Help Build School Libraries in Rural Guatemala

by Pueblo a Pueblo, Inc.
Our executive director speaks at the inauguration
Our executive director speaks at the inauguration

When exploring different internship opportunities in Latin America, I stumbled upon Pueblo a Pueblo and their Pathways to Literacy project.  Knowing how one book or one class can forever change your perspective and life, I was curious to see the project in action.

During my first week in Santiago, I went to Chacaya and visited the elementary school where children swarmed the newly-constructed library during their recess time. Some of the students were playing board games; others completing puzzles, and more perused the shelves full of books. Later in the afternoon, students would read one-on-one with Pueblo a Pueblo’s staff members.

It quickly became obvious that the library was not only a place for books, but a general community space that fostered learning in every capacity.  With students buzzing in and out, the amount of excitement and curiosity in the library was palpable.

While this may not sound revolutionary for someone living in the United States, the libraries in Chacaya and ChukMuk bring a new sense of hope to a wider community. According to a recent UNESCO study, Guatemala has the second-lowest reading achievement levels for all third-graders across the 17 Latin American countries. Here around Lake Atitlan, the need is even greater as 50 percent of Santiago’s indigenous children never finish their primary education. 

However, with the construction of these new libraries and Pueblo a Pueblo’s ongoing teacher trainings and continuous support, change is slowly happening and that is something worth celebrating!

(Below are photos from the recent inauguration of the Chacaya school library as well as International Literacy Day, which Pueblo a Pueblo celebrated by training teachers on how to use educational games to improve student performance in math and literacy.)

One of our students in Chacaya
One of our students in Chacaya

We knew that students would be excited when we introduced our Pathways to Literacy Project to the Chacaya Elementary School. Few of them have access to books at home and even in their classrooms literacy games and activities are rare. A library, even if younger students could not read, symbolized a world of new and interesting discoveries. Makes sense they’d be eager to explore, right?

But even knowing this, we weren’t prepared for the rush of enthusiasm when the library doors eventually opened. As soon we installed the first bookshelves and put up posters, students began to arrive in droves. They asked to help clean, paint, and – as soon as there were books – stock the shelves and leaf through their newest toys.

The incredible amount of student demand was strong enough to draw us from our initial project timeline, and although the library is not officially inaugurated, teachers already have access during class hours and students are free to explore independently during recess.

Over the next few weeks we’ll complete final library installations and deliver more books (including purchases funded by our last Microsoft YouthSpark Matching Day – thanks so much to all of you who donated!).

It’s a humble beginning, but we’re very optimistic about this new chapter in the Chacaya Elementary School’s ongoing development.  

Preparing materials for the library
Preparing materials for the library

As we begin replication of our Pathways to Literacy Project into the community of San Antonio de Chacayá, our local staff is working hard to ensure a smooth period of phasing this project out of the Chukumuk Elementary School, where over the past three years we have built a fully functional, sustainable school library.

In addition to building literacy skills and training, the focus of our efforts has been to empower teachers and administrators to take complete ownership of library and its resources, thus embedding literacy activities in the fabric of the school and its classrooms.

Our project goals goes hand-in-hand with a government-led initiative in Guatemala called Leamos Juntos (Let’s Read Together), which requires every teacher at public primary schools to design a year-long literacy plan for their students.

Whereas teachers in urban communities often receive more government attention, teachers in vulnerable schools such as Chukmuk have received little training on how to develop a plan for literacy activities. To fill this gap, Pueblo a Pueblo recently led a workshop for ChukMuk teachers on how to develop an effective, age appropriate literacy plan. Our project not only provides critical training and skills for rural school communities, where the government efforts often don’t reach, but establishes a great example for other schools in the area.

“It was inspiring,” said Montse, our Project Manager. “Every teacher in the school was inside the library searching for appropriate books for their students, using the school library database, and comparing ideas for activities.”

The next step is to schedule a second training later in the year, after which, according to the school principal, the teachers will travel to the town of Santiago to present their literacy plans with other schools.

Over the past three years we’ve been proud to help build a reliable community resource in the Chukmuk Elementary School Library. Students, teachers, and parents now have weekly access to a fully equipped library and services that include book lending, literacy activities, and summer vacation literacy camp. In a region that struggles with chronic illiteracy, resources like these are a way for students to start along a path to better jobs and more economic opportunity.

In the coming year, we’ll be expanding our Pathways to Literacy Project to Chacayá, another rural community with which we’ve built a strong bond over the past several years.

 Most of the students who attend the Chacayá Primary School come from families that depend entirely on coffee farming as a sole source of income. Even compared to the rest of our partner communities, living conditions in Chacayá can be dire. Stunting rates are among the highest we’ve seen; children often receive as little as one meal a day; and when the coffee-harvest ends economic activity in the community grinds quickly to a standstill.

