how to
distinguish or move back and forth between English and Patwa except to
say “that’s wrong” or “speak properly” or to characterize Patwa as
“broken English”, as you did.  That approach is neither useful nor effective, pedagogically speaking.  Thus,  the teachers’ capacity to work with the languages must also change. In addition, you are essentially requiring teachers to use only English in schools, when you have no assurance that they even speak and write the language well enough to conduct instruction in it.  In fact, this may be an important moment to further distinguish between Jamaican English and textbook English; too many conflate these, as we see in the newspaper columns.

If your proposition is a backdoor strategy to delegitimizing Patwa, it will backfire quickly. Neither public opinion nor one’s biases about the problems of Patwa (and merits of English) are adequate or legitimate bases for making policy or taking public stances on this (or any!) issue. The language question is a sufficiently complex issue that requires you as incoming Prime Minister to step back from the fray, to tease out all (not just some) of the merits and drawbacks of the various approaches to a dual-language environment, and to present a careful, thoughtful, knowledgeable and pragmatic position to the public. Whether or not you like or approve of Patwa is irrelevant and ought not to figure *anywhere* in whatever decisions are made.  What should be done is what is best for the country, given what is known and understood.

I write this as an educator and as someone who is very invested in improving the capacity of every single Jamaican to be able to make
choices about their lives, including the ability to speak back to
power.  That is why I have been working to create a community-based
literacy programme that immerses children in reading and creative
activities in an English language environment.  I want children to know English because their social value and future possibilities are being determined by that language within a deeply unfair system.  I believe that they need to be given the tools they need in order to show what they are capable of, and to be able to choose how they express themselves over the course of their lives.  It’s why I tell parents to spend time talking to their children in English so that the link between what their children hear and speak and what they encounter in books, public airwaves, etc. is easier to forge.

But nowhere do I convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that it’s not
acceptable to speak in Patwa, that Patwa is somehow inferior to
English, or that if they do not speak English they won’t be able to get a job.  None of that would be true, and for obvious reasons. Indeed, I do correct parents when they restate my request as “telling the children to speak properly” – one can speak properly in Patwa as well!  The children also get to write and create in Patwa, and be able to read that back to themselves.  Myself and the other instructors teach them how both languages operate, so they are able to understand the differences and know how to use them.  Eventually, they will be able to tell when what they read or hear is “incorrect English”, separate and distinct from what is Patwa.
Knowing how to make that distinction is a form of cultural literacy. Unfortunately, this is not a form of literacy that is widely available or encouraged. Tellingly, your approach – English or else – does not support that form of literacy either; your comments certainly do not distinguish
between “broken English” and Patwa, nor do you seem to realize that in
a bilingual environment, a distinct form of communication emerges that
is a hybrid of the existing languages.

This is what silo thinking does: it blinds you to the complex
realities that do exist, and reduces those realities to dualisms that
are easy to swallow and to offer opinions about. Sadly, what Jamaicans
need more experience with is the ability to think in nuanced ways, and
to accept gray areas as legitimate spaces in which to work.  The
position that you have spelled out takes us a few steps backward in
that regard.  This issue calls for an attitude of respecting the
history and utility of each language form, and for making a case for
why English should be taught with more precision and attention in
schools than has been to date.  It is not necessary to create more
discord and to take potshots at Patwa in order to advance that
argument.

Your goal as chief policymaker ought to be to devise effective public
policy that reflects the cultural situation as well as creates a more
vibrant and inclusive society.  Such policy has to create better
outcomes than what went before, and needs to be useful to everyone
interested in promoting the social well-being of Jamaican citizens.  I
hope that you are able to meet that goal with regard to the language
issue and schooling in contemporary Jamaica.

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.

Where Is The Love?

unabridged version

Whether we realize it or not, making illiteracy a thing of the past will require far more than big speeches and grand declarations about the importance of knowing how to read.  It will take work.  The question is: are we ready to do what is necessary?

