A group of elementary school students smile and laugh, asking each other questions and sharing stories. Their conversations turn to recess, their pets, favorite sports, and what they like to eat. It may sound like a typical classroom setting, but half of the students in the room are in Durham, North Carolina, in the U.S. and the other half are on the opposite side of the globe in Ahmedabad, India.
Eight sixth grade students from YE Smith Elementary, all involved in the Rotary Club of Durham's literacy program, Rotary Reading Rangers, participate in the international video conference. After introductions are made, the students in India share a report about the history of the annual spring festival Holi.
"My underlying hope was a global understanding and global friendships between kids that would otherwise never see each other," says program founder Todd Taylor.
Taylor, a member of the Durham club, came up with the idea for the Rotary Reading Rangers after he attended a meeting about literacy in the Durham community and learned that over 40 percent of students in the Durham school system failed the reading portions of standardized tests. When asked by his club to review a proposal for a Rotary Foundation grant to buy books for YE Smith's library, he suggested that the grant also be used to tackle the literacy problems in their community. Taylor realized this connection could be forged with the help of his employer, Duke Corporate Education, which has offices in India equipped with video conferencing technology.
The reading program has 35 registered tutors and has helped 80 students in the last year. Taylor says that although the program is still relatively new and still growing, the students involved have made significant strides.
"If we invest 25 hours in a student, research has shown it will improve them by one grade level," Taylor says. "So last year, we had over 1,000 hours volunteered. This year, we're already at 525 hours volunteered, which basically equates to 60 days of extra instruction. The students have made a year and a half's worth of progress in the five months that we've been working with them." Taylor says their literacy program works with all grades but focuses on students in kindergarten to second grade, when students are still learning to read.
Newman Aguiar, fellow tutor and Durham club member, agrees that the video conference was a fantastic opportunity for students.
"They walk away with a clear sense of how much they share in common with their peers," Aguiar says. "It is the kind of human connection that will likely have a significant influence on their future world view." Aguiar also says he has already seen significant strides made by the four kindergarteners he currently works with.
"[They] began the year behind some of their peers; however, they are always so energized when I arrive and proudly walk over to begin their sessions with their books in hand," Aguiar says. "In a few short weeks, each could identify over half the letters of the alphabet with great accuracy. The real joy is watching them grow so quickly and read to me the books they picked out themselves."
Taylor suggests that clubs interested in creating a similar literacy project should keep the participating schools directly involved and ask for help in training tutors. Working alongside teachers and listening to their issues or concerns has been essential to the program's success.
"Students are developing a joy of reading, engaging with positive role models and are daring to dream. Every community has neighborhoods that struggle with multigenerational illiteracy, and students are unprepared for school," Aguiar says. "Rotarians can get involved early and, with a small investment of time, improve literacy and help lift up the community."