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Local educators to go to Malawi, teach early literacy practices

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A group of four local educators isn’t just helping share early literacy practices with teachers of 2,000 Malawian children.

Much of the north country community also has a part in the group’s upcoming two-week trip to the African country, since hundreds of materials were donated by community members, and other support was provided to the group.

“We felt such a sense of community in our own community with giving, and helping put things together,” said Heather F. White, kindergarten teacher at Sherman Elementary School. “That really uplifted us.”

Mrs. White will head to Malawi on May 17 with Barbara Eldridge, a retired reading consultant for the Watertown City School District; Julia R. Bonisteel, a retired elementary teacher, and Julia Gefell, a graduate student intern who is studying in California for her master’s degree to work in English as a second language. They will return May 31.

The group of women will travel to Malawi to distribute materials and check progress on how the first year of the Keys to Education project went. The project is made possible by a three-year grant from the Presbyterian Women organization of the Presbyterian Church USA. Funds and materials collected locally will supplement items purchased with grant funds.

Mrs. White said one large duffel bag and 10 large trunks are filled with large books, small books donated from area schools that no longer use those reading series, alphabet linking charts that show letters and linking words, crayons, pencils and flash cards, among other materials. Most materials can be interchanged and used for a variety of educational lessons.

“The workshop there will start with the whole group learning songs, and that’s something I picked up from the surveys last time,” she said, referring to surveys Malawian teachers fill out to provide feedback. “Julia Bonisteel is working on making us pocket chart songs, and one is Incy Wincy Spider. We’ll teach them you can teach the song, then interchange words. They also all asked for hanging calendars so we went to School Daze and bought them that look like pocket charts. You can change colors and teach patterns too.”

All materials are culturally correct, she said, so students and teachers can relate better to the material.

Each teacher will also be provided with a package of index cards, black permanent markers and colored permanent markers, so they can make their own literacy lessons.

Mrs. White said there were too many local people and groups to name, for fear of leaving some out, that have contributed supplies, time or money to the upcoming trip. Perhaps more important than all of those donations are the relationships the group has established with north country communities.

She said she hopes those relationships continue to grow, as there will be a third, and final, trip next year. People here also have begun to collect costume jewelry and scarves, as gifts to give to participating Malawian teachers to show friendship.

“Once you make friends you do anything for each other,” Mrs. White said. “With the (Malawian) teachers, there’s a couple I started working with in 2008. The more you understand and the more you make relationships, the more effective you will be.”

She said her dream is to open a teacher-trader center there modeled on library systems here, so Malawian teachers could check out certain materials and lessons and then return them when they are done. Mrs. White said the Keys to Education project is important because “if you can teach a child to read, they can figure out anything.”

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