* Michelle Thoughts, * Peace Corps

Top Tips for Teaching Literacy (and working in Jamaican schools)

tutoring ja pcv
For the past two years, I’ve learned a whole heap serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural, Jamaican primary school. My official position title was: Youth Literacy Advisor. On a daily basis, I was pulling out small groups of students from their regular classes and helping them with basic reading skills.

I was not a teacher before, nor do I plan to become one. But teaching kids to read sure has been rewarding. If I can save those who endeavor down the same path, from avoiding some of the bumps I hit in the road, then my lessons learned will be all the more worthwhile.

While the little nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned come directly from my experience in a particular role in Jamaica, much of it applies to school-based Volunteers in other locations. And some- though definitely not all- applies to anyone coming in contact with a beginning reader. Primarily, though, I’m writing for the next generation of PCVs in Jamaica. Take from it what you will.

By the way, I know there are many of you out there with brilliant teaching tips and advice to share. If you’ve got something to add, please share it in the comments below.

Best Free Videos for Teaching Phonics

A shameless plug for my little Jamaican Alphabet Sound Video project. Please share:

See my post, Amazing Free Digital Resources for Teaching Phonics, for a list of recommended songs and videos off of youtube. You don’t even need to have internet access at school to use them.

Using Technology in Low-Income Schools

Media, like engaging power-points and short videos, are excellent tools for keeping a student’s attention and communicating certain concepts. Trust me, just turn on a screen of some sort and the kids’ eyes will immediately be drawn to it. This can really save you some energy because you don’t have to compete for their attention on your own. Plus, it gives variety to your lessons when you would otherwise just be talking at your class.

In low income schools, like rural Jamaica, precautions are a necessary consideration when it comes to using technology. Ideally, your school would have a small computer lab or a laptop you could check out, but that’s just not the case everywhere.

When I first came to my school, it had seven dinosaur computers collecting dust- completely useless. I opted to carry our personal iPad to school occasionally because the educational shows I had loaded on it were effective enough to be worth the risk. (Fortunately, our school got a laptop donated, so I no longer had to bring my own.)

If you can help it, it’s best not to advertise that you have a costly device. From a cultural integration standpoint, it reinforces the separation of haves and have nots and the stereotypes about rich Americans. Secondly, it can make you a target for theft.

I never took the iPad out in public. Instead, I carried it concealed in my shoulder bag and immediately put it in a cabinet drawer when I got to school. Kids only saw it come in and out of that drawer, so they never actually knew if it stayed there or if it travelled with me. My classroom is also secured with window and door grills, and no one goes in there without me knowing.

The other major precaution, outside of theft or robbery, is that your stuff could get damaged. For that reason, it should be a strict rule- with clear consequences- that students not be allowed to touch your computer/device and that you never leave it out unsupervised. In Jamaica, kids don’t always have respect for physical property. Even if their intentions are good, they may not know how to take care of things well or understand how their behavior (like reacting to someone pushing on them) could affect the things around them.

literacy ipad

More Tips for Teaching in Jamaican Schools

Select your students wisely

Not everyone may agree, but the way I see it: it’s best to only  tutor students who are actually going to progress.

In my school, there is way more need for literacy help than I could ever give. Out of the large population struggling with reading, some have severe learning disabilities, attention problems, behavior challenges, or poor attendance. By selecting students who have the ability and desire to learn from you in your two years, you save yourself a lot of trouble and wasted energy. And you give the students whom you do work with, more of the attention they deserve.

Everyone deserves a fair chance. I would tell my students on the first day of class that I only have time and space in my pull-out groups for students who show me that they want to learn. A letter home to parents let them know that students would stay in my session only if they had good behavior and regular attendance. I did have to “kick out” some disrespectful students, and I quietly dropped those who missed too much school to keep up.

To be honest, I could have been more selective. As it was, I saw each student for a maximum of two 40-minute sessions per week. I just think how much farther we could have gotten if I was able to give them even more time. 3 to 5 sessions per week would be ideal, though rarely possible.

The counter-argument to this approach is that it’s the really difficult students who need the most help. In my opinion, however, literacy tutoring is not the best place for that. You can find ways to touch these kids and build their self-esteem through other means (story-time during breaks, drawing lessons, drama class, gardening, etc.).

Work in small groups of similar skill level

The smaller the group, the more effective your sessions will be. One-on-one reading is perhaps the most valuable, although certain lessons and activities work better with two or three in the mix. Peace Corps Jamaica very wisely sets our class maximum at 6 students. Keeping it to two or three is ideal if you want to spend more time on the actual lesson than on managing behavior.

Sometimes schools may not be familiar with the strategy behind literacy tutoring, and they may try to just give you six students from each grade. In situations like this, be your own advocate and be more intentional about how you form your groups. Ask the teachers for a list of students that they see are struggling. Test these students and create groups based on their reading level or on the specific skills they need to work on.

