Sunday, July 29, 2012

Guest blog with Natalie Bennett on the Granville Summer Program

Natalie D. A. Bennett is a feminist scholar, educator and book artist who hails from Granville, St. James (Jamaica) and currently lives in Chicago, IL (USA). She has been engaged in community work for many years on a variety of issues including developing adult literacy classes for Jamaican immigrants in NYC; working with Sudanese refugee women in Nebraska to create community gardens, and doing advocacy for LGBT Caribbean immigrants in New York City. She currently serves on the board of Global Girls, Inc. an art-based youth development organisation for African American girls, and as Director of the Granville Reading & Art Programme. She occasionally blogs at You can reach her at

   I am in awe of Natalie’s creativity and insight, her energy and her zeal. This is her account of how she started the Granville Reading and Art Program, and her hopes for the future:

   Over the past seven years or so, I've become much, much more attuned to several troubling aspects of Jamaican life: 1) how few options children of the poor and working classes seem to have in terms of how they can spend their time; 2) the disconnect between how art is made and presented and who gets to participate in and benefit from this process; 3) the way that violence and aggression seem to be the default response in just about every interaction; 4) how personal opinion, hearsay and nationalist sentiments seem to have replaced interest in reading about and understanding worlds different from one's own; and 5) how ordinary people seemed to have become so disempowered and disconnected from their own sense of what is important to them. For me, all of these are connected to the absence of several types of literacy.
I have long felt that there must be some way that I could put my skills, talents and knowledge to use for the public good. To me, identifying the "what" and "how" would emerge over time. I recall a conversation in 2009 when I was in Jamaica where I felt compelled to respond to the following statement
"I don't know why these children don't want to read; I used to love reading as a child. All these children want to do is fight." I said, "well, if they had books at home to read, if books weren't so expensive, and if adults didn't spend so much time using books as punishment, I bet they'd have a different attitude." Even though I was roundly chastised for supposing that children of working-class and poor backgrounds even cared about books, the kernel of an idea was sown.
   Later that year, I returned to Jamaica loaded with books and reading material engaged in what I called "Labor of Love". My stash included children's books I had purchased from "dollar stores" and resale shops, 'decodables' that I had copied from my son's textbooks or downloaded from websites, various puzzles for adults, 500 copies of a mini-book I had created using work donated from friends who are writers, and lots of crayons and pens. I distributed the materials on the streets of Kingston, St. Ann's Bay and Montego Bay to whoever wanted them. I did this in Granville as well; I grew up there, and so en route to visit relatives, I engaged children and adults wherever I encountered them. In 2010, I repeated the "Labor of Love" project three more times, introducing more visual art into the mix. In March 2010, I did a public art project in Half-Way-Tree where I invited the young men sitting around on a Sunday morning to make art with me. They were only too happy to do so, and complained that I didn't bring enough pastels! I also held a "sidewalk school" with children in downtown Kingston for two weeks in August 2010. I showed up every day to read, talk and work with the children of the vendors who were in the area. We did worksheets, played with flashcards, made drawings, worked with finger paints and rubber stamps to create pictures and tell stories. The children even created a small exhibition of their work on the wall of one of the stores. At one point when the group had grown to almost 20 children, we went to the nearby Tastee and setup shop.
The enthusiastic response from the children and their parents was overwhelming, and I started to conspire about how to re-create this experience for them, right there in downtown Kingston. I even inquired about the unoccupied building in front of which we held 'class' on some days. I imagined a community learning centre where vendors and other adults could learn to read, youth could work together to create art projects that explored the issues they were struggling with, children would have a place to do their homework and get other enrichment.
   On a whim, I decided to write an article for the Gleaner in October 2010. Ronnie Thwaites, who was then a talk-show host, interviewed me about the article and asked me the question: "what would it take to bring something like what you did to scale"? At the time, I rejected his question, and said that there was no need to do that. Instead, what needed to happen, in my view, was for every community no matter where they were located, to have some kind of space that fostered the love of reading and engaging with ideas in a more creative way. That space could be in the church, sports club, health clinic, wherever. It could be temporary or permanent; it could be a 1-person show or it could be an organisation. What mattered was that everyone - no matter where they were - would be connected to such a space, whether they were volunteers, donors, participants, researchers, etc. To me, the concept is very simple. If there is a gap in the lives of children and youth, you fill it. It doesn't take much more than interest in doing so. Later that year, I returned to Jamaica to do another "Labor of Love" project. It was then that I went to visit Granville All-Age School and had a conversation with the principal, Ann-Marie Brown. In addition to giving her some of the books and materials I had with me, I posed the question: “How can I help?”I was still bothered about the closing of the Granville branch of the Jamaica Library Service in the 1980s with nary an apology or attempt to replace it since. Doing literacy work in this community seemed like a good counterpoint to such: if neither the government nor community leaders were going to advocate for children's access to books, then I didn't see why I couldn't do something to address that, no matter how small.

