Teaching Literacy on Bequia


When Carin Makuz first announced her idea for The Litter I See Project and asked authors to contribute a written piece to be published on the blog, I was in! Anything bringing attention to the problem of litter was important to me. But the combined issues of litter/literacy was a perfect play-on-words (Litter-I-See) that made this project irresistible. I wrote to Carin immediately to ask for a photo of a piece of litter.

The other aspect of this project that attracted my attention is that it was launched to help raise funds, as well as awareness, for Frontier College in Toronto, a literacy organization founded in 1899 that began by sending teachers to far-flung work places, like the railways and mines and even into lumber camps in the bush, to work by day and teach the other workers to read and write in English at night. Maintenant en français aussi.

“Did you know I taught literacy on Bequia under the auspices of Frontier College?” I asked Carin during our correspondence.

“I certainly did NOT know that! I’d like to hear the story sometime,” she replied.

So, to go along with my piece that’s being posted on the blog today, here’s the first part of my Teaching Literacy on Bequia story for Carin and all her readers …

I stopped in my tracks when I heard the statistic broadcast on the radio that more than 40% of the people living in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are illiterate. “How could that be possible?” I wondered. Having been born in a place and at a time when education and reading were valued and encouraged by our parents and society in general, then working all my career in the book business, I had never known people who couldn’t read. (Wouldn’t read, yes, but that’s another problem altogether.) Books and reading have been my life and I wanted to share this love and my knowledge with others. My thought then was that if every one who could read taught every one who couldn’t, we would wipe out illiteracy, at least in SVG, in no time! Yeah, I know. A bit optimistic on my part, but I have always tried to look on the bright side.

My problem was, however, how to get started. I had met at least one man, a gardener working for Dennis, who had expressed an interest in learning to read. So I put out an email-call for help and received a reply from author-pal, Linda Granfield (who has been featured on my blog Reading Recommendations), that I would be wise to contact Frontier College. I did just that, and began a correspondence with one of the women there. She advised me on how to begin, but I was pretty much left to my own devices when it came to developing methods and resource materials. These were pre-eBook days (1998) and it was much too expensive to purchase and ship learning and reading materials to the Caribbean. So I used the same method I’d employed when teaching myself how to use a computer – the by-gosh-and-by-golly method.

What I did discover though was that learners want to tell their own stories (as do we all!) and read about other learners and how they live their lives. So I asked the six men I was teaching to write about themselves and we shared those stories around, as well as keeping in contact with Frontier College and reading what their students were writing.

I stopped teaching on Bequia (for a number of reasons) in 2002, and I had largely forgotten about this time on the island until Carin asked me to contribute to her project. The memories suddenly came flooding back and, when Carin sent me my piece of “litter” to write about, I was inspired to create a short story from the POV of an illiterate Caribbean woman living illegally in Canada. I felt I had enough experience dealing with the men I taught on Bequia to understand how a person might think about their inability to read and write, and how they would feel when taken away from a world where they could live quite comfortably without being literate.

It was coincidental when Carin wrote to say my piece was scheduled for publication soon that I happened to be sorting through books and papers stored in a Calgary locker. I discovered two copies of a booklet Frontier College had published when I was still teaching to which I had submitted stories written by four of my adult students. So I wrote to Carin to say, “Stop the presses!” because I had found a surprise and would pop one of the copies into the mail to her. I contacted Frontier College and asked their permission to create a PDF of the booklet, Reflections From the Inside: A Collection of Student Writing, and they were not only intrigued by my discovery of this long-lost publication but thrilled that I was planning on making it available to Carin’s and my readers. So here you go!

Frontier College Reflections From the Inside

Please do read through all of these stories. You will find many are uplifting, some are heartbreaking, but all are illuminating. To those reading this blog post, I doubt any has ever had to struggle with illiteracy during your lifetime. You may never have known anyone either who is illiterate. (And people can be illiterate for so very many reasons other than just the circumstance of where they were born.) What I discovered while teaching on Bequia is that people who are illiterate do often manage to hide it well, because there is still such a stigma attached to not being able to read. The men who came to me to learn were afraid their secret would get out, so I met with them individually at my house. And it was interesting to me that not one women ever asked to be taught. That spoke volumes in itself about this Caribbean culture I’d chosen to live within.

I had mixed success with my efforts, and I often felt after all was said and done that I learned much more from my students than I ever taught any of them. I’m grateful to have had the experience, and thankful for the help I received from Frontier College and the encouragement they offered my students by publishing their very own stories in book-form. As I said at the time to Glenford, “Hey! Your writing is being published before mine!” They were all quite chuffed about seeing their writing and names in print! That went a long way to make them want to continue learning. And I was certainly proud of having been part of their process towards learning how to read and write.

Frontier College continues to do excellent work! Please consider clicking on the button provided on The Litter I See Project site and donating to help them keep doing what they do in encouraging literacy.

(I’ll be writing a Part 2 to this story of Teaching Literacy on Bequia with specifics as to who I taught and how lessons were conducted. I still have files of everything we did stored away on one of these many memory sticks in my bag of tricks.)

12 responses

  1. […] beginning, and when she began batting around the idea for The Litter I See Project … well, I just had to become involved, and I’ve been helping to promote this great idea all along. Here’s Carin to tell us […]

  2. Reblogged this on blindoggbooks and commented:
    I love it when #writers do stuff like this!!

    1. Thanks for reblogging, Tim!

  3. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Literacy is a blessing we tend to forget – and many neglect to enhance.
    But to others, it is still a prize to be sought and obtained…

    1. Well said, Mr. Ape! And thank you for reblogging!

  4. I’m wondering how those ‘early readers’ of yours are doing now? Still reading? Still in touch?

    1. I’ll be updating you about my students in Part 2 of this story, Linda. Thanks for that initial connection to Frontier College!

  5. Way to go Sue! Glad to read about this commendable initiative. I remember writing the piece about this passion of yours for the Queen’s Alumni Review – must have been in 2002! Best of luck with your latest venture!

    1. Yes, thanks for that, Gwen! You were one of my early cheerleaders in this.

  6. I’ll look forward to reading that Susan, I’ve opened it in iBooks ready to dip into.

    My Spanish neighbour is illiterate. Her husband (or maybe her children) taught her numbers on the clock to tell the time, and how to sign her name. Many of the people of her generation (she’s 85 now) were unable to read. José was lucky as his parents paid a couple of pesetas for a maestro to give him a lesson once or twice a week. In the bank we would see old people giving a thumb print with their passbooks or collecting their pension.

    I was stunned as José and Adelina are slightly younger than my parents were, and my grandparents and generations back were literate. The benefits of the Education Act in the UK I guess compared with the poverty in Andalucía where young kids of six or seven were used to pick crops in the fields in their hand to mouth existence.

    So I’ll be very interested in Reflections.

    1. Thanks for reading the stories, roughseas! I’ll be writing more background to my teaching experience for a later blog and will tell you more of the individual students I worked with over those years.

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