Set small, achievable goals

Let’s face it: it’s not likely you’re going to solve your school’s illiteracy problems. You will, however, make a big impact in the lives of a few of your students. To avoid frustration and disappointment, you have to set your expectations appropriately. For most of us, that translates to: set the bar low.

Students and teachers alike do well when they’re working toward something. If you can get your hands on “leveled readers” (a series of books that progresses through different phonics skills or builds on sight words), have the students work through the set over time. I created a chart with the students’ names on one side and the list of books ordered across the top. Each time a student read one of the books to me, they got a sticker on the chart for that book. Once they finished a set of ten, they got a bigger prize (like a whole page of stickers). Some- of course, not all- students were truly motivated by the possibility of achievement like this, whether it be to reach the prize or to read more books than their friend.

In general, you want to set goals for each student as soon as you do an initial test with them. Maybe they need to learn the 26 letter sounds before they can progress. Maybe they can sound out words ok, but they should work on sight words (more specifically, be able to read the first three sets of Dolch sight words without hesitancy). Give yourself a direction to go and make it realistically achievable.

I had one boy in fourth grade who had visual-motor challenges and barely knew the alphabet the year before. I set a goal for him to read my one, easiest 8-page book by the end of the year. He actually blew that goal out of the water in a couple weeks and started reading the whole set of books!

book reward chart

Create a routine

Structure is often lacking from Jamaican rural schools, so kids are used to doing whatever they want whenever they want to. From day one, set your own standard and stick to it. Most kids will quickly adapt.

For my classes, they must line up at the door and make sure their shirts at tucked in, shoes tied. When they’re calm and collected, I let them walk in and sit down. (They get a reward point for doing this properly. It doesn’t always work, but some of them really thrive with it.) At the end of my session, they push in their chairs, quietly line up at the door again, wait to be dismissed, and walk in a line back to class. 

Tek time

“Tek time” is the patwa phrase for “slow down.” Be conservative with your time to prevent yourself from stress overload. Don’t fill up your schedule until you know what you can handle. I recommend waiting through a full term of teaching pull-out groups before you try to take on any extra-curricular activities or commit to a secondary project. Working in the schools is pretty draining, not to mention the cultural battles and isolation you may go through, so it can be essential to have free time to recover and unwind.

This includes not going overboard on your class schedule. You’ll notice that a slower pace at work is culturally appropriate. Embrace that. Allow yourself some down time during the work day to lesson plan, prep, or just rest and regroup. It’s more important that you stay balanced and positive than that you “get enough done.”

Work around time limitations

As I mentioned before, I’ve only been able to pull out students a maximum of two times per week, and this is in part because the teachers are only willing to release them to me during certain periods (like Language Arts). Most grades have Language Arts at the same time of day, which leaves me with spaces in my schedule where no students are available to pull out.

The first work-around involves improvising when teachers are absent. Unfortunately, rural Jamaican schools don’t have the resources to supply substitute teachers unless it’s for a long-term situation like maternity leave. When a teacher is sick or runs an errand during school hours (yes, that happens), sometimes another teacher will throw up some random work on the board in hopes to keep them occupied but more often than not, they are just left to their own devices.

Side note: Do not even think about stepping in to fill the role of substitute (it sets the wrong expectation about your job and you will inevitably be taken advantage of, it’s not sustainable, plus handling a whole class is simply overwhelming).

But in the case of an absent teacher- which happens somewhat often- you can take students from that class whenever you want! You don’t ever have to feel obligated to do an extra, improvised lesson- but if you’ve got nothing else going on, why not get a little more face time with those students?

The second way to get more time with students is utilizing the break and lunch periods. Unless I have a fully packed day or I just need the break, I usually try to do one-on-one reading during the kids’ free time. This can be informal- taking a story book and reading to kids under a tree. Or it can be a supplemental time for the students in your tutoring groups to work individually with you.

The final way I’ve increased my face time with students is to host special classes or camps on days when school is not in session. For example, when grade six takes their standardized test for two days, all the other students stay home in order to provide a quiet testing environment (which is absolutely necessary when classrooms are open-air and not at all sound proof). But I hosted a special one-day session, with a small group of well-behaved kids, in a classroom where our voices would not carry to the test-takers. All it took was approval from the Principal and permission slips sent home to the parents. I used the time to do activities and games that we normally don’t have the time or space for in regular pull-out sessions. One fun activity was showing them the most exciting parts of a Planet Earth video and going through a companion worksheet I made beforehand, which challenged them to find the name of each animal in the order they appear in the show, etc.

If you want to keep it, hide it

It’s not that Jamaican kids are inherently thieves- most are not, and I trust them greatly. It’s more that anything left out in the open is seen as fair game.

