Light of literature

Alcoa High book project enriches young Nairobi students

Fear, adventure, friends, moral choices, perseverance and hope are concepts that people experience at some point in their lives, whether they live in Alcoa, Tenn., or in Nairobi, Kenya.

These universal themes are interwoven in children’s stories that English students, Art students and Computer Technology students at Alcoa High School wrote, illustrated, formatted and published into a book they titled “Tales to Tell.” These books were then hand-delivered to elementary school children at the Candlelight School in Nairobi, Kenya.

“When the students realized the Nairobi students didn’t have books to read, they wanted to do something,” Alcoa High School English teacher Kelly Wallace said.

Wallace said the project, which is beginning its third year, has evolved and blossomed at Alcoa High School. It began when Alice and Fred Afwai from Nairobi came as guest speakers to Wallace’s class.

When Alice and Fred showed pictures and explained what schools were like in the region, the students were shocked, Wallace said.

“Their immediate response was, ‘What can we do to help?” Wallace said. She added that the students came up with several ideas, and the one everyone agreed to do was to provide books to the students at the Candlelight School.

The original thought was collecting books to send to them, but when Wallace proposed turning it into a creative writing project, the students became really excited.

Academically, one of the most important things the Junior English class learned from the project was to know who your audience is when composing a story, Wallace said. “Things like cell phones do not translate,” she said. When writing for readers of another culture, universal concepts, like hope, friendship, adventure and perseverance, can speak to the readers’ hearts, no matter what cultural differences exist.

“Tales to Tell” was divided into six different scenes, each with stories centered around a theme and written by the Junior English students.

For instance, in the section on fear, there is the story of “Dotty the Curious Giraffe.” The lesson is that bravery is always easier when you have a friend on whom you can rely.

Moral choices were addressed in the rhyming story “Marvin the Monkey.” Because he was starvin’, Marvin took fruit from Johnny Giraffe’s tree, but regretted the decision when he saw how distressed Johnny was over the loss of the food. Marvin confessed, apologized and was happy when Johnny said, “Thanks for being honest with me as a true friend will always be.”

When the Candlelight School students received the books, they began reading them instantly, according to Tina Bailes who volunteers with the local non-profit organization, Alliance for Youth Achievement. Bailes, along with four other volunteers from AYA, hand-delivered the books to the Candlelight School in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We were amazed at their hunger for knowledge and education,” Bailes said. “Their gratitude was overwhelming.”

Bailes said the Candlelight School children were so grateful to be holding a book of their own in their hands, especially one that was written specifically for them. Bailes explained that typically in the non-government run schools in the region, like the Candlelight School, they may have only one textbook for the entire classroom. She said Candlelight School had a dirt floor and was constructed from corrugated metal and scrap wood. The teachers are not paid by the government and one of the major things the school accomplishes is feeding the children, who mostly are orphaned. Bailes said monetary donations generally fund the food supply for children who would otherwise not eat.

With AYA’s help, the Candlelight School now has a permanent, solid stone structure. And, thanks to Alcoa High School students, the Candlelight students have their very own book of stories they can read, treasure and share.

The Candlelight School students were so appreciative that they selected their favorite story from the book and, as a writing assignment, wrote a personalized thank you note and explained why they enjoyed the story.

Bailes said it is AYA’s hope to put the book in the hands of more students in need in the region and to help similar schools.

Wallace said the second book is complete and will be delivered in September. A third book project is in the works for this school year. When Alcoa High School art teacher Minda Cedeno read the stories, she came on board and embraced the project as well. Her students beautifully and creatively illustrated each story with giraffes, monkeys, lions and cheetahs.

Sarah Williams, Alcoa High School computer teacher, also got involved with the book project when she got her students to type and format the book.

The three teachers collaborated over the summer to see to the completion of the project. The printing costs of the book came from funds from the Alcoa City School Foundation.

“It makes the students more appreciative of their education,” Wallace said of the Alcoa High School students involved in the project. She added that each of the English students found creative ways to communicate the themes. Since the Candlelight students study, speak and read English, language wasn’t the barrier. Writing unique stories with interesting characters that would appeal to students of a different culture and age range took some creative thinking.

Bailes said the mission of AYA is to improve the quality of life for the poorest and most vulnerable children of Kenya, Uganda and South Africa with a priority of helping orphans and street children. AYA provides professional education and financial support to small, African based orphanages, schools and medical clinics.

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