In August of this year, I created a project called “Labour of Love” in Kingston and Montego Bay.  Part street performance and part activism, I wanted to see what would happen if love – not charity, shame, punishment, guilt, obligation – was the driving force for engaging in intentional, and hopefully, transformative social action in Jamaica’s public spaces.  In ten days, I did a variety of activities: made sidewalk art, crafted wills, distributed reading material, gave away vegetable seeds, and did bra fittings.  And for half of that time, I worked with school-aged children on the sidewalks of downtown Kingston.  Armed with rubberstamps, crayons, pencils, markers, word and math games, and a plethora of worksheets, I tried to tailor each child’s activities to their abilities and interests.  Age was not a useful predictor of any ability, as I discovered.  A ‘class’ of 5 children quickly grew to a ‘school’ of over 20 children by the end of the week.

“School” as the children called our meetings, lasted from late morning or early afternoon until just before nightfall.  The sessions were unstructured, driven primarily by what the children wanted to explore.  Beginning with a reading activity – using children’s classics like Are You My Mother? By P.D. Eastman or the enormously popular I Spy Book of Picture Riddles – we would discuss the children’s responses to the material, and then moved on to another activity informed by the discussion.  Reading about a baby bird who went in search of its mother led me to ask the children to select three characters from the rubberstamps, and to create their own stories based on the relationship between the characters.  They created an art gallery by putting their pictures on the wall, and took turns telling their stories to each other.  Children passing by listened in and even chose to participate as well. Not even the background noise of police converging on the area to remove vendors was enough to distract them.  We typically ended with Word Bingo, where everyone had the chance to win pencils, sharpeners, and erasers.  Punctuated by the children’s declarations of who was “sweating”, i.e. on the verge of winning that round, the games went on until I was exhausted; they never seemed to get enough of it. The older children took on more active roles, such as volunteering to call the words, keeping track of the game, and gathering and distributing the supplies as needed.  I rewarded them with pencils for being helpers.

In those five days, these children were just like every other child in every other place.  When they found something that they enjoyed, they wanted more and more of it.  At the end of the day, the disappointment on their faces only evaporated when I answered “yes” to the question of “Yuh comin’ back tomorrow, miss? Seh yes!”

Our final session was held in Tastee Patties, one of several patty shops in the area which function as ad hoc daycare centers for the children of sidewalk vendors.  The patience and generosity of the store manager was outstanding.  He chose not to tell me that the store had closed until over an hour later; he said he really didn’t want to disturb us.  Just before I left, I prepared a packet of materials for one of the employees; she would never have let me out the door otherwise.

The response of the public was overwhelmingly positive.  One woman tapped me on the shoulder to get my full attention.  She said that she felt compelled to cross the road and come to speak with me after having stood and watched, in admiration, how focused the children were and how much fun they seemed to be having, in the middle of all this, as she gestured to the hubbub of commercial activities around us. Parents inquired about the cost of participating, how often the class met, whether I was a teacher, and if I was taking any new students. Sometimes they left their children with the group, or went to fetch the children so they could participate.  One parent was rather forthright: why, she asked, hadn’t I been doing this all summer or planned to continue, given how much the children were enjoying themselves? I invited her to pick up where I left off.

Many persons made the experience possible for the children.  The vendors were delighted at the children’s involvement in a learning activity, helped find seating, and actively encouraged them to “pay attention” or even to return to “class” when some wandered off.  One woman –a vendor and a parent – secured prime sidewalk space for us; others relieved their children of selling duties and sent them to participate; still others sent refreshments for me.  Passers-by offered words of support, welcome, and approval, and the police didn’t try to relocate us.  The children acted and felt like they were part of something special.

I also talked with many of the parents about their individual child’s needs. For me, it was important to affirm, and encourage their belief in their children’s abilities.  They already understood the importance of their support and attentiveness to the children’s development; getting people to listen and to help them access the appropriate resources was the challenge they faced.  As I packed up for the last time, one parent pulled me aside to tell me that she had decided to change her daughter’s diet, particularly to remove the sugary drinks, and encourage her to drink water and milk instead.  Television was now out of the question, she added, because that took time away from reading.  Neither of these issues had come up in earlier conversations.  I just smiled and nodded.  Sometimes I cried on my way home in the evenings, out of exhaustion and happiness.  Although brief, I got a glimpse of what happens when one makes an effort to remove the material and ideological obstacles to literacy and replace them with love, no strings attached.