Out of that conversation came the design for "Summer Arts Workshop", which is an arts-based reading program. The idea is to designate time in the summer months when nothing else is going on, and to give children unmediated access to books where they can read what they like, be read to, practice various reading and thinking skills, by creating works of art that they can use to create and write their own stories. While there is much concern for how children will do on standardized tests like the Grade 4 Literacy Test and Grade 6 GSAT, the program is not concerned with those. The focus is on providing a nurturing space where children can develop a love of reading, where reading becomes a habit that they are happy to feed, and which can be fed without them having to leave their community to go downtown Montego Bay, and whether or not they are in school. Moreover, since summer is also less stressful, parents can be drawn into the reading experience through a variety of strategies, whether sending home books and asking them to read with their children, or having them volunteer in the day program.

The next issue: how to make this happen?

After throwing myself into the research and coming up with a design (a summer program, arts integrated into reading, parent workshops, etc.), then came the challenge of actually pulling it off. I was teaching a preceptorial course "Jamaica: Beyond Sun, Sex and Sea" for first-year students at DePaul University. As part of their final project, the students had to do a group project where they did some research on education in Jamaica and then used that information to design a drive for art supplies.

Easily accessible books for the younger children
I ran a book drive at my son's school and put an ad in my community newspaper. I received more than 5,000 books. One of the graduate students in the Women's & Gender Studies Program coordinated the itemizing and packing of the donations for shipment to Jamaica. I raised money by using one of the crowd-sourcing sites, and tapping into my extended network of colleagues, friends and family. Those funds paid for the purchase of materials such as the reading mats, bins, and the shipment of the supplies. I used my personal monies to fund the rest of the program (transportation, food, stipend, etc.).The Ministry of Education, Food for the Poor, Globe Insurance, Celect Supply, Community Security & Justice Programme (CSJP) and Social Development Commission (SDC) provided in-kind support.

2011 was the pilot year, which consisted of 50 children (ages 4 to 17 years), five volunteers, one paid staff person, as well as myself. I served as the lead instructor. I wanted to see what it would take to make a program like this happen. Summer Arts Workshop is conceived as a discrete program unit of the Granville Reading & Art Programme, which is a 5-year demonstration project. (Another program unit being developed is Ready! Set! Read! A reading program at the health clinic which targets children birth-6 years old and their parents.) During 2012-2016 the project will be doing lots of experimentation in Granville to figure out what the children respond to, how to get parents more involved, etc.

At the end of the 5-year period, I will hire someone to analyse the data and to develop a set of recommendations for how the programs can go forward. I really see myself as facilitating a process, helping to create the space where children and youth can find a healthy, safe space to be themselves and to get what they need educationally and intellectually, and where new leadership can emerge that serves the needs of the whole community. I don't expect to be much in the foreground after the 5-year period, because I believe that if these initiatives are to succeed, they have to be owned, nurtured and sustained by the community that they are planted in.
   Learning some lessons from last year, I pulled resources together in a number of ways:
a virtual book drive via Amazon;
a 1-week book drive that netted more than 3,000 books;
donations from my university and the local arts supply store;
materials I have been gathering since last year; and
active solicitation for support among local entities, including working with Donna Spence, Lecturer in Art at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College, to put the curriculum together.
   Children hear about the program through fliers that are distributed at Granville All-Age and around the community, word-of-mouth, and direct recruitment by community members who know of children who could benefit from a program like this. Registration took place in the week before the program began, but at least half of the children showed up during the first week with their parents. The number of children is capped at 60. There are some issues in terms of adequate furniture and space, but the Coordinator has been very creative and the children very patient. By next year, I expect to have adequate tables and chairs for all the children.

