Over a 15 year-period, I was the lead instructor for a SEED program, funded by USAID, administered through Georgetown University and (this one) housed at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas. Cohorts of 20 teachers from rural areas were chosen by their Latin American governments to study in the USA for a year and then return to be change agents in their communities and countries. Julia Jarrell, retired, was the Coordinator for the Program and a long-time colleague of mine.
Many of these teachers/maestros in this program did not have electricity, paper, potable water, etc. in their communities. One of the courses I taught was reading and writing. But how could the maestros help their kids read and write if they had no books?
Since we were a “strengths-based” program, we helped the maestros inventory and work with what they did have—recycled and simple materials, beautiful environments, incredible cultures, and personal creativity. We began by helping them write their own books—to begin their libraries.
After some “priming” activities, they were asked to choose an important time on their life-line to draft into a story that would be made into a book. We encouraged them to recall the growing up years and think of stories they would like to share with their students.
They read their drafts to each other and we all told what we liked best. This was an especially touching experience and many of us cried a little as we read or listened to the stories. Different teachers had experienced floods, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, wars, deaths and even genocide. In the midst of these many had found a mission, a meaning, a solidarity, a will to overcome. Mixed with these were charming tales of mischievous, curious, and adventurous children exploring their lives.
To elaborate their stories, we turned each maestro into a director and had them use their colleagues as actors to dramatize the stories they had written. Props, costumes and so on were improvised. (One prop was a multi-functional invention by my brother, called the “Cameleon.”) These informal productions were shared with friends of the program.
For the illustrations, my co-author, Susie Monday, conducted a “Find Your Visual Style” workshop with them. She asked each maestro to choose one thing they wanted to illustrate and to draw, paint, create it over and over in different media—markers, crayons, paints, Styrofoam prints, black ink, etc. She then consulted with each one and helped them chose the style that seemed strongest for them for all the illustrations in their books.
The maestros used their personal storybooks to stock libraries they created, and added other original books they created over the year:
- “big books,” of traditional tales from their cultures.
- pop-ups and other little books on topics like dealing with bad feelings.
- songs and poems on everything from trees to water to prime numbers to alliteration.
- booklets created for parents on topics such as dyslexia, stress, drug abuse and so on.
Their books and libraries were shared with other educators and students at the college and local schools, at state and international conferences, and with their own communities and countries.
I still keep in touch through social media with many of the hundreds of maestros with whom I worked. They are working hard to improve literacy and global understanding—teaching their kids to read and write, to think and to value themselves and their worlds, to appreciate diversity. My hope is that they will always cherish the boundless creativity within themselves and their students.