Part One: The Culture of Reading in Nicaragua, or Not


“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
― Mark Twain

IMG_5762Imagine a world where books are rare… where children are never read bedtime stories… where there are no libraries…no understanding of reading for pleasure…Oh the Places You Won’t Go without Dr. Seuss…no teacher literacy training…nothing to help advance literacy in children. If you can’t imagine this world, all you have to do is come to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

Three years ago, I started a lending library program for the elementary schools on Ometepe Island. As the books slowly came to the island, I categorized and distributed 100 books to each school. Ten simple rules for my lending library emphasized the need to wash hands before reading, keep the books in the classrooms, return them on time, and most importantly…enjoy and have fun reading.

IMG_5972However, all was not well in my lending library land. One school lost my container of books. Other schools set my containers in a lonely corner, where they sat unopened until I returned. Many of my books were either stolen, sold, or destroyed.

My intentions were good. My methods lacked understanding of a readerless society. I made too many assumptions. I assumed teachers knew how to hold a book to read to their classes, were trained in literacy methods and reading strategies, understood how a lending library worked, and could foster the love of reading. Boy was I was wrong!

IMG_1863Back to the drawing board! Who can resist these adorable children? We learn to do what we learn to love. I am determined to teach them the love of reading…but how?

IMG_1857                            My Top Five Strategies for Creating a Reading Culture

  1. Create a reading environment
    The rural elementary schools in Nicaragua are tiny and serve students in first through sixth grades. Each classroom holds at least two grades. Most schools only have three classrooms. There is usually one small room for office space and a small storage area in each school. I wanted to create a space for a small library separated from the classrooms. Every school needs a library.
  2. Offer a range of reference materials and audio-visual technology
    This year the government ran out of money for textbooks. The elementary students in my neighborhood school have no text books. The teacher reads from the textbook and the students copy the information into a notebook by listening to the teacher.  OH my! I need to stock the library space with a variety of audio-visual materials. If I could have one document camera and a small projector in each library, the teacher could project the textbook to the students on a wall of their classroom. Every student needs reference material, maps, and the teachers need a way to disseminate the information.
  3. Offer a range of books
    Since the students have never read for pleasure, I need to start with very low-level children’s books in Spanish. Picture books with a few English words would work well, too. I’ve sent chapter books to the schools and they have never been used. Baby steps for a readerless society are necessary because chapter books with few pictures are intimidating.
  4. Volunteers wanted
    Since I cannot possibly go to each school and read to the classes on a regular basis, I would like to start a volunteer program in each school where tourists, grandparents, parents, can go to school and read to a small group. I want to make a volunteer box with activities for several books, paper, crayons, puppets, and other supplies for fun activities after a book is read to a small group.
  5. Training and a part-time librarian
    When I ask teachers how I can help them, one of the things they mention the most is money and training for a part-time librarian. The teachers are overwhelmed with two grade levels per classroom, sometimes over 40 students crammed into a hot, empty space. If I have the space, the books, and the materials, of course I need to hire and train a person to be the librarian.

I have a lot of work to do…but wait until you see what is happening in my La Paloma Elementary School now! Part Two of the Culture of Reading in Nicaragua will blow your mind! Thanks to a little comment on my blog, we now have an exciting sister-school program for the La Paloma Elementary School. With a little help from my friends…oh the places we can go!

You can help create a world for all new readers that’s full of the joy of discovery, imagination, and information. Part Three of the Culture of Reading in Nicaragua will explain how you can help. Stay tuned!

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14 thoughts on “Part One: The Culture of Reading in Nicaragua, or Not

  1. I have a thought (on a Saturday night, yet!) If developing a reading culture is confounded by parents not having their own history of reading and so not valuing it, how about having community story-reading evenings? Pick great stories and readers (including yourself?) who can bring them to life, maybe scan and project the pages on a screen if there are illustrations, like Dr. Seuss. I’m remembering one cold Christmas in Virginia where my friend chose to read The Princess Diaries to the family. We laughed and laughed! When people laugh and have a good time, the brain produces oxytocin (the calming, feel-good, fall-in-love hormone). Any event associated with oxytocin becomes something to be desired–people will want to repeat it–and before you know it, people are falling in love with books! What do you think?

    • This is a great idea! Thank you for your wonderful suggestion. In Granada, they take a basket of children’s books to the central park and volunteers read to the children. I’d like to start something like this in our little town of Moyogalpa. Poco a poco. It’s just a matter of planting the seed. Right?

      • I re-read my last comment and realized I didn’t emphasize that you’d need to get the parents to the readings I suggested: get *them* excited about stories and they will want their children to read (and read to them!) So these would be evening or weekend events with “refreshments” and whole families would attend.

        • No, I didn’t know about the readings in the park in Granada. I’m thrilled that they’re doing that! Next stop, Moyogalpa!

  2. Very interesting post. I am curious what NGOs if any have worked in Nicaragua to help. We have that same problem here in MN with some students, mostly ones of color, falling behind in reading as they are not always growing up in a family that believes in a culture of reading. It is so important to raise awareness and books for these families and to read to their children at a young age. Wish I had some ideas for you. Volunteers are really important too but getting the teachers and parents on board are also critical.

    • Nicole, there are many NGOs, large and small, helping the schools in Nicaragua. But, most of them focus on the buildings and supplying school materials, instead of the curriculum and teacher training. For example, every elementary school child on the island has a One Laptop Per Child laptop. Here’s where the problem arises. They are given laptops, supplies, etc. but the teachers are never trained in how to use them in the curriculum. The only teaching methods used in the school ( that I have seen) are to copy information into a notebook and memorize. Children are not taught how to be critical thinkers. One day, I watched a classroom of children with their laptops copy an entire page from Wikipedia into a notebook. They were graded on how well they copied the information from the internet. So, I definitely need to help the teachers understand and use a variety of teaching methods. I think the best way will be to train a part-time librarian, and she/he can model the reading methods for the other teachers. I have to be so careful not to appear like a know-it-all, pushy gringa.

  3. This is great! I love how dedicated you are to getting these books to children and how you’ve taken the time to understand how best they can be used. Good luck!

  4. Deb, I love your energy and passion! And your willingness to step back and recalibrate–to create an approach that more accurately fits the need. I do worry about whether the proposed document camera and projector would stay in a school long, or go missing. I’m going to have to get myself to Ometepe next visit and see if there’s anything I can do to help. I can’t imagine growing up without being read to and reading!

    • Thanks, Claire. It’s a total makeover for my lending library project. Ron is bringing my document camera from the states. Since I’m experimenting with my first permanent school library, I’ll only take my document reader to the school when I’m there to show them how it can be used, then bring it back home. Eventually, I’ll figure out something. It’s always a work in progress. I hope you can visit Ometepe. We could have a brainstorming session. 🙂

      • I’ve been wondering if I should try to find a way to get to Ometepe on my next trip to Nica this summer. Mainly depends on the timing of dentist appointments and cost. I’d love to brainstorm with you! I don’t know how much a child psychotherapist can contribute by way of ideas, but I love the thought that I could maybe be a little bit useful!

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