It is this recent experience that frames how I hear the concerns being expressed about the growing problem of illiteracy in Jamaica, especially among youth.  It seems pertinent to ask: When was illiteracy not a social issue in Jamaica?  This is not something new.  If one believes that full – not partial – literacy of the population is the ultimate goal, then an 86 percent literacy rate was never good enough.  Forget that such a figure, first estimated in 2006, varies up and down depending on who is calculating it. The most recent figure being cited is 80 percent literacy, which means 20 percent of all adults in Jamaica are illiterate.  Also forget that the last actual survey of literacy in Jamaica was done in 1999.  What we have is a profound problem in perspective: which side of the literacy equation do we choose to look at?

Since the late 1980s, successive Jamaican governments, along with nongovernmental and charity organizations, have chosen to accept that illiteracy in any part of the population did not constitute an urgent issue to be resolved, as long as the number seemed high enough.  Apparently, they did not realize that a 14 (and now 20) percent illiteracy rate among adults (measured as 15 years and older) means that we have a whole lot more illiterate children.  And those most of children will grow up to become illiterate adults, unless there is systematic intervention to address this.  And that the same processes that created those illiterate children and adults are still hard at work.  Social problems don’t usually dry up and blow away; they typically multiply in intensity and complexity.  Ignoring them, and better yet, doing precious little to minimize them is not doing anybody a favor.

Still, as social problems go, illiteracy is a relatively simple one to fix.  But the solutions proposed thus far, when they are not aiming to shame and punish parents, are directed towards bureaucratic functions such as ‘systems failure’, ‘quality control’, ‘institutional management’ and so on.  To talk about literacy as an ‘output’ of schools may make perfect sense to those who accepted the 14 percent illiteracy rate as negligible in the first place, and divorced from the lives of real men and women.  That perspective seems a bit unreal to persons who see literacy as being about cultivating the love of books and of reading.  So where is the love – of self, of fellow Jamaicans, of reading – in this debate?  I certainly haven’t seen or heard much lately.

The scarcity of love is evident in the deep-seated anti-literate sensibility in contemporary Jamaican society. This was not always so, of course.  But at the moment, we need to confront how we consistently work against the very “outputs” we say are most desirable, and be willing to change.

The children I worked with were incredibly enthusiastic about the books they read and took home with them.  And yet most of them were unable to read unassisted regardless of their age, precisely because they have very little contact with books.  How does that happen?  I probably first witnessed the effects of this sensibility when I was a teenager in Granville, St. James.  The library branch located in my community was closed rather suddenly in the early-1980s.  What was an oasis for many was immediately replaced by a grocery store.  Years later, I learned that the Jamaica Public Library was asked to vacate the property; why they didn’t build or find another facility has never been answered.  Ironically, the closing occurred just as the community’s population started to swell, eventually doubling in size from when I lived there.

To date, no equivalent public facilities have replaced the library; the only public space is the street.  The working population lives amidst high unemployment, gun-related violence, poverty and all kinds of hustling characterize the life of people of all age groups there.  Not a book in sight.  At least two generations have now grown up there not knowing that there was ever a library nearby, some never even having visited the one in downtown Montego Bay.  I’m sure other communities have suffered the same fate. Several of the vendor-parents from the Jones Town area noted that the mobile library unit had not shown up for months now.  And that seems to be just fine with our politicians, policymakers, and business leaders. You can’t miss what you really never had – is that the logic?  Love made scarce over and over again.

