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NewsJul 25, 2018

Giving the gift of reading

Lesley students author children’s science books for Ethiopia through non-profit partnership

Children in Ethiopia sitting on the sidewalk while their teacher shows them a book.

In the Tembaro region of Ethiopia, the word “Weema” means to become whole or fulfilled, signifying something all-encompassing. When Liz McGovern was looking to name her community-driven Ethiopian non-profit, it was the obvious choice.

Now, WEEMA, which stands for Water, Education, Economic Empowerment, Medical and Alliance, is collaborating with Lesley graduate students in Professor Susan Rauchwerk’s science methods course to produce everyday science children’s books for an area where there are none.

“Kids are trying to learn to read but they don’t have books – very few in the national language and none in their mother tongues,” said McGovern, WEEMA’s executive director.

Children from Ethiopia sit at a wooden table in a classroom with blue-painted walls.
Students in an Ethiopian classroom.

There are over 80 languages in Ethiopia but few local languages are taught in schools. Students are mostly taught in English and in the national language of Amharic, which, says Rauchwerk, puts them at a disadvantage in terms of literacy. Creating simple children’s books about engaging science topics is an opportunity to help children succeed.

“This is really groundbreaking,” Dr. Rauchwerk said. “Ethiopia has not had many of their textbooks translated into these 80 languages so most learn in a language not their own.”

Community connections and content creation

Rauchwerk, who teaches in our Graduate School of Education, and McGovern both adopted children from Ethiopia and met through their activism in local initiatives, with McGovern founding WEEMA and Rauchwerk joining the Ethiopia Reads Book and Library Committee. It was through their community work that they began to understand the need for children’s books reflective of Ethiopian life and culture that could be translated into local languages. Creating Science books is a collaborative opportunity designed to benefit both Lesley students and Ethiopian communities.

“Science is the study of how the world works, it is a part of everyday life,” said Rauchwerk. “These books are an opportunity to help children see themselves as experts in science. They may not realize that they already understand a great deal of the science behind topics such as growing coffee or running. We want them to realize and grow this knowledge.”

Professor Susan Rauchwerk in Ethiopia showing her children's book to locals.
Dr. Rauchwerk in Wondo Genet, Ethiopia.

Rauchwerk’s science methods course for early childhood and elementary teachers provided a natural space for Lesley graduate students to integrate culture, science, and literacy.

“We’re showing graduate students that they can create their own content for kids who will then want to learn and read about things that are relevant to them in their lives,” said McGovern, who presents to Rauchwerk’s students each semester with information on WEEMA and Ethiopian life and culture before they get started on the assignment.

“They have the ability to meet kids where they are.”

Though McGovern and Rauchwerk have been working independently on similar projects for about five years, this is the first year they are collaborating to produce, publish and distribute books. WEEMA will select 10 of the 25 books that Lesley students created this year to print and distribute through their libraries. WEEMA staff will manage the final editing and design layout and have the books printed in Ethiopia.

All 25 books that the Lesley students created will be accessible through the Lesley digital commons and a WEEMA sponsored tablet program.

Students are passionate for the project

Students in Dr. Rauchwerk’s course instantly embrace the work, forming groups based on interests and skill sets. They can work in groups as small or large as they’d like, depending on classmates for knowledge on certain subjects or illustration experience.

“Often, I’ll hear them asking each other if they draw,” Rauchwerk said. “So many students are wonderful illustrators and they’ve always wanted to write a children’s book so they see this as an exciting opportunity.”

“It was wonderful to work on a project with a meaningful purpose,” said recent graduate Chelsea Ruscio ’18.

When it comes to topics, Rauchwerk urges students to strive for scientific accuracy as well as a strong story line. Before bringing this assignment into her classroom, she worked for a year with children’s literacy expert and Lesley Professor Erika Thulin Dawes to understand how to infuse literature within a science course.

Lesley students in a classroom at University Hall showing their illustrations from children's books.
Lesley students in Dr. Rauchwerk's course show their progress on the science books.

“There’s a lot of great dialogue that happens as a result of this particular assignment,” Rauchwerk said, explaining how students research and write content. “It’s a great way for them to get in touch with a culture that’s not their own.”

“So often when discussing writing, we talk about trying to give students an authentic audience and this project was a great manifestation of that concept,” said Ruscio, who earned her master’s in elementary education in the Creative Arts and Learning program. “I would love to try something like this with my fifth graders next year.”

Shweta Iyer is completing her master’s degree in elementary education and hopes that the books inspire a love of reading. Careful to not replicate content from previous courses, her group chose to write about Ethiopian runners who were also sisters.

“The hardest part of writing a children’s book is coming up with an idea,” said Iyer. “I now have a greater respect for children’s authors and how long it takes them to publish books.”

Translating and editing

Dr. Rauchwerk works closely with WEEMA to put the texts through a lengthy editing process. 

“Translation is not word-for-word,” said Rauchwerk. “This is a translation by meaning so it really takes time.” 

McGovern worked on a few pilot books with Ethiopia Reads and found that many adults were surprised to be reading a book in Tembarsa because they had never seen their native language in writing before.

An illustration from an Ethiopian children's science book of a person pulling a cart up a hill with text in English and Tembaro.
An example of a page with translation.

The goal is to translate each book into three languages: the native language of the region;  Amharic, the official national language; and English, the primary language of schooling after grade seven in Ethiopia. Rauchwerk and McGovern work with African Studies faculty members from Harvard and Boston University to complete the Amharic translations and WEEMA staff in Ethiopia translate into Tembarsa. In areas outside of Tembaro, the native language translation is left blank so that local educators can write in the mother tongue translation by hand.

Making magical material

Though it takes a lot of work to complete these texts, elementary education student Daniel Liberfarb is proud of the final product.  

“We had to revise our material several times before it met our standards and conveyed the message we were trying to send,” he said. “At the end, it felt incredibly satisfying to create the book and I feel like I helped create something worthwhile.”

Going forward, McGovern hopes that one day there will be 100-200 unique titles of high-quality content in Ethiopian schools and libraries as well as available as a digital copy online.

“The Lesley students are giving the gift of reading and the love of books,” McGovern said. “When I present to the class, I ask the students to think back to a time when they were in their room with a new book, or in the library or sitting on the floor of a bookstore, turning the pages and that sense of magic that sort of childish wonder, and what that means to kids and creating a reading culture.

Children sitting outside on a sidewalk in Ethiopia with their science books.
Students are all smiles with their new books.

“We’re bringing in books to a place where there are no books and really giving the gift of not only reading, but lifelong learning.”

Dr. Rauchwerk will be travelling to Ethiopia in November to distribute books and provide literacy training for educators and librarians. Lesley students who are interested in getting involved in this project should email srauchwe@lesley.edu.