In Guyana, the use of moral "generative themes" propels a project for youth

“On the Wings of Words” combines efforts across several theme areas – literacy, moral education, and the use of mass media to recruit volunteers – to obtain a greater synergy for success.

p PLAISANCE, Guyana - Although reading is not her main subject, teacher Audrie Campbell knew three years ago that something was wrong with her students almost as soon as she returned to her home economics classroom at the community secondary school here in this suburb of Georgetown, the nation's capitol.

Ms. Campbell, who is now 45, had been away from teaching for about 14 years, operating a small grocery store and haberdashery shop. Economic times were tough here in the 1980s and running her own business seemed like a good way to make ends meet.

But upon stepping back into the classroom in 1995, Ms. Campbell immediately noticed that many of her students struggled much more than her students had in the 1970s. "They just weren't performing in my subject area, so I wanted to know what the problem was," she said. "And I found the problem was that they could not read."

Not one to shrug off a problem as someone else's responsibility, Ms. Campbell decided to start her own remedial reading class. She sought instruction from a local church group that had just started up a literacy teacher-training program in response to a new national literacy campaign. And then she invited her students, who ranged in age from 11 to 16 years old, to come in during the lunch break for extra reading help.

In the beginning, the results were not particularly good. The training she had received focused on the mechanical aspects of reading, with an emphasis on phonics. "But I thought the kids were too big for phonics."

So when she saw a pamphlet about another program that offered free training in how to teach literacy, she enrolled immediately. That program, known as "On the Wings of Words," had just been started up by the Bahá'í community of Guyana, also in response to the national campaign for improved literacy.

The instructional methods she learned through "On the Wings of Words" were entirely different. The methods took a dynamic, participatory approach to teaching reading, and included the use of skits, songs and other creative teaching aids. The methods also emphasized the importance of teaching moral values, along with basic literacy, as a means of motivating and empowering students.

These methods, Ms. Campbell said, were immediately successful. She moved her reading class to her garage and held it daily after school. She started with 12 students, but soon began holding two classes, so great was the demand. She provided these services to her pupils free of charge, obtaining her reward in the progress of her students.

"I felt happy because the children not only finished my school, but some went on to institutions of higher learning," said Ms. Campbell, who is not a Bahá'í and who has continued with the "On the Wings of Words" project since. "And this is very significant. Because most of the students at a community high school like ours - which is considered a lower level school - are not expected to go on."

Ms. Campbell's experience mirrors that of many educators and others in Guyana recently. Until the mid-1990s, people in this small tropical Caribbean country took comfort in the widely accepted statistic that, despite various economic hardships, theirs was one of the most literate nations in the region, with an "official" literacy rate of more than 98 percent. (Indeed, many international reference works continue to accept this figure. The prestigious 1998 United Nations Development Report, for example, cites a 98.1 percent literacy rate.)

But in 1994, concerned that young people were not performing as well as they should have, the Ministry of Education commissioned a survey. Undertaken by Zellynne Jennings, then a professor of education at the University of Guyana, it was discovered that for out-of-school youth between the ages of 14 and 25, upwards of 89 percent were "functionally illiterate."

"If you were just going by standard literacy tests, on whether people could write their names, the percentages were quite high," said Prof. Jennings, who is now a literacy consultant working throughout the Caribbean. "But when we asked whether people can actually understand what they read and do simple arithmetic computation, the story was different." Jennings believes the drop in literacy was caused by the difficult economic times in the 1980s that left many schools without good teachers and forced many young people to drop out of school in search of work.

When the results of the study were released in 1996, it led to some serious national introspection and analysis. A government-sponsored national literacy task force was formed, for example, and a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched projects to promote literacy.

By nearly all accounts, among the most successful of these efforts was the "On the Wings of Words" literacy program.

"Breaking new ground"

"The program originated by the Bahá'í community - 'On the Wings of Words' - is not 'about' the best - it definitely is the best organized response that we've had in the nation to the literacy problem," said Dale Bisnauth, Guyana's minister of education. "In a real sense 'On the Wings of Words' is really breaking new ground. We have never had anything like it."

