Thursday, February 24, 2011

Abolishing the Stigma of Leprosy by Teaching Children to Read English

This is an interview conducted by Christine Bowman, Marketing Content Manager at Reading Horizons, about my experience in India. This information was used for a press release. As I move forward with other English teaching and training adventures (I depart for the Middle East next Tuesday!), I thought I would post this interview on my blog since it captures some highlights of my India experience.

Students at the Peery School using Reading Horizons
Recently our ESL/Curriculum Director, Heidi Hyte, went back to the Peery School for Rising Stars, sponsored by Rising Star Outreach (RSO), near Chennai, India. This amazing school for K-9 was created for the children who come from the outcast leprosy colonies.  

Heidi spent two and a half weeks with school administrators, teachers, and students to train, observe, mentor, and model teach literacy strategies from the reading program software that was donated by Reading Horizons a year ago. 

Students gathering in the dining hall
This was Heidi’s second trip to the Peery School, and she was overwhelmed by the small miracles that have occurred at the facility. To add to the excitement was the fact that a major American Idol star, So You Think You Can Dance judge, and world-renowned photographer were visiting the school at the same time. More importantly are the children - Heidi can’t forget the children.

This is a snippet of the interview that I had with Heidi last week.

Christine: Why did you go back to India Heidi? What was the purpose of this visit?

Heidi: The last time I went to Chennai, I was there to train the summer volunteers so that they would know how to use the Reading Horizons reading method to help students with their English and literacy. Volunteers only stay for a short time before they are replaced by new volunteers, so the original idea was to setup a literacy training program that could be sustained with the high turnover rate of each new volunteer who went to the Peery School to help children learn to speak and read English.

Mary, English teacher at the Peery School
Since that time, we have donated Discover Intensive Phonics and Reading Horizons software to the Peery School. When I went to India this time, my objective was to help the administrators, teachers, and students gain the maximum benefit from the reading software. It was gratifying to see how much the staff loves our literacy software and method. In fact, one day I was asked to mediate a disagreement between two housemothers (housemothers oversee the children that live at the school) who both wanted the last available computer to use Reading Horizons to practice their own reading skills. Teachers practically run to the computer lab to use Reading Horizons during their prep hours. I observed teachers and housemothers occupying every computer in the library throughout the day using Reading Horizons whenever they were free. One particular teacher says she has become an “addict” to Reading Horizons. She brags about being the most advanced through the Reading Horizons program out of all the teachers and housemothers using it, and she takes pride in the thought that she will complete the Reading Horizons program first.

Christine: What experiences did you have in India that are now treasured memories for you? 

Heidi: That’s difficult. There are so many, so I’ll start with this one. Children who attend the Peery School for Rising Stars live on campus for two primary reasons.  Many of the leprosy colonies are too far away for a daily commute to school; and children who live at home are sent out at night to beg.

Families together in the mango grove
The school has a monthly Parent’s Day for the families of these children. Parent’s Day occurred while I was at the school. I walked around the mango grove and observed several “family picnics” going on—children with their parents enjoying the food their parents brought with them to eat. Many parents bring large bags filled with treats and gifts for their children, and I watched these children with huge smiles on their faces lug the bags back to their hostel rooms. Then I walked to the front of the school where a couple of the housemothers were checking in parents who came to the school. I saw one young student standing there watching children walking to the gate with their six rupees their parents had given them to buy an ice cream cone from the ice cream man outside the school gates. My heart broke when the housemothers informed me that she didn’t have any parents coming to visit her or her little brother. Their mother was a two-day
Posing with Sagayamary and Christaraj and their ice cream cones
train ride away, and their father had recently died of a heart attack while riding a train. I asked her if she wanted an ice cream cone. With a big smile on her face, she nodded her head and said, “Yes!” I asked her to go find her little brother while I went to retrieve my rupees to pay for the ice cream cones (they only cost about 13 cents each!). Then we held hands and walked to the playground and played for awhile. I felt saddened at the thought that some children, especially this sister and brother who I had already developed a soft spot in my heart for, didn’t have parents visiting them on this highly-anticipated day that comes around once a month.

I also remember the day that I went to the Bindu Art School. This is a place where adults with leprosy create art that they sell to attain financial independence. And although I purchased a beautiful painting, I was most amazed by the happy smiles (some without teeth) of these beautiful, resourceful people who by our standards having nothing – their existence would be termed pitiful. Yet they are happy, grateful people.

Christine: So, what’s next? Where do we go from here to help bring literacy to India?

Conducting the teacher training meeting
Heidi: There are a lot of ESL needs in India. That’s why Reading Horizons will be helping with an initiative to bring 700 volunteers to the Peery School for Rising Stars this summer. RSO will be recruiting the best and the brightest business, medical, and education majors from the top schools in the U.S. this year. Each volunteer will be learning the Reading Horizons method via the Online Workshop and online meetings. The emphasis will be on sustaining literacy through one-on-one reading tutoring.

Posing with kids and their housemother and my two sisters
I know you don’t have to go to India to contribute, but India happens to be a place where there are great needs that Reading Horizons is able to help fill. Reading Horizons has been able to reach out to those students and staff at the Peery School for Rising Stars in India. And I’ll be reaching, too. I have to go back. Don’t be surprised if you find me there again. (I have a five-year visa!) 

(See my other posts on my experience by clicking here and here.)

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