Monday, December 21, 2009

Books Are Your Friends

When I moved to Egypt from Canada we packed 48 boxes to be shipped, 18 of which were books. I come from a reading family and bedtime stories were a tradition for us. I knew from visits that there weren't that many bookstores in Alexandria and that they weren't that well stocked, so I brought along what I felt was the essential library for a pair of growing children. This included everything from Dr. Suess to Lord of The Rings. My son was already quite good at reading at 7 years old and my 4 yr old daughter did fine with the Dr. Suess. Every evening they got a chapter of one of the longer books before bed, something from the Narnia series, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers...whatever. As they grew older they began reading the longer books by themselves and I only read aloud on special occasions such as while we were sailing to Cyprus in the summer or something like that.

One of the objectives of moving to Egypt was to make the children and myself fluent in Arabic. I accomplished this primarily by stumbling through the days shopping and managing a household in Arabic. We specifically DID NOT hire English speaking staff so that I had to learn Arabic to survive. It wasn't easy, and often wasn't pretty, but it was remarkably effective. The kids had daily Arabic lessons after school with a wonderful young woman in Alexandria who was actually a professor of dentistry, but who, with her American mother and Egyptian father, understood the cultural and language issues for my children. I told Mona that she could do anything she wanted with the kids as long as it was in Arabic, be it cooking, watching a movie, or going out for a walk. As someone with a background in language teaching and the study of its acquisition, I didn't think that they would be learning Arabic simply from books.

It was a very good thing that I had this approach because the books in Arabic available to children at the time were simply appalling. I would search through bookstores abroad at every opportunity, but it was unbelievably frustrating. Because there were no interesting easy-reading books in Arabic, unlike their libraries in French and English, the children really never really got into reading Arabic. We had Tintin and Asterix in English, Arabic and French, as well as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics, but the pickings otherwise were really, really poor.

The result of not having appealing books for children in Arabic has always been horribly obvious to me. The Egyptian school curriculum is brutal with its emphasis on rote learning and the imposition of language learning that is not designed for children who have little or no help at home with their language homework. Children struggle through classes that are intended primarily to get them through exams and at the end of the school day, if they never see another book, they are thrilled. My in-laws' homes had virtually no reading material other than a newspaper and the Quran, unlike our home where each of the kids had a wall to ceiling bookshelf full of favourite books by the time they went off to college. My husband shared the national aversion to literature at first when we were in grad school, but he gradually became more convinced that books could be friendly as time went on.

For the past couple of years I've been tutoring a few of the children in the village next to me in English. I've been quite horrified at the complexity of what they are required to learn, especially since their parents don't speak English and really can't help them with their homework. Nevertheless, they soldier on and are learning. A month ago a friend of mine from Canada, Paddi Sprecher, came for a holiday with me and she got involved in the tutoring, being something of a sucker for charming kids. She's also part of an English as a Second Language organisation in Edmonton where they help immigrants to learn English. Paddi, being something of a high energy individual, went into high gear and we began acquiring workbooks on phonics for the kids to colour, magnetised letters to spell out words, and she hauled out some simple toys, like a xylophone...a word that appears in their workbooks, but something that most of them had never seen or played.

Paddi and I were soon joined by India Martin, a young English vet student who was staying for a month to work with the Donkey Sanctuary, and where we started with three students for English tutoring, within a couple of weeks we were up to almost ten and there were children begging at the farm gate to join. We were doing the lessons in my verandah, a rather chilly location with lighting that wasn't the best, but this didn't deter our students. It was also getting rather crowded as time went on and we had to institute stern hours for the tutoring because the children would show up in the morning on their days off and be happy to work and play all day. Unfortunately, we didn't have all day to oblige them.

As Paddi, India and I were riding through the village on our last ride together, we had children calling from all sides that they wanted to join the lessons and four sets of parents came to the gates to ask for lessons as well. A young friend of mine, who I've known since her childhood in Alexandria, is currently working as a teacher at a fairly expensive private school in Cairo and she was totally blown away by the enthusiasm of these children who begged for homework, in comparison with her more privileged students who really aren't all that interested in learning...yet another convert to the tutoring program. Finally, I spoke to the omda of our local village and asked if we could have one of the empty appartments to use for tutoring. We would organise a library and tutors if they could give us a room for classes and another one for the library with a bathroom. He most readily agreed and we are hoping to organise the space very soon.

Meanwhile riding clients of mine have expressed an interest in the project, as have people back in Canada who work with Paddi, and they have donated money for books for the library in Arabic and English. We currently have about 20 books on our library list and are looking into ways to make it easy for people to buy books for this children's library with the local bookstores. Other riders have offered to help tutor and to find others to tutor, while some of the ESL people in Canada are interested in coming to help teach the tutors how to work effectively. Our hope is to try to get some of the older youngsters in the village to help us with story times in Arabic for the young ones to give them a sense of the fun of reading. Happily, the availability of children's books in Arabic has turned around completely and there are many titles available for very reasonable prices. We also visited a local school and Paddi will try to set up a letter exchange for the elementary classes here and in Canada. It's a wonderful opportunity to open the world for children both here and in Canada.

Like I really needed another project....

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani