I realized today that I have been talking extensively about this literacy program we are introducing in Nicaragua without fully defining literacy and explaining what this particular curriculum entails. A literacy program generally refers to an educational course designed to teach students how to read and write. Simple enough. But what makes this program so unique is that it goes beyond mere literacy. Woven throughout the curriculum are discussion periods, life skills development, health and hygiene talks, basic mathematics lessons and an introduction to Christianity. So while the adult students are learning to read, they are also learning how to take care of their family health needs, manage finances and even learn business skills. A crucial aspect of the program is the allotted discussion period where the students engage in weekly conversations about specific topics and learn to think critically about the world around them. This literacy program is truly a holistic approach to personal transformation through education.
This all encompassing, multi-dimensional curriculum aligns with many global poverty reduction models. The UN Millennium Development Goals specifically come to mind: universal education, the end of poverty and hunger, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and global partnership. This literacy program specifically addresses almost every one of these aforementioned objectives. The reading and writing portions coincide with the goal of universal education, the health and hygiene sections seek to prevent diseases and infections, and finally the discussion periods tackle cultural issues such as gender roles, community cohesion and even religion. I am getting excited just writing about this program! I genuinely believe that it possesses incredible potential to change lives and communities. The people that I have talked to in Nicaragua recognize this too and seem just as, if not more enthusiastic than I.
Funny enough, I learned today that this program was originally developed with the teachings of Paolo Freire in mind. He wrote the book that I am currently reading, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as Education for Critical Consciousness. One of his most revolutionary and keynote ideas pertaining to education in his books is that education should be about dialogue. He says “‘problem-posing’ education, responding to the essence of consciousness—intentionality—rejects communiqués and embodies communication… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 79). In his view, education should not mean simply memorizing facts and listening to teachers. The learning environment should embody conversation and exploration. He believes that only through this form of education can students be challenged to respond to problems and change their society for the better. That is exactly what this literacy program is seeking to do through its distinct curriculum… encourage dialogue for empowerment.
One thing that Freire does not address, however, is the faith aspect of change. We can probably all agree that education is crucial to the transformation of lives and communities. I wonder though, what role faith plays in this educational arena. As I briefly alluded to in the beginning, also incorporated into this literacy program’s curriculum is an introduction to basic Christian theology. You may find yourself asking what the rational is behind this inclusion of religion into a literacy program. My answer is that Christians with whom I have interacted thus far strongly believe in the importance of faith alongside of education. I would like to quote from a teacher in Puerto Cabezas named Javier who put it simply, saying, “knowledge plus God equals transformed lives. You need both.” Like Javier, my personal inclination based on experience is to think that the inclusion of a spiritual element adds more depth and strength to any transformation because it penetrates to the core: the heart. Over the remaining course of this internship though, I intend to further explore this question. Perhaps my observations of the differences between a secular literacy program taught in Loudoun County, Virginia and the spiritually infused literacy program in Nicaragua will shed some light on the matter. While only time will reveal the true quality of transformation, I hope to be lucky enough to get a glimpse of it during the next few weeks.