Earlier this month, fourth- and fifth-graders at Bloomington’s Harmony School gathered in a circle on the floor, their excitement apparent by their grinning faces and giddy chatter. The kids were settling in for a visit from Indiana University students in the Books and Beyond program, which connects students from local Bloomington schools with students in Kinigi, Rwanda, through books.
One-by-one, Harmony students received a new copy of the textbook “The World Is Our Home,” which includes short stories on the topic of friendship, created by students at Harmony, The Project School and at the Kabwende Primary School in Rwanda. The yearly anthology is meant to introduce a cultural dialogue, so the stories are created by the students based off their everyday lives.
“We teach a lot about social action in the classroom,” said Lana Beck-Cruce, the third- and fourth-grade teacher at Harmony School. “This program helps them learn about the world and their place in it. "My students are so excited when they receive the finished books. They immediately start flipping through the pages, reading the stories the other children wrote and looking for their own stories. This process has really inspired them to think of ways they can give back.”
This is the 9th year that members of Books and Beyond have created and delivered the books. Students in Rwanda will receive their copy this summer.
Envisioned by alumna Nancy Uslan and founded by IU staff, faculty, alumni and K-12 teachers, Books and Beyond not only provides much-needed books to Rwandan students. It also creates a cultural exchange between both countries and fosters critical-thinking skills for IU students serving as authors, illustrators and publishers. Originally a partnership with students in New Jersey, the program now works with two Bloomington schools -- Harmony School and The Project School.
To date, IU students have delivered 16,000 books and have expanded the program. Students now conduct development training for teachers at the Kabwende Primary School and have created a three-week holiday camp for all students at the school that focuses on English literary skills, reading, writing and English conversation skills.
Program volunteers are in the process of constructing the first library at the school and are partnering with Play 360 to build a playground. In the past, organizers have also provided backpacks to students and are working on securing soccer balls and potentially eye glasses for the students and bikes for teachers to travel back and forth to school.
The program has also expanded beyond students living in IU’s Global Village Living-Learning Center to any IU students interested in volunteering.
The program is receiving recognition outside the university. Later this month, Books and Beyond will receive the 2017 Best Practices in International Education Global Partnership Award from the National Association for Student Personnel Administrator International Education Knowledge Community.
“As valuable as it is, we are no longer just putting books in each child’s hand,” said Vera Marinova, assistant director of IU’s Global Village Living-Learning Center. “We are now creating libraries, providing teachers with the tools they need to use these books, building educational tile-walls, playgrounds, and so much more. This program just continues to grow and to give back in really profound ways.”
Not only does the program provided learning materials for students, it also provides an opportunity for IU students to act as mentors for grade-school children both in the U.S. and Rwanda during the writing process. This involves hosting writing workshops, conducting brainstorming sessions and packaging the final product. The IU students travel to Rwanda each summer to facilitate an educational summer camp. Students enroll in an eight-week course before travel to learn more about the country and prepare for the trip.
Students also raise all of the funds needed to print the books and travel to Rwanda.
Lillie Hartman, a sophomore elementary education major, is one of the eight IU students who traveled to Rwanda over the summer.
Hartman learned about the program when she was a freshman living in the Global Village Living-Learning Center in Foster Residence Center, and she traveled to Rwanda after her freshman year. During her trip to Rwanda, she taught the readers' theater class, in which she instructed the children on how to act out one of the American stories.
“It was such an eye-opening experience and confirmed what I want to do after college,” she said. “The trip really inspired me to get more involved with the program, and I’ve found something that combines everything I love: working with kids, education and Africa.”
For Martha Midkiff, the chance to travel to Africa first sparked her interest in the program, but it was her experiences there that inspired her to become a dedicated mentor with Books and Beyond. Now a senior studying political science and international studies with a minor in African studies, Midkiff spent the summer of 2015 in Rwanda.
“I knew I had to join the program as soon as I got back,” she said.
Now Midkiff is the program’s student director and has even traveled back to the school in Rwanda on her own to visit. For both Hartman and Midkiff, their experiences with Books and Beyond have opened their eyes to further career opportunities in the nonprofit world that they wouldn’t have known they were interested in otherwise.
“I learned that I care a lot about education,” Midkiff said. “I’ve always thought about becoming an educator, but now I know I want to incorporate it into a future career. I hope to work with organizations that help with improving international education, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Additionally, it instilled in them an appreciation for their own education.
“The kids in Rwanda were so excited to be going to an educational camp, which isn’t something you would necessarily expect to see in America,” Hartman said.
“I don't have to think about how I’m getting to school or if my school has enough resources, like paper or books to go around,” Midkiff added. “These are luxuries we have here, but Rwanda doesn’t have that ease. I think it’s important as a person of the world to help out and ensure people have an equal opportunity, especially for education.”
Information on how to volunteer or donate to Books and Beyond is available online.