That anti-literate sensibility shows up in our libraries, which feel more like mausoleums complete with silent attendants – perceptibly bored librarians sending text messages, reading the newspaper and their Bibles, and who seem discomfited by a genuine question about the holdings.  It is in the dress code set by the libraries, which requires that a potential patron – especially if one is a girl or woman –don the appropriate outfit prior to entering the building.  A spontaneous trip to the library could quickly become very complicated. Apparently, access to reading material must be planned and carefully monitored.  But even some plans do go awry; several vendors noted that the mobile library unit that covers Jones Town has not show up for several months!  Love has been shelved for a future date.

Our bookstores are also complicit.  For one thing, they often feel like extensions of the school. This is not hard to miss.  Once you enter them, you can’t help but associate reading with school on account that one is far more likely to find textbooks and materials oriented towards classroom learning than any other kind of reading material. Forget that school is often a rather unpleasant place for many children, and where reading has nothing to do with pleasure.

Thanks to bookstores and schools, reading material exists in two discreet categories in the public consciousness: “textbooks” and “reading books”, respectively. I gave away many books, and the same question came at me repeatedly, from parent, children and onlookers alike: “Is that a reading book?”  “No,” I said, “it is simply a book for you to enjoy, discover something new.  All books are for reading.”  For some reason, saying this felt heretical. They had definitely gotten the message though: Books are tools for formal education, rather than an entrée to new worlds, experiences and ideas.  Access requires a booklist, an authority figure, directions, and a test.  Enjoying what you read or even the act of reading is entirely secondary.

Ask a teacher when last they read a book for pleasure and shared that experience with their students.  Indeed, ask a teacher when last they read a book, period.  Chances are, reading in school is onerous, boring, full of corrections and anxiety, as students memorize words for the spelling test and barely get a chance to say what they think.  That students actively smuggle and exchange ‘contraband’ like Harlequin, Mills & Boons and True Lives romance novels in schools and under threat of detention tells you what they will endure for the sake of reading something interesting.  It takes love to transform these experiences into something affirming.

This instrumentalist approach to reading is reinforced at home as well: interacting with books is often treated as a secondary to far more important duties like agreeing with popular opinion, running errands, doing chores, or making room for other household members to watch the latest TV show.  Books are often treated as something private to be protected, preferably by minimizing use of them. “Putting it up” is how I hear working-class people talk about books at home; locked away out of the sight and reach of everyone, to be admired or referenced occasionally, but without a designated place in the everyday life of a household.  Books are a reward if she is not giving trouble, a way to keep him out of trouble.  But they must always be returned to their place, out of sight. Books take up precious space, it seems, and thus are kept under the bed, tucked away in a drawer in the wardrobe, locked behind the doors of the bottom compartment of the whatnot.

So, if reading only goes with school, what goes with work and the rest of one’s life?

Thankfully, at least one [non-religious] bookstore now exists that promotes reading rather than schooling. The typewriter man who sells used books of all kinds on Barry Street in downtown Kingston is also on to something.  We need more of each.

Some booksellers are quite daring in their anti-literate stance.  You can’t miss it: the sign conspicuously located in the periodicals and fiction section of the bookstores and pharmacies that says “Do Not Read” in bold black letters.

photo by Ingrid Riley

"Do Not Read" sign often seen in supermarkets, pharmacies and bookstores in Jamaica (photo by Ingrid Riley)

The meaning is clear: buy or leave.  I used to remove the signs; I no longer patronize places that have these signs. If I can’t read, I won’t buy.  The logic employed by these booksellers openly contradicts the personal and intellectual freedom that comes from reading.  They also reinforce the notion that only those who can afford to purchase the books, should be allowed to interact with them in a loving, even pleasurable way.  Reading is pleasure.  A significant majority of the Jamaican population lives by its wits and hands, and exchanges its labor for wages.  Those persons not only guard, but also clean and maintain the spaces where books are sold, and where readings, book launches and literary events take place. Surely they too would enjoy reading or listening to a good story on the way to, from, or even during, work without having to budget for it?