I noticed that if I ever left a pencil or a sharpener out on a table- even if it had my name on it- it would quickly go missing. But the same pencil, when left  next to my book on my teacher desk, just a few feet away, could stay safe for months.

Keep any of your supplies in a drawer, a shoebox, or even a scandal bag. I have never had anything go missing from these places. The kids know exactly what is in there, but they don’t dare touch it.

ja school

Prevent distractions as much as possible

The kids are going to want your attention almost constantly. This is endearing but can cause major problems when you have to teach and you’re perpetually being interrupted.

Train all of your students to knock on the door (if you have one) or ask politely before they enter. It’s impossible to get the whole school population to do this, but it can save you from constantly ushering out swarms of kids quite so often. Also, some of your kids will inevitably help you police the others.

If you have slat windows, find a way to keep the bottom part shut (I wedged a phone book in there) or you’ll constantly have kids peeping, or worse, playing very loud games slamming the shutters open and closed.

Train your own help

Training for Literacy Tutors (ppt)
Power-point I created, adaptable for training volunteer tutors or family members who want to work with kids at home. Includes the building block skills of reading, positive reinforcement strategies, and free literacy activities for different skill levels

There are so few leadership and extra-curricular opportunities. Also, as a Literacy Advisor you don’t normally get the opportunity to work with high-achieving students unless you deliberately seek it out. It can be a nice change of pace. And it’s rewarding for all involved.

In my second year, I sought out three high-achieving sixth grade students to become my Reading Assistants. While they weren’t available during class sessions, they were more than willing to give up some of their lunch break to help tutor the younger kids.

For this program, I set up a whole application and interview process so that it would be taken seriously and give the older kids some work-prep experience. I did a special training for the Reading Assistants to go over positive reinforcement strategies (which is not a natural approach in Jamaica) and train them to do basic activities like sight word flashcards. Next, I brought in some tutees and coached the Assistants through some hands-on practice until I felt they grasped the concepts and were ready to work on their own. They really helped increase overall face time with each student and expand the reach of my literacy program. 

peer tutors

Involve Parents

Although some parents of your struggling readers will be illiterate themselves, it’s still worthwhile to send a note home to parents before you start working with the kids. I use this as my first homework assignment for each group. In the note, let parents know that you will be tutoring their child and explain the tentative schedule (so hopefully they’ll make extra effort to send their child to school on those days). Specify that students will only remain in your class if they demonstrate good behavior, regular attendance, and complete their assignments. Leave a space for parents to write their name, phone number, and any questions or comments they have.

At my school, it was suggested that parents (or another adult) sign each piece of homework to encourage their participation. While I don’t know if any other teachers followed through with the plan, I did adopt the practice. In my note home, I asked parents to check their child’s homework and to sign the page when they have seen the homework completed. Kids got one sticker if their homework was completed and a second, bonus point or sticker if it was also signed by a parent. I did have to be lenient, though, because some kids just don’t have any adults who can help with their homework.

At the end of the year or term, I also sent home little report cards. The school does not always do this each term, so I sent it directly with the kids (and asked for the parents’ signature in return so I know someone saw it). I always try to allow space for questions or comments on the things I send home. Usually they come back blank, but every one in a while I’ll get a valid question or a really encouraging compliment from a kid’s mother.

It’s also important to attend PTA meetings. Introduce yourself at the first one and explain your role, but also try to get to know the parents. Ask your students to point out their parents to you when they attend a meeting.

Other tips for working in the school

  • Let your staff know what your areas of interest are and what kind of outside projects you’re capable of. Unless they have expectations from working with a previous Volunteer, they won’t necessarily think outside the box (i.e. your job description as literacy tutor) unless you tell them you want to do other things, too. Even then, they may not think to capitalize on your skills unless it falls into a familiar category, like secretarial work.
  • If you feel pressured by your supervisor or co-workers to do something outside of your job description (like secretary work or substitute teach), don’t hesitate to use Peace Corps policy as an excuse. If needed, tell them you have to ask your PC Program Manager for permission to take on the additional role being requested of you or else you could get in trouble. Remember that giving in even once can set an expectation for more of the same in the future.
  • If you have a behavior reward system, be fair but sensitive. I even try to “rig” it so that the rewards usually come out more or less even. Some kids cannot handle others getting rewards, even when it’s their own fault for not making better choices. Some may not be used to the concept of natural consequences.
  • Be neutral when it comes to staff dynamics or conflict. Eventually, you will become privy to underlying tensions and power struggles. Avoid taking sides and try to stay out of it to the best of your ability.
  • Celebrate little victories along the way. Progress may not come quickly but it will come. Help your students look back on what they’ve accomplished, too.

Hopefully this has proved useful to somebody. For those with similar experiences, please share in the comments below. What has worked for you in the schools?

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