Friday, September 23, 2011

One school, one library, one librarian

Went to my first event of the Open Book Festival last night, a free forum hosted on the UCT campus called Free the Book: How to make South Africa a reading nation.

It was an interesting panel, with representatives from Cover2Cover and other non-profits and publisher-foundations that work to get young readers engaged with books. Equal Education organized the event, and supplied lots of data and personal stories revealing the unequal public schooling system in this country today. The panellists billed most aggressively were Sindiwe Magona, a writer and activist (who ran workshops for my study abroad group from Marquette back in 2006) and Jay Naidoo, who organized with COSATU to oppose Apartheid and then served in government after 1994. (We’ve spent a lot of time in my classes this year studying the RDP, which Naidoo helped formulate and get into law.)

There were interesting dynamics in this panel. From the non-profit side (and P.S., a non-profit that publishes YA fiction is basically my dream job), stories were told of successes when relevant, appropriate books were introduced to young readers. There are many barriers to a universal culture of reading books in South Africa—new books are prohibitively expensive when compared to other nations. (Even with a strong dollar here, I have noticed this. I just wouldn’t pay $30 USD for a paperback back home, even if I were earning in dollars. Converting that to South African rands, and putting that book price in context of cost of living here… I have never considered for-fun books a luxury item. But that is absolutely the case in South Africa today.) And so publishing more affordable texts, and making sure those texts speak to South African youth today, has had some considerable victories so far. (Again, it is also my dream job.)

Reading can be so much more than “deciphering a code”—it can challenge people, inspire creativity, change the tides of culture. And yet, even functional literacy is not widespread here.

The Equal Education panellist came through public schools in Khayelitsha, an area that is cut off from many of the resources of the Western Cape. Including books. He spoke of sharing books in primary and high school. He could only remember having access to one book throughout primary school, but whenever he got to have it to himself, he would read it over and over again. It was the same story in high school—one book he would share, but given the chance, he would read and reread until he had to give it up. That book was To Kill a Mockingbird.

This made me face up to my privilege (racial, economic, geographical, etc.) of growing up as a reader. My house has always been filled with books, and I have vivid memories of going to the public library as a child (and taking out The Missing Piece week after week). My schools have always had libraries—actually, my mom was my grade school’s librarian for a while! And my dad would quiz me on spelling words every week in 2nd and 3rd grades, and make up tricks to help me remember hard words. (“Vegetable” was hard for me, I remember. So were “jewelery” and “trouble.” But I eventually got them down!)

And my privilege goes beyond the simple access to books. I always loved being read to, but I remember being in 7th grade and finding a distaste for books. (I think it had to do with trying to read Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities that year—pretty discouraging to a 12-year-old). I started to assume that most books were too hard, and tried to wiggle my way out of reading. But I had parents who checked up on me to make sure I was doing my school work, and never missed a parents' night at school. I remember my mom pushing me through a book with a compromise—she’d read one chapter out loud to me, and I’d read the next out loud to her. We got through many books like that, and I remember reacting to them vividly. In 7th grade, the year I got discouraged about reading, I remember finishing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with my mom. We were both crying by the end.  I connected to that book, and it made me want to read more. (I also read To Kill a Mockingbird that year. I was equally impacted.)

So there are two parts to the equation. It is nothing short of shameful that in 2009, 49% of grade 6 students in the Western Cape were not reading and writing at the appropriate level. (It’s even worse when you consider that 86% of white learners in this province were on track for reading levels, but only 24% of black learners were reading and writing at the right level.) Part of this problem is: only 7% of South Africa’s schools have libraries. Why is this significant? Because according to the Second Colorado Study  (How School Libraries Help Kids Achieve Standards), access to a fully stocked and staff school library can improve a learner’s marks by up to 8%.

And so, Equal Education has launched the 1 school, 1 library, 1 librarian campaign. They do book drives to stock up libraries, and have made budget plans to get the facilities and staff funded. (I’ve been doing quite a few school projects on how to address unemployment, and HELLO, this would create jobs, and then these jobs would help the next generation of the workforce embrace literacy. It’s an encouraging thought.) I would love to see this campaign achieve full success.

But my cultivation as a reader had two key aspects—access to books, and parents and teachers who pushed me to read and write. And when Sindiwe Magona spoke, she raised similar concerns. Her remarks began with, “the time for being nice is over.” Yes, children need to read at school; they also need to read at home. A reading culture can more easily be fostered in young South Africans than in older ones, and that’s a huge barrier. And if a child goes home from school to parents who don't enjoy or value reading and don't have books, much headway can be lost in that child's journey toward literacy.

A cultural shift needs to happen, in conjunction with a government policy shift that puts school libraries as a higher priority. (It is infuriating to learn that the budget for 1 school, 1 library, 1 librarian—and we are talking about employing more than 20,000 librarians—would cost HALF of what it cost to build one stadium for the World Cup. Priorities!)

Jay Naidoo raised an interesting point as well. While recognising “the depth of mediocrity” in South African government today, it’s not enough to present a budget for libraries to government and then get frustrated when the budget is ignored. He recalled planning rallies and campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s, and no one ever asked, “But do we have the budget for signs and banners?” Getting too wrapped up in an exhaustive budget and plan will not cause the societal change to get South Africans reading.

He also said that literacy is a privilege, and there comes a time when the educated need to get off the university campus and do work on the ground to make change.

The last bit of the discussion covered a topic I’ve been thinking about lately—education and the meaning of democracy. Literacy is necessary for citizens to participate in democracy—we need to be informed and critical to keep the wool from being pulled over our eyes. I loved something Sindiwe said—that a citizen’s obligation in a democracy begins after your vote is cast. After the vote, citizens must be vigilant to make sure their Constitution is being lived out, and that politicians’ promises are being delivered.  A commenter from the crowd said that books give readers the power to challenge the ruling elite. AMEN.

Closing remarks encouraged the audience to get involved by:
  • Donating books to struggling libraries
  • Starting book clubs to get people reading and talking about books
  • Creating infrastructure, or the space for reading.

So. Who is going to start a YA book club with me?

No comments:

Post a Comment