This year, I hired a Project Coordinator and a Community Outreach Coordinator. Two persons were assigned by the National Youth Service. The main art instructor a recent graduate from Sam Sharpe Teachers College. Volunteers were also directed through outreach done by the Granville Community Development Committee (SDC) and Granville Seventh Day Adventist Church.
A rug is a comfortable place to sit and read

Celect Hotel & Restaurant Supplies, CitySports, and Bill Craig Insurance Co. have been very supportive and have not needed much convincing to get on board. Because there needs to be a local structure in place, I've been identifying community members who are deeply committed to education and to the development of youth. It's amazing - all I have had to do is ask and I get names! The idea is to create an independent council whose sole purpose is to advocate for as well as create educational opportunities for youth in Granville. A library is already on the list of things they want to accomplish, so I'm very happy.

Still no support from national entities, so I'm paying out of pocket again this year. Based onlast year's experience, the reluctance of national entities to support the program seem related to a larger structural problem: all decision-making about how resources will be distributed happens in Kingston. Aside from the implicit bias created by that setup, there doesn't seem to be much support or advocacy for non-Kingston
educational programs, especially those that aren't school-based. So,I now realise that there is a lot of education that I and others need to do in order to get corporations to understand their role in producing an educated and literate society.

On top of that is way that Granville is being actively stigmatized through media reportage. The notion that Granville is equivalent with homicides and scamming is the result of careless and negative reportage. It is a community that's been decimated by migration, divisive politics as well as systematic disinvestment (as I noted recently, the best way to measure 'progress' in Granville is to look at what has left the community, not
what has come into it). The negative reportage has certainly fed into the community's image of itself, so that people from up the hill don't want to come down the hill because they are afraid. I hope that the program is able to grow and be an even stronger force in presenting a different image of what is possible when community folks come together to build something for themselves.

The feedback is generally good. Based on last year and right now, both the parents and children are disappointed that it doesn't go on for the entire summer. If there are any complaints, it's from the children (and their parents) who are concerned about the fighting that occasionally takes place. The irony, of course, is that these are the same children who are engaging in the fights, and the same parents who are also coming to the center to threaten and confront other children. As a result of the children's inability to manage their emotions effectively, a huge part of what happens everyday concerns conflict resolution and teaching children ways of expressing themselves in non-violent or non-confrontational ways, avoiding conflict as well as how to negotiate their own safety without harming others. As you canimagine, this is a tall task when their lives are mired in violence of all kinds. But, as we keep reminding them, in order for the program to be a safe and nurturing space that they enjoy coming to, each of them has to commit to keeping it that way. And that means we have to teach them how to manage their emotions. So, next year, I'm definitely bringing someone on board who knows art therapy or who has a counseling background.

In all, there's a lot of work to do. Next year, recruitment and training of staff is a priority, getting better furniture and tightening up the curriculum. I'm happy that I was able to step away and allow folks to take charge of the program this year. And I'm very excited - and challenged - by the work that lies ahead.

You can read more about Natalie’s work and an entertaining account in her blog of the trials she went through in 2011, to get the program off the ground.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Summer Reading - Some Surprising Findings

   For reluctant readers,
  .... a book should be compelling, so interesting that the reader is "lost in the book".

During the summer holidays, many children read books of their own choice purely for fun, without a book report or comprehension questions hanging over them. Other children do little such reading or none at all. While both groups of children improve their reading comprehension equally during the school year, it has been shown that children who read for pleasure continue to improve their word knowledge and reading comprehension, while those who don’t regress.
In their book Summer Reading Program and Evidence, Fay H. Shim and Stephen D. Krashen analyzed a number of studies which produced these findings. The studies also showed that children from higher income families with access to a wide range of reading material at home and in libraries were the ones who read for fun, while children from lower income families with less access to books were the ones who were less likely to read.

