By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
At the start of the spring 2011 semester, none of the students in Sister Diane Zigo’s Literacy Development in the Content Area class at Le Moyne College could point to Gulu on a map. But after spending the semester writing and producing textbooks for students there, the city in northern Uganda holds a very special place in their hearts.
A few years ago, Sister Diane, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, attended a National Council of Teachers of English conference, during which one of the presenters spoke about a program called Books of Hope. The nonprofit organization allows a school or classroom in the U.S. to sponsor an underserved school in Africa and produce books to address the educational needs of that school.
Sister Diane immediately recognized the program as a way to give her students — all future teachers studying in the Education program at Le Moyne — real-world experience in teaching subject areas through literacy. She paired her students with a primary school in Lalogi, Uganda, and set them to work creating and sending books that covered specific topics in subjects from math to English to science.
Sister Diane continued partnering with Books of Hope for a few years, but was disappointed by the inability to effectively communicate with the students in Uganda. She wanted to find a way for her students to gain a better understanding of the children they were writing for and of the impact of their work.
So earlier this year, she reached out to Sister Patricia Murphy, CSJ, who along with two other sisters works in Gulu, Uganda, through the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet congregational ministry project there. Among other duties, Sister Pat teaches at St. Joseph’s, a primary school in Gulu.
“[When] Sister Diane got in touch with me to see if I thought this [book project] would be worthwhile, I got excited about it, knowing that the students here have very little access to books,” said Sister Pat. School in Uganda is not “free” as we know it in the U.S., she explained, and because the school fees for St. Joseph’s are among the lowest in the country, many of the area’s poorest children are enrolled there. Textbooks and supplies are sometimes in short supply.
Sister Pat was able to provide the Le Moyne students a clear picture of the St. Joseph’s students and Gulu, explaining the social, political and economic challenges the community faces. She described how Uganda’s brutal civil war interrupted the education of many children and told them about the “night commuters,” children who had to walk to walled or gated locations at night to avoid being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Sister Pat also helped them make their texts culturally appropriate, supplying insights on the foods and activities that a typical child in Gulu might enjoy.
The Le Moyne students also had to think critically about how best to teach a concept to students who are simultaneously learning English. “It requires careful thought,” said Sister Diane. “They have to use simple language, lots of visuals, repetition. The content has to be well-organized and absolutely correct — the grammar, the spelling, everything.”
Math major Hannah Bischoff and physics major Jonathan Santamoor, both now seniors, partnered to write a book on the mathematical order of operations (the order of calculations used to solve an equation). Almost immediately they ran into a cultural difference.
“Here we use [the mnemonic acronym] PEMDAS — parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction — but in Uganda they use BOMDAS — brackets, orders, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction,” said Bischoff.
The core of the concept, though, is steps, so Bischoff and Santamoor thought about what activities might require a Ugandan child to follow steps.
“Many kids in Uganda don’t have time to do their homework because they have to run errands [for their household], like going to the market to do shopping,” Bischoff said. So she and Santamoor wrote a story about a boy going to the market and picking up items typical to Uganda that correlated with BOMDAS, starting with bananas.
By the end of the semester, after researching, writing, revising and producing their books, the students had learned much more than what was outlined in the course syllabus.
“I am not sure who got more out of the book, me or the children,” said Santamoor. “I had little knowledge of the issues in Uganda before last spring. It is a harsh reality that these students depend on college students to write books because there is no money to purchase any supplies.”
“It’s mind-boggling that a little thing like a 20-page textbook can mean so much to a student in Africa,” Bischoff concurred. “We were constantly humbled throughout the semester.”
The students were recently able to see the fruits of their labor in photos sent by Sister Pat. In the shots, the children in Uganda are gripping the books and grinning ear-to-ear.
“We had to keep counting the books in each classroom after sharing them for a few minutes because [the children] didn’t want to turn them in again. I think that tells you what the children thought of them!” said Sister Pat.
Sister Pat will be returning to the U.S. in the coming months, so Sister Diane has identified a new school to partner with for the spring 2012 semester: the elementary school in Ariang, South Sudan, that Gabriel Bol Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy who attended Le Moyne, has established. Bol Deng is familiar with the textbook project, having spoken to Sister Diane’s students about his own experience growing up amid war and violence in Africa.
Sister Diane is proud of her students’ work and happy that the project offered them an opportunity for “authentic service.”
“They see that this is just a beginning,” she said. “They can take this small act and see how it makes a lasting impact and becomes bigger. That idea of service is what the Le Moyne mission is all about.”