A first-person account by Laura Hartley
Special to the Opelika Observer
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Caribbean nation of Antigua, as my husband and I were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. One would think that while vacationing on a tropical isle, the highlights would be blue waters, warm days accompanied by the smell of suntan oil, reggae music, and water sports. Well, I’d be fibbing if I said we didn’t enjoy those things, but the highlight of the trip, for each of us, was when my husband surprised me with an off-site “excursion” to visit one of the local schools and participate in what the Sandals Resort Foundation calls A Reading Road Trip.
Being a local Kiwanian who takes an active role in the Jean Dean Reading is Fundamental (RIF) Program within our community, as well as the spouse of an educator, my husband Marrell was completely at ease with the idea of going into the local schools and sharing short stories and picture books with the children. I too was at ease and excited about becoming acquainted with the local culture and children. After all, I am a twenty year veteran educator with experience as a classroom teacher, reading coach, and primary principal. This should be easy, right? Well, it was and it wasn’t. However, the experience was truly delightful. Let me tell you why…
The Road Trip began with a briefing by Mrs. Anne Harewood who is the PR Manager for the Sandals Resort Foundation – Antigua. She explained that the Foundation has adopted three schools in Antigua; Cedar Grove Primary, Willikies Primary, and Antigua Girl’s High School. She also explained that our excursion fee would go directly into the Resort’s education funds to be equally distributed among the institutions I’ve mentioned. She then went on to explain that we would be spending two hours with the children during their literacy time. Literacy time was to involve us reading stories, practicing phonics skills, leading them in a writing and art activity, and going over comprehension questions. My husband began to squirm a bit because he quickly realized he would be responsible for teaching an entire lesson, not just reading a story and handing out hugs and kisses!
After a twenty minute van ride, we arrived at our assigned school – Cedar Grove Primary. Cedar Grove is a primary school that serves 163 kindergarten through sixth grade students, and we reported to school at 9 a.m., just in time for morning assembly. Morning assembly was something to behold and was very moving as we watched the students line up in their school uniforms, color coded by grade level, to sing the Antiguan Anthem and go over their morning announcements. Students then dispersed to their classrooms and the real fun began.
Each resort literacy volunteer was assigned a grade level and small group of children to work with. Group sizes ranged from four to seven children who were excited and eager to interact with their classroom visitors. As with anything new and different, there was lots of excited chatter as we introduced ourselves and learned the names of our pupils while getting all of our materials in place. The children were beside themselves with anticipation waiting for someone to be chosen to visit the classroom library and select a book for read aloud. At this point we were excited too. For both my husband and me, sharing the joy of books is much like throwing Brer Rabbit into his fabled briar patch. So, Rebekah was chosen and she goes off to claim a book for our group. In her excitement she chose two, Caillou and a reading series accompaniment reader titled Hickory Dickory Dock. The lesson has just begun.
Holding the picture book so that all could see, I began the story of Caillou. The children were engrossed in the story and answering my questions. Things were really going well. Until their reader, me, was completely thrown for a loop. I had completed page six and asked my students to make a prediction about what would happen next. However, as I turned the page, I encountered page 12 instead of the anticipated page seven. Hmmm…what to do?
The reality was that I did the best I could, made up the story as I went along, and quickly prepared to read the next book that Rebekah had selected. That sadly didn’t happen because having learned my lesson, I flipped through the next text, realized it was roughly 15 years old and missing many pages as well. It was time for me to visit the classroom library and select a book that could be read in its entirety.
As we sometimes say in the South, the pickins’ were slim. My heart hurt realizing that these students were willing and eager to learn, but were hampered, through no fault of their own, by very limited resources.
I made a mental note then and there that my husband and I were going to need to brainstorm ways we could assist and spread the message to others, and I knew in that instant that Jill Eaton was going to finally get her story.
Not to be deterred, I returned to my small group and pulled out of my backpack a tool guaranteed to capture the attention of my students, A NOOK Color. Finally, I knew the children would experience a complete story, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk. They were glued to the screen, excited to “flip” the pages with the slide of their finger, and had no problem focusing on the story at hand in order to answer every question. I had a job to complete. After all, the story was just the beginning of the literacy block.
An hour and a half later, lessons complete, I took a breath and finally slowed down to catch up with my nervous husband (who did a great job, by the way) and the other volunteers who had joined us. It was now time for morning recess and snack. Sadly for us, it was also time to say goodbye. We took many pictures, finally got the hugs and kisses that we craved, and all too quickly said farewell. There were few dry eyes when we boarded our return transport.
Of the nine volunteers who embarked on the Reading Road Trip, only two of us were educators by trade. Yet, each of us left with a personal mission to see if we might find ways to give back to these students, and others like them, throughout Antigua, or other countries facing similar challenges.
While everyone throughout the world encounters ups and downs, it was eye opening to come face to face with just how blessed we are to have the opportunities and resources that we have throughout our state and nation.
Upon returning home and sharing our experiences with others, my family has already begun the process of boxing up our used but gently loved books to share with the children of Antigua, and we have plans to scour yard sales and thrift stores to add to our shipping collection.
We would encourage you to do the same. You may consider places that you have traveled outside of the U.S. and consider contacting their Education Ministries, or you may contact a resort that you’ve frequented and see if they have similar programs or contacts that can be used to put you in touch with educational agencies in their area.
Due to the high caliber and experience of the individuals we encountered throughout our personal experience, my husband and I will seek to continue our outreach through the services of the Sandals Foundation. Whatever you do, no matter how big or small, you will find joy in sharing with others.