They therefore designed a summer program that was devoted to “encouraging self-selected, enjoyable reading”. For 200 sixth graders with lower than average reading scores, it ran for 6 weeks. Each day began with 25 minutes of library time, when children were able to browse and select books and magazines which interested them. Because the existing library at the school was inadequate, they stocked each classroom with 400 books and the district spent $25 per student on popular paperback books and current magazines.
The next 80 minutes were spent in independent recreational silent reading. (No talking was allowed.) The most popular books were from R.L. Stine’s Goosebump Series. Also popular were the Sweet Valley Kids (for 2nd grade), Sweet Valley Twins (for 4th grade), the Boxcar Children, Animorphs and the Baby Sitters’ Club.This light, easy reading helps to develop vocabulary and grammar and the feel of how stories are put together, and becomes the bridge to more difficult reading of what adults consider to be better books. For cultural diversity, books by Mildred Taylor, Julius Lester, Allen Say, Paul Yee, Gary Soto, Pegi Deitz Shea and Sherry Garland were included. They also provided non-fiction books about animals, celebrities and sports figures; and magazines such as Teen People, Hip Hop Connections, and Car and Driver.

45 minutes were also devoted to Literature Based Instruction. Students read books such as Maniac Magee  by Jerry Spinelli, Hatchet by Gary Paulson, and The Giver by Lois Lowry. Reading was followed by discussion and a writing assignment. Another 45 minute slot was allotted to Project Activity when the students made posters, book markers and did writing which was put together to make their own books.
     Finally, the teachers spent 25 minutes reading aloud to the children to encourage reading. Another daily activity was conferencing - teachers held brief conferences with each student every day and kept a log.
The progress of the children in this program was compared with a similar-sized group which followed a regular summer program. The gains made by the children in this program far outstripped the regular group in general tests of reading, vocabulary and comprehension. Furthermore, the response of the students and teachers indicated that reluctant readers had been converted into enthusiastic readers. They concluded that children and teenagers really do like to read but they need to have access to genuinely interesting reading material (interesting to them, not necessarily what adults think would be interesting for them).
     What is the relevance of these studies to Jamaica? I submit that children here need far more access to more books, so that they can benefit from the summer reading experience. How many of our primary schools have libraries and librarians (full-time or part-time)? Even in at the high/ secondary level the quality of the libraries varies a great deal. At one high school I visited where the principal complained that the students don't read, I would describe the library as pathetic. There was nothing about it to encourage even an enthusiastic reader. Libraries the world over tend to suffer when cost cutting measures are needed. Libraries in Jamaica have thus been suffering for a long time.
     Another problem we have here is of course that so many children can't read at all, or are reading well below their grade levels. They need a helping hand onto and up the reading ladder.  In a future post, I will highlight the Granville Reading and Art Program, where wonderful work is going on to encourage children in the area to become enthusiastic readers.
A popular magazine

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reply to Diane’s blog on the future of Caribbean children’s books.

Diane Browne
In response to Diane's Blog I really hope some way can be found to reprint and sell some of Diane’s books, and to celebrate her contribution to Caribbean children’s literature. How about approaching the Calabash Festival, which every year reprints a book which has gone out of print?

An alternative for authors is to get grant funding or to find a sponsor. Annick Press, which published Olive Senior’s picture book Birthday Suit, acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for their publishing activities. (Even so, booksellers in Jamaica are reluctant to sell it, as, when it reaches Jamaica, the price is way above the average price for similar books.) I don’t know if there’s an Arts Council in Jamaica, but there are several foundations, such as NCB, Scotiabank, Jamaica National and Digicel to which authors should be able to apply for funding. Perhaps the Commonwealth Foundation also gives grants to writers.

Joanne Gail Johnson recommended to the authors of the Island Fiction Series that we find private sector sponsors as she did for her children’s books. The model she followed was to ask the sponsors to buy 500 copies of her book, after which she has a book tour, reading to groups of thirty children at a time and donating the books to them. This goes along with giving samples of the company’s product to the children and a print advertising campaign. That suggestion has so far been too daunting for me.