Since 2006 we’ve introduced new projects into the local elementary school: Organic School Gardens, School Nutrition, Primary Education Scholarships, and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) in School.

Bringing Our Pathways to Literacy Project to Chacayá will create even more comprehensive support for resident children in need. Once we establish the library space, we will also lead workshops and provide individual training for teachers to ensure that the library is well managed and utilized.

 “We envision it becoming part of the fabric of the community,” says Montse, our Pathways to Literacy project manager. “Over fifty percent of the population in Chacayá is under 20. The future of this community lies with these children.”

Two students after the activity
Two students after the activity

Our school library in Chukmuk has been bursting at the seams for end of year activities, but we’d like to take this opportunity to highlight one special moment.

In light of Guatemala’s independence day in mid-September, our library staff organized an activity for students to reflect on Santiago’s cultural heritage.

(Spoiler alert: if you read through the end of this report, you’ll find a video these very students put together to thank you for your support!)

The activity started with Lidia, our project librarian, telling students a legend passed down through generations in Tz’utujil – the Mayan dialect in Santiago.

Sometime in the long distant past, there was a family in Santiago with two pairs of twin brothers. The older twins, Jun Batz and Jun Chowen, were easily angry and jealous of the younger twins, Junajpu and Ixbalamke, who were kind, smart, and loved throughout the community. Time and time again, the older twins would pick up their younger siblings and throw them into the anthills and thorn bushes that formed outside the family’s adobe hut. 

One day, the younger siblings decided to get revenge. Together they wandered into the forest and found a magical tree that, early in the morning, would sprout enormous branches, widen its trunk, and rise hundreds of feet into the sky.

That night, they found their older brothers outside the house and challenged them to a competition: both pairs of twins would leave the next morning to go bird hunting, and the ones that caught more birds by sundown would get to live in the house, while the other twins would have to move into the forest. The older brothers accepted. As the younger twins walked away, they whispered a plan just loudly enough for their older brothers to hear: “we’ll meet early at the base of the tree we found,” they said, “because the biggest and most beautiful birds in the forest live there.”

The next morning, the older brothers woke up before their siblings, crept out of the house, and ran to the tree, where they climbed into the branches and waited for the birds to appear. They snickered about their brothers’ misfortune and argued over how to divide the new space they were sure to have in the house.

But just as the sun tiptoed onto the horizon, the tree sprouted new branches, widened its trunk, and began to rise into the sky.

When the younger brothers arrived to the tree later that morning, their older brothers were already too high to climb down. They cowered against the tree’s trunk and tried to call down to the younger twins for help, but instead of words all they were able utter were grunts and yelps. They began to grow long tails and hair all over their faces and arms. By the time the sun sank behind the mountains, the older brothers had transformed completely into monkeys. Unable to go home to their house and community, they lived the rest of their days in the upper branches of the forest, a testament to the moral that one should never envy or mistreat a brother.

Oral history has it that much of Santiago’s population descended from the younger brothers, and as a result community members today ought to treat each other with the same respect that the older brothers ought to have afforded their siblings.

As the students thought about the story, Lidia divided them into groups and gave each group an old photo from Atitlán’s Digital Archive Project, most of which had been taken as many as fifty years ago. There were photos of the market, the central church, and the beach, as well as the paths and houses nearby.

Each group was asked to describe what they saw, focusing on the differences and similarities between the two eras. The students were fascinated. The traditional clothing had changed entirely, as had the layout of village landmarks. It took most of them a few minutes to equate what they saw in the photos with the buildings and landscapes that they walk by every morning!

Even more striking for the students, however, were the similarities. While the market had changed, the fruits and vegetables being sold were the same, as were the baskets and hollowed out wooden canoes that farmers use to catch 'mojarra,' the local fish. Pathways between houses looked the same and the lake rested a few feet below where just a few years ago the community constructed a new playground for children (since the rainy season the lake has grown to flood the playground, but the curve of the shore is still there).

“It encouraged students to think about kinship, the direct connection they still have to their ancestors, and a different way of life in Santiago,” said Lidia.

The students’ journey into Santiago’s past would not have been possible without your support. In fact, they’ve compiled a video to thank you directly:

From all of us here at the lake, we appreciate your generosity, and be sure to check back soon for more updates!

Students crowd around Lidia, our librarian
Students crowd around Lidia, our librarian
One of the photos used in the activity
One of the photos used in the activity

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Organization Information

Pueblo a Pueblo, Inc.

Location: Neenah, WI - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Andrew Wilson
Executive Director
Neenah, WI United States

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