Tag Archives: literacy

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.)

ABC Friday Reads – Still Not Conforming!

In June, I wrote a blog post about the book, The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau extolling its virtues BEFORE I had even read the book.

Since then, I met Chris when he spoke in Calgary, bought both his books and asked him to sign them, have read them and written another blog post about AONC… and am now reading ANOC again. I brought both books with me to Bequia and am leaving them for Dennis to read.

I really can’t stress enough that neither of these books is for everyone. You need to have a certain mindset, and be open to making a change in your life, because what Chris talks about throughout is NOT CONFORMING – breaking the accepted rules and setting new ones that suit you alone, so that you may live the life you want to live, unconstrained by a job you don’t enjoy or by being in a place you don’t want to be.

Oh, yeah… and then there’s the Change the World part of Chris’s books.

I read an article this morning in Canada’s newspaper, The Globe and Mail. The writer points out that “one in two Canadian adults falls short of the desired proficiency level in English or French, while close to three in five lack the desired level of numeracy skills.” While I was living on Bequia during the late 90s early 00s, I taught literacy to both adults and teenagers. The rate of illiteracy in St. Vincent & the Grenadines holds steady at about 40%. I had always said then that if every one who could read taught one person who cannot read, we would wipe out illiteracy.

So, back to Chris’ books and changing the world… I’m, at this moment, sitting on my Bequia verandah, looking out at Admiralty Bay, drinking a second cup of coffee, and organizing myself before I catch a plane later this morning to fly back to Calgary – and it hit me! What Chris calls creating a legacy and what I could be giving back to the world while I’m not conforming in the rest of my life, is literacy. Once again, I could work at teaching others to read by developing a promotional campaign to educate the literate people of the world about my every-one-who-can-teaches-one-who-can’t motto. I’m trying to come up with a snappy name for this, something like “One to One” or 1-2-1 (for the illiterate who recognize numbers only). Any suggestions on this will be gratefully appreciated and considered. Just comment below. The name isn’t as important, though, as the message that I hope to spread – that illiteracy is a problem, but something can be done about it, if everyone pitches in.

Just think of the number of people who would then be able to join us each Friday and not only read these blog posts of mine recommending weekend reads, and those suggestions offered by others in the FridayReads network, but also the number who would then be able to read all the books being written and published in the world. So, perhaps a bit self-serving on my part since I hope to increase the audience for books I’ll be publishing through IslandCatEditions and those written and published by my friends and Alberta Books Canada colleagues, but really and truly, I do want this to become my legacy, because it is dear to my heart and a program if which I will be proud to build awareness throughout the rest of my life. Thanks, Chris!

Read Chris Guillebeau’s books this weekend and find out how he will inspire you to act!