When I consulted Diane about the feasibility of doing a print run for Delroy and the Marog Princess, she laid it out for me pretty much as she has done in her blog. The initial outlay itself is prohibitive, after which you have to find storage space for your books. If you sell through a distributer, either the selling price is above what the market will stand or you lose money or at best break even. If you decide to sell it yourself, it means putting gas in your car to drive around to potential purchasers. Based on these considerations, I decided to go the e-book route. As yet I can’t say how successful that will be.

You don’t have to have a specific e-reader to download a book. Any computer will do. Kindle has an app you can download to your computer to download kindle books, including picture books. In fact a computer would probably be better for picture books, as pictures on the regular kindle are on the gray scale. We don’t know how many children in Jamaica have access to a PC, a lap-top or a tablet, but I think we should look at the historical perspective. In the 1960’s it was said there would never be such a thing as a PC. In the 1990’s, any cell phone was a status symbol, and they were huge by comparison with today’s. I don’t think the time when children in Jamaica have their own e-readers is that far away. India is trying to manufacture an e-reader to sell for US $50.00, which when compared with what parents have to spend on school books every year is not excessive. We should at least prepare for the eventuality that the future of Caribbean children’s books may lie in the digital realm.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

1 Love Medusa Reunion Donate Books

    A group of friends, originally from Montego Bay, gathered here with their families, for a week of activities to celebrate Jamaica 50. The name of their reunion group, “1 Love Medusa”, is derived from a disco named Medusa which they operated in the 1970’s. Now most of them are living abroad from Texas to Canada. During their stay they enjoyed outings to Xtabi Resorts, Negril; YS Falls; and Port Antonio. In Montego Bay, they sampled gastronomic delights at Pier One, Seahorse Grill, Cornwall Beach and at homes of friends and family. They also found time for one of their favourite haunts, Doctor’s Cave Beach.

    Amidst their fun activities, they remembered the schools they attended. They decided to donate to these schools copies of my book, Delroy in the Marog Kingdom. I will give a book reading at the same time as delivering the signed books to the schools, when the new school term starts in September. Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, a fantasy/folklore chapter book for 10-15 year-olds, was judged Best Children’s Chapter Book (Readers’ Choice) by the Book Industry of Jamaica in 2011. It was chosen by the Jamaica Library Service to be used in their Summer Reading Competition 2011.
    I have now published the sequel, Delroy and the Marog Princess, as an e-book available for sampling and purchasing at Smashwords. Also available to download free at Smashwords is “Flash”, a short story for 8-12 year-olds, about a boy who was inspired by Usain Bolt. This story was awarded a silver medal and “Best Junior Short Story” in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s Creative Writing Competition 2010.

If you, too, would like to donate Delroy in the Marog Kingdom to the school you attended, please email me at to make arrangements to sign your book. If you live near that school, you might prefer to donate it personally.

1 Love Medusa Reunion

In photograph, left to right

Back row: Joshua Williams, Leann Williams, Donna Delgado, Audrey Tenn, Marjorie Jones, Alistair ‘Wally’ Jones, Bobby Chin, Richard Lam.

2nd row: Michael Williams, Dawn Kelly, Helen Williams, Valerie Marshall, Cherry Wilson, Pam Morris.

Front row: Karen Lue, Dana Lue, Tiffany Chin and Kimberly; Shannon Chin, Brandon Chin.

Missing from photograph: Justin Lue, Paul Chin and Steve Chin.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Flash" available free on Smashwords

You can download “Flash” free from Smashwords. It is a short story for 8-12 year-olds, set in Kingston, Jamaica in 2008. Abandoned by his father, his mother in prison, 10-year-old Flash has a rough life. His only talent is that he can run fast, hence his nick-name. He lives with his grandmother in a depressed part of the city. When Weesie, the local gang leader tries to recruit him, Grandma sends him to live with his aunt in a nearby community. Flash and his cousin begin their summer holidays getting into all sorts of mischief, but when the Olympic Games begin, they are thrilled to watch the Jamaican athletes on television. Inspired by Usain Bolt, Flash finds renewed hope for the future and motivation to turn his life around.
I wrote this story a few years ago, but with the 2012 Olympics soon to start in London, it has become relevant once more. It may help to explain to non-Jamaicans how desperately important the achievements of our athletes are to this country.

