Students in Hollins University’s graduate programs in children’s literature have shared their talents with an international partnership designed to help bring English fluency to children in the African nation of Ethiopia.
Facilitated by Peace Corps Ethiopia, the project’s student authors each wrote an age-appropriate creative short story about 500 words in length. The stories were illustrated by Ethiopian artists and published in various regions of the country to supplement English language instruction in grades four through eight.
Peace Corps Ethiopia’s Amanda Sutker came up with the idea of matching her fellow education volunteers in Ethiopia with talented writers in America to develop stories for classroom and community reading programs. “While most English teachers and learners in Ethiopia lack the fluency necessary for effective English communication, they generally share the same sentiment: ‘We’re eager to improve our English,’” she explains. “What’s lacking within the Ethiopian education system is learning tools to catalyze skill development.”
Sutker majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing at South Carolina’s Presbyterian College, and knew of many graduate programs specializing in children’s literature. To find the best one to approach for volunteer writers, she consulted her creative writing advisor, who suggested Hollins.
“I emailed Amanda [Cockrell, director of Hollins’ M.A. and M.F.A. programs in children’s literature] in December 2012 to see if Hollins would be interested in partnering with us,” she recalls, “and after that things blossomed.”
Cockrell contacted student writers in the children’s literature program to gauge their interest in volunteering for the project. More than 20 graduate students agreed to take part, including Adeana Lopez, who Cockrell subsequently nominated to coordinate the Hollins effort.
“The response didn’t surprise me at all because Hollins people are simply that way,” Lopez says, adding that when a second email request was sent to recruit three additional writers, 37 people responded the same day.
Once the goal of enlisting writers was met, the project’s next step was connecting the authors with the Peace Corps Ethiopia volunteers. They shared local information such as common names, crops, holidays, environmental landmarks, and unique cultural practices, which in turn enabled the writers to produce engaging and culturally relevant English literature unique to Ethiopian communities. Writing was completed in September 2013 and story illustration was wrapped up two months later. In February 2014, the stories were printed and the compilation was distributed to schools throughout the country.
“Because the illustrations and publishing were completed in Ethiopia, all cash flow for the project occurred locally,” Sutker notes. “There were four separate editions of the book, one for each region (Tigray, Amhara, Southern Nations, and Oromia) that participated in the project. Five hundred copies of each of the four editions, a total of 2,000 books, were printed. The books were then evenly distributed to more than 200 Peace Corps volunteers stationed around the country to share with local primary school libraries and community centers.”
“This was a fulfilling, worthwhile project, and a chance for our graduate students to explore some writing outside of what might be their normal range,” Lopez says. “Many of them are already teachers, which helped them, and they received the input they needed to write a good story that meets the needs of these children.”