My purpose as a Literacy Project volunteer

I am here in Vanuatu to work on the literacy project. I sometimes call it the “education” project because we do work in the local schools. However, the main goal is this: improve English literacy in Vanuatu.

While PC operates 11 types of projects in over 60 countries around the world, Vanuatu has two of them: Health and Education (English Literacy).

During our 10 weeks of training, one of the major components was technical classes.

For the literacy project group the technical classes were about:
  • The Vanuatu Ministry of Education, its hierarchy, how things work, and our place within the system
  • Classroom observation
  • How to conduct a reading assessment
  • How to encourage reading in schools, and different types of reading (read-aloud, guided, shared, independent)
  • Hearing from currently serving PCVs about the challenges they face in the classroom and school system and how to overcome them
  • Tips from currently serving PCVs who have excellent games and activities related to phonemic awareness and phonics
  • The basics of school clubs
  • How to create a library
  • Classroom management
  • Creating lesson plans
  • Co-teaching models/How to work alongside your counterpart
  • and more.

Notice that none of the above bullets are “how to teach 4th grade English.” That is not what we’re here to do, but rather the PC literacy project in Vanuatu is here to work alongside the school to develop classroom techniques to improve literacy.

If you donate solar panels and computers to a school in an underdeveloped community, a few months later you may find out the solar panels were detached from the computers to power the lights in the school, and the computers are sitting in some storage room collecting dust. If the students don’t know how to use a computer, let alone type, then what use are these hunks of metal and plastic? A real-life example is Tom's shoes, which is a company that donates a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair it sells. There are inherent flaws in that model, the basis of which is not understanding a community's actual needs and wants.

The bad rap that voluntourism has garnered is based on “westerners thinking they know better than the local community” and imposing western ideals on a community where they simply don’t work. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to realize that most worldwide conflict is based on misunderstandings and cultural differences. In the case of improving a community’s education/health system, it’s important to understand first how a community works before imposing any sort of change.

The way PC works is that it is a slow burn. The key word here is “sustainable.” We work alongside the community. They specifically requested our help. This is not voluntourism, and this is not short-term.

PC in Vanuatu operates like this: each site has a 6-year plan, with three generations of volunteers. While that isn’t a long time, it is much longer than most charitable organizations in various sites. The reason for that is that it’s the best method to create sustainable change.

Another key word is “integration.” While most communities here, from what I’ve heard, welcome volunteers with open arms, there are people and communities out there who need some “warming up,” so to speak. Integration is key. Our training heavily pushed this as a key way to get things done during service. If you are viewed as a tourist instead of a community member, you won’t be able to have your voice heard in meetings or be able to push a project forward.

Imagine that you work in a creative industry where everyone wears jeans and t-shirts to work, and then someone from another sector of the company comes in, wearing a suit and tie, and tries to tell you how to run things. You think, “Who is this dude with the suit coming into our space telling us what to do? He clearly doesn’t understand us.”

Thus, a volunteer is in service for 27 months. A volunteer is trained in the local language, as it is a key to integration. A volunteer is taught to dress like the locals (in our case, that means skirts only for women, and they must be at-the-knee or longer). A volunteer learns what behaviors are and are not acceptable (no PDA). It’s all about fitting in…and it takes a while to fit in.

After 10 weeks of training, we head off to site, and the first three months are all about observation and integration. For those of us in the literacy project, that means learning how the school works. I attend school meetings. I learn that class 1-3 are taught in Bislama and language, but class 4-8 are taught in English. I take reading assessments to see where the students’ levels are at currently. I learn about school rules and disciplinary measures. I eat lunch at the canteen and make silly faces with 1st graders over a bowl of rice. I observe the student “chore day” and see how they help out around the grounds and the community. I learn about the staff and who holds what responsibilities. I learn who I can talk to when I have a question or a suggestion. I learn how the library functions and what, if any, issues it has. I help decorate for “Open Day” and meet the parents.

That is just in the school. The first three months are also about my community relationships. I walk around the community and meet the elders. I meet the chief. I go to church. I attend the local soccer tournament. I learn who makes the best kato. I talk to my fellow volunteers about how the economics of their village play into how many people own gardens. I learn about the economics of my own village and how much fish people eat is based on the money they make from selling it at the market in Vila. I play “duck duck goose” with a handful of six-year-olds. I talk to my neighbors and watch them weave purses and baskets. I hear the local community announcements from a chief who walks through the village with a megaphone, and how I can spread news should I need to. I learn how to charter a boat to Vila. I help with my host mom’s garden. I watch a local wedding ceremony. I do all the things that help me understand my village and the people in it.

Then, we will have reconnect, and then we will start our projects. And that is six entire months after we have arrived in the country.

It is slow, yes. But it is an effective way to get things done. However, that isn’t to say things get done 100% of the time, or that they get done to the level one was hoping. That is the biggest frustration of any PCV, and that is something PC tells us early on, at the interview stage. You may come here with big hopes and dreams, and you will be shattered when you find out that your ideas never came to fruition. I am, as I said, only one of the three generations at my site. I am a drop in the bucket. I won’t transform the school into a model prep school. That’s not what I’m here for. I am here to make subtle, effective change that is sustainable.

Currently, the literacy rate in rural areas of Vanuatu is estimated around 30%. The goal, of course, is 100%.

When I leave, the literacy rate won’t be 100%. When PC pulls out of my site after a full 6 years, it won’t be 100%. The goal is that the community and school can continue what previous volunteers and I have started, and that the literacy numbers will grow.

Maybe, in ten years, those literacy rates will be perfect, and the libraries we helped build will be flooded with happy readers every day. But that won’t happen immediately upon my departure. During my service, I won’t make a perfect English program. All of the students at my school won’t know how to read.

But during training, we helped organize the school library in Pele. We made posters with Dr. Seuss quotes, we taught children how to look for books on the shelves, and we read our favorite books to them. When I arrived at site, I read a book on the beach, which started a conversation with a handful of kids about their favorite books. I talked to them about their favorite characters and why they love them. Last week, I talked with a 5th grade girl about how I’ve traveled the world and it sparked her interest in seeing Europe. This week, I applauded an 8th grade girl’s unconventional sentence structure for correctly switching clauses with proper punctuation.

During my service, I will help at least one kid overcome a mispronounced letter. I will help a child gain confidence in their work. I will show kids how to do a book report. I will encourage one student to start writing that story that’s been bottled up inside them. I will make a child excited to go to the library and fall in love with a book.

Those are the tiny droplets that will fill the bucket, and I’m happy to contribute.


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