"Flash" won a silver medal and Best Short Story Writer in the Jamaica Cultural Development Creative Writing Contest 2010.

Monday, July 9, 2012

No pen-name for me on Smashwords

I like my pen-name Billy Elm and it has several advantages, not least of which is that it is unusual. If you google Billy Elm, I will be up there on the first page. Unlike Helen Williams. There are at least 2000 of us in the N. American region. However, I can't produce any I.D. to say that I'm Billy Elm! I had to register with Smashwords as Helen Williams, as a result of which Delroy and the Marog Princess has to be by Helen Williams, both on the first page and on the cover. I have made this change at Smashwords, so hope I will now be eligible for their premium list.
       It is available at Smashwords for $5.99 and for the month of July is 25% off. When that offer closes, I will be putting it on Amazon. You can still download to your kindle direct from Smashwords. You can also have a sample read to see if you like it or if you think your 12-15 year-old would like it. The link to it is

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Publishing my e-book "Delroy and the Marog Princess"

When I wrote Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, I had no idea that I would write a sequel to that story. After some prompting form my critique group, Delroy and the Marog Princess began to take shape and after many rewrites gelled in its final form. It is a fantasy story for 12 to 15-year-olds. Although it is a sequel to my first book, it can be read as a stand-alone book. Set in Jamaica, there are echoes of myths and legends, and an aura of romance. Delroy isn’t sure if his adventures in the Marog Kingdom really happened, (becoming a type of frog called a marog, when he was swept into an underground river). His resolve to forget that awful event is shattered when Rana, the Marog Princess, becomes a girl and appears in his village. After his goal to turn her into a marog fails, he realizes he’s falling in love with her. Now his greatest fear is that she will transform before he can win her heart.
The story can be viewed or purchased at Smashwords.

When I wrote the sequel, I had an inkling that I might self-publish, but I was yet to discover the enormous potential of e-publishing. Winning the Best Intermediate Writer Award in the JCDC Creative Writing Competition 2011 spurred me into investigating this option. I had been given a Kindle for Christmas in 2010, so was able to read several helpful e-books, including We Are Not Alone - The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb and Smart Self-Publishing : Becoming an Indie Author by Zoe Winters. Shevi Arnold wrote a most informative blog post on self-publishing and recommended both these books.

Looking into the possibility of doing a print-run, I consulted with Diane Browne who self-published The Ring and the Roaring Water. I got as far as contacting a few printers for estimates, but as Diane had warned, the cost was prohibitive. However, the main impediment to doing a print-run is the marketing and distribution. One has to have storage space for 1,500 books (the most economic number) and be in a position to distribute them. Book distributers charge 40% of your selling price, which either results in the price going out of range at which the consumer will buy, or the author making no profit at all. To do one’s own distribution means driving around to potential customers, which with today’s gas prices and hazardous road conditions is a definite no-no. Hence my foray into the world of e-publishing.

My main source of information was Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker. Following his recommendation to have the book professionally edited, I asked Hazel Campbell if she would do so. Hearing from Curdella Forbes that the artist who designed the cover of her latest book Ghosts, published by Peepal Tree Press, was Erold Bailey, I enlisted his services also. I decided to do my own formatting, as it gave me an opportunity to have a last read-through of my manuscript to pick up anything that I might have missed previously. Although I followed the Smashwords Style Guide to the letter, it was with great trepidation that I uploaded it. Apart from having to make it Word 1997-2003 compatible, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to upload without difficulty in a short time. My book is now pending review for premium catalog distribution. They say that should take about two weeks, but considering that over 100 books a day are being uploaded to Smashwords, I could understand if it takes longer. I’m hopeful that it will make their premium list as it passed the EPUB validator test. If it does, it will be passed on to distributers like Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and Baker & Taylor. I’m still a bit confused re Amazon. As I understand it, you have to sell quite a few books at Smashwords before Amazon will distribute, but you can download to Kindle direct from Smashwords. I’m also investigating the possibility of downloading direct to Amazon.

My next project is to write a sequel to Delroy and the Marog Princess. The whole story is already in my head, waiting for me to make time to write it down!