Indeed, the project - which has trained more than 1,000 literacy facilitators and led to the holding of classes for more than 3,000 young people - has received similar praise from nearly every quarter. The national media have run positive stories and editorials about the project, educational administrators have called it a model effort, and the facilitators and students who have participated tell of many rewards.

The project recruits unpaid volunteer literacy facilitators through the mass media and other publicity methods. The volunteers are then given a week of free training in the summer and administrative support over the course of a year as they work to organize small-scale literacy classes in their home communities. Like Bahá'í literacy and educational projects in many parts of the world, "On the Wings of Words" is an integrated project, combining efforts across several theme areas to obtain a greater synergy for success. Specifically, "On the Wings of Words" integrates the training of volunteer literacy facilitators with the promotion of spiritual and moral values.

"We make it clear, in introductory meetings held five weeks before the training, that it has a spiritual basis," said Pamela O'Toole, a member of the Bahá'í literacy task force that oversees the project. "We talk about a bird having two wings. One is the mechanics of reading. But that alone is not going to change the lives of children, because of the many other problems in their lives. So we explain that you have to look at the other wing, which we believe is moral and spiritual education."

"Generative Themes"

According to Ms. O'Toole and others on the task force, both the course for the facilitators - and the classes that they ultimately conduct for the children and youth - stress three basic moral themes, which are drawn from the Bahá'í writings. These themes are: "Man is a noble being," "Our actions affect others," and, "We are in control of our own actions."

"These themes permeate everything in 'Wings of Words,' " said Ms. O'Toole, a native of Scotland who moved to Guyana with her English husband, Brian, in 1978. "We use Paulo Freire's technique of generative themes, where you discuss issues, using these three themes. And this is very empowering for the youth. It is not something they do in school. So a lesson begins with generative themes. 'How do we know what is right and wrong?' 'How can we have strength to choose the right thing to do?' Issues like that."

Outsiders agree that the use of moral themes has paid off. "It is a good project because it has attracted a number of children who have not been doing well at school and some who have actually dropped out," said Samuel Small, director of the Institute of Distance and Continuing Education at the University of Guyana, which offers all facilitators who graduate from the course - and follow through with a year's worth of classes - a special literacy instructor's certificate. "And I can say that at the graduation exercises we have held, the children have produced stories, poems, skits …which indicated that they have developed a lot of self-confidence, apart from their improved literary levels."

With a parallel focus on the mechanics of reading, the course uses books and workbooks developed by the Bahá'í literacy task force. The "Wings of Words" materials are designed to lead facilitators through a course with students, even if they have had very little previous training in education. Indeed, although most of the facilitators are educators, volunteers come from a wide variety of professions, including bank clerks, health care workers and even a veterinarian.

Eileen Grant, for example, is a 60-year-old clerical secretary who took a "Wings of Words" facilitator's course in 1996 and has since offered free classes to about 80 children in her Georgetown neighborhood. "I was privileged to read at an early age and I thought it was frightening that so many young people of Guyana cannot read," she said. "So I wanted to help."

Ms. Grant, like Ms. Campbell, is not a Bahá'í. But she also finds the use of spiritually oriented themes completely in accord with her own beliefs as a Christian. "I entirely agree with them," she said. "You need to know other things in life, so that reading can be beneficial. And if you know right from wrong, and you can read as well, you've got a pretty good chance of going down the right road."

Most of the rewards, of course, go to the young people who participate in the local classes. Jonelle Sealey is a 10-year-old girl who has been one of Ms. Campbell's students in Plaisance. Before the classes, she could not read well and did not enjoy reading. She said the "Wings of Words" classes given by Ms. Campbell were more helpful than traditional classes at school because "the teacher moves with you step by step, and if you don't learn, she will go back with you and teach you other words."

As a result, she has now grown to love reading. "I used to just play all the time, or sit and listen to music," said Jonelle. "But now if I have spare time I read."