Constance McAvoy flips through one of the books she created to showcase Askenesh All Ages School (Jamaica) students’ work and share with them the value of literacy.

Vacation takes back seat to literacy

Retired teacher utilizes her skill set to get kids writing in Jamaica

Eight years into retirement, Constance McAvoy is back at teaching – in Jamaica.

Formerly a mathematics teacher, the Oak Bay woman spent 20 years with Special Education Technology (SET B.C.) helping students with physical disabilities. Her specialty developed in working with blind students.

For the past few years, she’s cultivated a project promoting literacy at Askenesh All Ages School in Jamaica.

“Jamaica is a very vibrant society, so I was always very interested in going into the hills and meeting the children,” she said.

McAvoy discovered it through Jamaican friends, Clive Gordon and his wife, Marilyn, who works at the school as a guidance counsellor.

McAvoy and her husband, Jim, would visit on vacation, and talk shop with Clive, a driver and tour operator whose work includes school tours.

 

“It was a good 10 years talking about literacy,” McAvoy said. “He always said ‘We should do a project together.’”

Literacy is a problem in the country, where the people are well-informed, but live in an oral society adapted from a legacy of lack of strong education, McAvoy said.

One winter, the Gordons asked her to stay with them and Marilyn got her in at the school of about 175 students. The All Ages School model includes students up to Grade 6, then older youth in an all-ages classroom if they don’t get into a high school.

“One of the real advantages was I’d seen many computer programs over the years. I could take one or two of the best that applied to the population,” she said.

For example, one program has students type in a letter to start the word and a block of words appear at the bottom of the screen. As they select the appropriate word for what they’re looking to write – say the word dog – the software will read each word.

In another, the image of the word appears as they type the letters. With the word bird, a bird appears. If they misspell a word, nothing appears.

“Technology is novel there. Almost 30 years ago I was doing the same thing in Victoria,” she said.

McAvoy went for six weeks over two years, skipping this year over family concerns over the rising rate of the chikungunya virus which typically causes fever, along with an arthritis-like pain in the joints and a rash. It is spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

The first year she told the students, “If you write, I’ll put it in a book.”

They don’t have things such as annual yearbooks, so didn’t completely comprehend the concept until she sent the first compilation. It was filled with the words and short stories students wrote utilizing the software. It featured their faces and their artwork and even their hand-printed names. “By the second year, they all wanted to be in the book,” McAvoy said.

She hopes to stay three months next visit, because of missing last year.

“I love to see them progress and in the meantime enjoy teaching them,” she said. “I think they pick up on that.”

One boy, about 14, was polite and consistent in turning down her offer of literacy learning. He’s learned to read, primarily because she offered him an audience – she showed interest in his artwork, so he hung around her classes.

That care and attention reaps great rewards.

 

“Children that have never written before were writing sentences, with peer help, in two weeks with specialized software,” she said.