That there is only one national literacy organization certainly helps to fuel this resistance to literacy.  When Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) became Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL) in 2006, the organization’s core identity – adult literacy – was subsumed under a rather nebulous textbook-sounding concept of “lifelong learning”.  I don’t know if the term “literacy” bore a stigma that prevented the organization from doing its work.  I do know that it can’t be helpful to refer to literacy education as something other than what it is, or to frame the costs of illiteracy purely in economic (and instrumental) terms.

The absence of dozens of NGO’s springing up to fill in the significant gaps not covered by JFLL is also indicative of our ambivalence about literacy.  Instead, community-based initiatives that promote literacy are mostly spearheaded by non-Jamaicans and Jamaicans abroad.  They come and go as they struggle to remain open.  Acquiring the ability to read, write and reason is not so easy after all.  One is not guaranteed to develop these abilities as a child in school, and it is even more effort to acquire them as an adult.  Neither love nor literacy is available just so, it seems.

Our political culture is a hotbed of anti-literacy.  For example, politicians gladly tell voters that the only book they read (and love!) is the Bible.  Not surprisingly, they are more likely to offer personal opinions buttressed by oft-memorized scripture quotes over citing actual scholarship, research and policy reports in any given debate.  There are still no organizations that do voter education or distribute basic information so that people can vote intelligently.  Forget getting a diversity of perspectives on any issue through the existing print media.  It’s not exactly fair to blame people for voting against their interests when nobody bothers to use basic tools – a flyer, a brochure, a periodical – to provide knowledge that can counter that ignorance.

At its most dangerous, anti-literacy tendencies are at the foundation for excluding or withholding materials – and thus knowledge – from public consumption.  Recent objections to the translation of Bible into Patwa included the argument that it would be both pointless and unacceptable to allow Jamaicans to be able to read the language that most people speak, since writing it down would further legitimize its status as a language.  Even the Ministry of Education takes on this censoring role, by monitoring what points of view and subject matter students are exposed to, and withdrawing information that is not perceived as worth knowing.  Our students have little chance of experiencing the love of reading through entering unfamiliar worlds or experiences not already endorsed by adults in positions of authority.

These anti-literacy tendencies make it rare – and thus surprising – to see people reading at all.  Waiting rooms/busloads/sidewalks full, and yet not a book, newspaper, pamphlet, or leaflet in sight.  Yes, the occasional reader does show up: women with novels and the Bible; men with [often dated] newspapers and betting sheets, but they are far outnumbered by the non-readers around them.  And not all of those non-readers want to remain that way.  When I handed out several hundred sheets containing word search puzzles to adults in and around downtown areas, people constantly wanted more than the three sheets per person I had initially budgeted.  “That’s all? I need a whole book of these!” said one man. “A person needs to keep their brain active,” another man said.  “I like this; I can learn some new words,” said another.  “This is a nice thing you are doing,” she said. “Come back again, yuh hear?”

All it takes to erase this anti-literate sensibility is persistence, imagination and a lot of love.   Leave the tunnel vision behind and just think for a moment.

What would it mean for our many athletes to champion reading and to become literacy spokespersons themselves?

For one-tenth of all the monies spent by telecommunications companies to promote the latest technological gimmicks to be directed towards a multi-year national literacy campaign that aims to put a book in the hands of every newborn child and for every subsequent birthday until that child graduates from high school?

For high school principals to be paired with their primary school counterpart to build tutoring relationships between the schools?

For the libraries to develop year-round reading programs and competitions, promote family literacy, and devise ways for children to interact with writers, artists and illustrators?

For students to be encouraged to make and write books of their own, as well as to publish, compete and distribute them among their peers?

For NGOs to emerge whose sole focus is on nurturing a reading public?

For art galleries to develop public programs along with their exhibitions, which encourage children to read, write and think bout art?

For churches to offer to host family learning centers in every community?

For private sector companies to sponsor reading programs that are staffed by employees who volunteer?

For every politician to regularly visit the classrooms in order to read to the children, and to give priority to creating libraries and reading rooms in their constituencies?

For each of us to spend one hour per week reading with one child or adult?

That’s not all we could do, but doing those things would mean that we decided to show some love – of our fellow citizens, of ourselves and of the written word. Finally.