Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

Reading Like a Champ

By Marisa Weidner

Our time in Belize was split between two communities: Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast, and Bermudian Landing, a rural area about an hour west of Belize City. As our plane descended into Belize, one of the main ideas I kept in my thoughts as a veteran member of the trip was to keep an open mind. I wanted to try my hardest to make a difference in even the smallest way that I could, even if it only affected one individual.

It was our time in the rural schools during the second week of our trip that really touched me the most. On Monday, I was one of the members of our group tasked with giving individual reading lessons to a 13 year-old boy, who was in Standard V. In Belize, what we call “grades” are called “Standards”. Standard V is the rough equivalent of 7th grade, and is two levels below high school. As I worked with Evan throughout the morning, it appeared that he had little to no reading ability. It surprised me that he had been able to progress so far throughout school without being able to read—wouldn’t one of his teachers have realized it sooner?

We started with the basics—phonics worksheets. As we worked together in a group, sounding out and reading the phonemes, Evan progressed quickly and soon was sounding out whole words slowly, but surely. We moved onto a storybook about a Belizean jaguar and were able to slowly make it through, taking turns reading one page.  I asked him why he had struggled so much in the beginning, and he explained that he could read, but found it difficult, and when he struggled the other kids made fun of him. So he just didn’t try at all, because it was easier and he didn’t have to fear being ridiculed. Because he didn’t try, his teachers thought that he was just goofing around in class, and often became angry with him. Hearing him talk about his challenges made me feel for the boy who clearly wanted to learn, but was afraid to reach out for help. I thought about my own education, and the efforts my teachers had gone to to ensure that I not only learned, but also thrived in my school environment.

I continued working with Evan day after day, increasing his confidence in his reading ability bit by bit. On the last morning of individual tutoring, all the kids came together and we played a game where kids had to form words in their head based on phonemes and sound them out. I was happy to see Evan shouting out answers as loudly as the rest of the kids—and even when he got them wrong, he wasn’t discouraged—he continued trying until he figured it out.

Though it’s hard to measure how much of an impact an individual can make on a community in only one week, I hope that I was able to instill a sense of confidence in Evan and his abilities. I wanted him not only to believe that he could read while he was successfully doing so, but also to understand that one mistake didn’t mean that he was stupid, and incapable. I won’t be returning to Belize next year, but I am planning on asking my teammates about him, and hope to hear that he is reading like a champ in Standard VI.

Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! While I am a relative newcomer to you, I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. Some details about my life and role at W&M: I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership in the broad areas of alternative breaks and local anti-poverty initiatives. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. And my pre-W&M life... I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University in 1995. After graduating, I decided to get further into the world of community development and service. I served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I came back to Emory to earn a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I spent a frenetic and exciting year working four jobs - from TA'ing a preaching class with Tom Long, to catering barbecue, to managing a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families. I went on from there to be Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Finally, it was one more stop at Emory - where I served for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. Through all of my professional and volunteer experiences, and life in general, I have seen how connected and interdependent people and communities are everywhere I believe in the power of mutual service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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