Back in August, Graduate School of Education students Jill A. Carlson and Eleanor B. O’Donnell asked their classmate Debra L. Gittler to help them organize a project of international scope—but none of them had a clear idea of what exactly they wanted to do.
At the time, all three were studying international education policy at GSE, but they were disappointed that the school did not offer opportunities to gain the necessary experience abroad.
“We wanted to do an international project, but there were no real projects for us,” O’Donnell said. “So we set up our own.”
Pooling their resources, O’Donnell and Carlson realized that they both had experience working with books—either in collecting them or in expanding libraries. After a few phone calls to organizations she had previously worked with during her three-year stay as a literary coach and teacher trainer in El Salvador, Gittler secured the necessary logistical connections, and the three students soon began organizing what they would call the Learning Through Libraries project.
In an effort to promote literacy at international schools in poor municipalities, the trio—along with four other GSE students and a staff member—traveled to Caluco, El Salvador from Jan. 4 to Jan. 13 of January term. The group brought along 1,300 books to start three libraries, teaching parents and teachers in the area how to utilize these new resources both in the classroom and at home.
“Books just can open a world to students no matter where they are,” Carlson said. “Seeing the kids with a book and their parents with a book was probably most rewarding.”
MORE BOOKS THAN BOOKSHELVES
But the book-laden trip to Caluco did not come without extensive preparation on the part of volunteers who became involved in Learning Through Libraries. Nine hundred of the books brought to Caluco were new texts purchased with money procured through fundraising efforts.
In November, the 15 GSE volunteers involved in the project at the time organized a Thanksgiving dinner called “Give Thanks, Give Books.” Each guest donated $5 or brought a book in exchange for a plate of dinner. The result of the dinner bash was over $400 in donations, with which the project organizers bought books written in Spanish from Scholastic off of El Salvador’s Ministry of Education book list.
With the books now in possession, a more daunting problem confronted the project volunteers: moving over a thousand books 2,000 miles southward. In fact, the volunteers’ initial plan of hauling the books to El Salvador in fat suitcases seemed like an absurd idea, according to Carlson.
But after a few phone calls, the organizers were put through to the CEO of TACA Airlines—a Latin American airline company with a hub in Houston—who agreed to ship the books from Texas to El Salvador for free.
A PHOTO, A MURAL, A LIBRARY
Learning Through Libraries collaborated with FEPADE—a Salvadoran non-profit organization that encourages educational development across the country—to create a documentary photography workshop in one school, mural projects in two schools, and libraries in all three.
GSE student Briget C. Ganske, who worked with students from the Escuela de Comunicación Mónica Herrera to teach the documentary photography class, said she was able—through borrowing from GSE students, alumni, and friends—to provide digital cameras for the young students to learn to use. After two days, the students—most of whom had not even seen a digital camera before—were permitted to take the cameras home to photograph their typical afternoon, morning, and evening, according to Ganske. An exhibit of the students’ work will be presented both at Harvard and in El Salvador in February.
The mural project, which sought to bridge the cultural realms of storytelling and art, was led by GSE Arts in Education Program Coordinator Scott K. Ruescher, the staff member on the trip. Grandparents of students came to the schools to share stories about the history of their municipality as they saw it through their eyes—including a recollection of a train that ran through the city just before an earthquake hit and destroyed the tracks—and the children, with help from a local children’s book illustrator, translated the stories into paintings on a wall adjacent to the library being erected at the time.