Sunday, November 29, 2009

Letter From PCV in Georgetown

Dear Friends and Family,

Over the past year I have been volunteering my time and efforts at Georgetown Secondary School in the community where I live in St. Vincent. In many ways a challenging work assignment, GSS suffers from various problems that also affect other “country” schools (those farther away from the capitol, Kingstown) — lack of qualified teachers, an abundance of remedial level students, less resources, poor discipline, and in general, a tangible feeling of hopelessness to tackle the many issues. In particular, my school has an alarmingly high proportion of students who enter secondary school unable to read. Last year, there were approximately 200 students designated as “remedial readers” and most of these students were reading at a 2nd grade level or below. (Note that although Vincentians speak an English-based dialect at home, Standard English is taught in all the schools, from Primary school upwards). There are at least a dozen students who I am working with now who don’t know all of their letter sounds, something typically mastered in Kindergarten. Because of the large class size, noise level, and chaotic nature of the school, it is incredibly challenging to remediate these students in their regular classroom.

I have felt since arriving here that computer-based reading remediation would be an excellent approach to both captivate and hold the attention of these low-performing, easily distracted students and to provide a way to differentiate instruction based on skill level. In an exciting step forward, this past year the school received a grant with which they were able to purchase 20 new computers to create a lab in the lower school. Unfortunately, in this grant there was no money allocated towards software or headphones. Still, for the past 3 months I, along with the remedial teachers, have been bringing the remedial classes to the lab for 1 hour per week to use a phonics software program which I downloaded from the internet. Although the program is “kiddish” in content and light on actual instruction, and despite the fact that it is difficult to hear the sounds on the program without external speakers or headphones, I still feel it has been a huge success. When the students go to the lab they are quiet, working continually, and I often hear them congratulating themselves when they master an activity. Their behavior is like night and day when compared to trying to teach them in their classroom. The experience has solidified my opinion that computer-based remediation can have a great effect on the students at GSS, in their behavior and attitude, reading performance, and confidence level.

Starting in January I am planning to use trial versions of two different highly regarded remedial reading software packages with a select group of struggling readers. To do this, all of the students need to have headphones for their assigned computer, something which the principal has told me there is no money available for. Because I’ll be visiting home for two weeks during December, I am trying to get enough headphones donated during that time that I can bring back a full set to be used at the school when the term starts back in January. If you would be willing to fund a pair of headphones as a Christmas gift for my remedial students, it would be much appreciated. The school headphones are about $15 each, and donations can be made through this blog site on the right side of the page.

In addition, one of the reading remediation software programs that I am interested in trying out with our students, Academy of Reading, offers a special program through which a student living anywhere in the world can link up through the internet with a computer in Canada to use the software for a year on their school computer. The cost for a student to use Academy of Reading for 1 yr. through this special linkage program is $80 per student. If you are interested in sponsoring one of my students, you can also make a donation through our blog site. Once I determine the exact group in January, I would be happy to send you a picture of your sponsored student, as well as information about that student and how they are coming along in their reading.

I know that times are tough right now, but even a small donation can make a big difference to the struggling readers that I work with. I want to thank all of you for the love and support you’ve shown Steve and I during the 1st year of our great Peace Corps adventure. When we’ve gotten frustrated or felt overwhelmed, we’ve relied greatly on the strong friendships and close bonds that we have back home to get us through.