“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
— Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!”
“We want to learn how best to teach young children to read but we don’t have any books,” said the teachers working in schools piloting an early years program in Benin.
During the summer of 2008 we were working in Benin, in partnership with Right To Play, the Benin Ministry of Education, and the Benin teacher union, SYNAEM, to develop and implement a new curriculum. The Benin government has undertaken a pilot program to establish play-based early learning programs in its schools. Its new curriculum document encourages teachers to apply reading strategies appropriate for beginning readers that include shared reading. Teachers in our program asked for some specific professional development focused on the emergent reader.
How to teach young readers without books was a real dilemma for these teachers. Our goal was to meet their needs, so we revised our training schedule and quickly put together some ideas on how to make our new training plan work. At the local bookstore we found some French fairy tales, some Dora books, and a few texts written in South Africa, which we used as examples of why they needed to write their own books. We explained teaching/learning strategies geared to young children, and showed the teachers how to write texts that were simple, clear, and culturally appropriate.
The Big Book Project is launched
In the course of our work with these teachers, we realized we needed a plan: this was the first step in the ETFO Big Book Project, which aims to produce books created in Benin. The project has evolved over time. We received generous donations from the Reading for the Love of It outreach program; the Alpha Gamma Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, an international sorority for women; ETFO locals; and members who attended the 2009 ETFO annual meeting.
We assembled kits containing a digital camera, printer, adapter, two memory cards, and extra ink and paper for the printer. Each item in the kit was carefully labelled so that it could be shared and tracked.
Retired teacher Jeff Young offered to contribute his expertise in design and photography. Young is the co-founder of Village Galleries ( villagegalleries.org) and in 2007 spent 10 days in the Monduli District of Tanzania conducting workshops in storytelling using photography.
We went back to Benin in March. For a week, 18 teachers from across Benin convened in the SYNAEM office, in the city of Cotonou, to start working on the Big Book Project. They spent their mornings learning to develop texts appropriate for the beginning reader and their afternoons learning how to take photographs that helped to tell the story.