Making a Difference: Learning through Libraries


Photo by David Melgar

By Debra Gittler

At the front of the room, in large letters, appeared the question: “De dónde viene el agua?” Where does the water come from?

The room was filled with nearly fifty teachers and parents from Ahuachapán, the coffee-growing region of El Salvador. Divided into groups of four, they observed a cold can of Coke dripping with the moisture of condensation. They had eight minutes to draw a model explaining this scientific phenomenon.

This might not seem like a workshop about establishing libraries and developing literacy, but for the student facilitators from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), this was exactly the type of experience they hoped teachers and parents could recreate at school and at home, to promote student learning and use of books. After the eight minutes, recent HGSE graduates Rebecca Utton (School Leadership Program—SLP), Sara Yamaka (International Education Program—IEP) and Lisa Mulvey (IEP) read a children’s picture book about the water cycle, led a group conversation, asking the small groups to revise their drawings before presenting them to the room.

For Learning Through Libraries (LTL), a student organization started at HGSE by IEP students Jill Carlson, Nell O’Donnell and myself in September 2009, establishing school libraries at needy schools in El Salvador is not only about bringing books; the goal is also to help teachers and parents understand the diversity of ways texts can be used to promote critical thought.

LTL was intended to host a one-time book drive, culminating in a January visit to El Salvador to bring books to needy schools. However, LTL was able to raise nearly $35,000 in cash and in-kind donations to send over 4,000 books, establish 5 school libraries, and make significant book donations to 3 schools and 5 women’s shelters. In doing so, we worked with over 160 Salvadoran parents, teachers, principals, students, local artists and educators.

Before coming to HGSE, I had worked in El Salvador designing a national teacher-training initiative for the Salvadoran Ministry of Education (MINED), implemented by the local NGO FEPADE (Fundación Empresarial para el Desarrollo Educativo). Jill, who had taught in Latin America, Nell, who had worked creating libraries in needy communities in the United States, and I all share a love for literacy and language. My connections in El Salvador seemed like an obvious opportunity for us to pool our passions and experience and use our time at HGSE to make a difference.

We partnered with Scholastic Books to get 50% off children’s books in Spanish, Taca Airlines donated free transport for three different shipments of thousands of books, and FEPADE’s National Book Drive worked with MINED to waive customs fees and coordinate book distribution. Amigos Bilingual and MLK Schools in Cambridge hosted book drives, collecting over 700 titles. The Harvard community also donated generously throughout the year.

The HGSE administration, staff and students were an enormous component in LTL’s success. In addition to awarding small grants throughout the school year, HGSE showed its support at commencement, when students waved Spanish children’s books in the air.

In all, LTL facilitated two visits of 13 students and staff to El Salvador: one in January and another in June. During these visits, we led training sessions with teachers and parents about book use and care, and helped create libraries at schools.

HGSE representatives worked with Salvadoran artists and educators to produce workshops for participating school communities on the topics of documentary photography, oral tradition, and mural painting. LTL sponsored gallery exhibitions in El Salvador and Gutman Library featuring photography by Salvadoran students from these workshops. A small exhibit is still on display on the second floor of Longfellow Hall on Appian Way.

But LTL is growing beyond Harvard. Thanks to overwhelming success and support, LTL has established the non-profit organization ConTextos to continue establishing school libraries in El Salvador, while providing training for teachers and parents.

ConTextos already has gathered a Salvadoran team that will work full time, starting January 2011, in 15 schools as part of a pilot phase to establish libraries and train parents and teachers about using books to promote literacy, critical thought and problem solving.

Debra Gittler graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2010 with an EdM. She is the founder and executive director of ConTextos, a non-profit that originated as the HGSE student group Learning Through Libraries. To learn more about Debra and ConTextos, visit con-textos.org

Next school year, LTL hopes to expand into other Harvard schools and work with DRCLAS to facilitate visits to El Salvador. To learn more about how to support LTL as Harvard student or staff, email learning.