After Ghana, it was hard to come back to school. The hours of travel from Accra, the Iowa cold, and the Monday school routine were sadly anticlimactic. Fortunately, my students were sweet–they had missed me–and they were eager to hear about my adventure. I enjoyed showing some pictures and telling a few tales, and that made me feel closer to my students and to my journey.
Over the next week, I struggled to reconcile my need to stay connected to Ghana and my responsibility to continue teaching–and to make the travel more about my teaching and my students than about me. I decided that we had to undertake a project. The Chemu library needs seemed like the most approachable, language arts appropriate project.
The Chemu library has a collection of fewer than 150 free-reading novels. The plaque on the fiction collection states, “Gift of Cargill, Ghana” and the titles are an odd assortment of American adult and teen bestsellers. To me, this seemed like the most interesting need that my students and I could address.
More pressing, according to the Chemu librarian, is the age of the World Book Encyclopedia collection. Back at school in Iowa, the encyclopedia seemed like a clunky, outdated, unglamorous resource to sponsor, but with spotty electricity and internet, and just one computer lab, it makes sense that a print encyclopedia is the go-to source for Chemu’s library users.
My students surprised me in two ways. They were good at brainstorming ways to raise funds or collect book donations. They suggested getting the UNESCO City of Literature organization, the Iowa City and Coralville Public Libraries, and even the U of Iowa Sororities involved. On the other hand, they struggled with the task of creating a suggested book list. Of course kids could easily name novels that they had read and considered important in high school. But once they tried to consider the appropriateness for Ghanaian teens, students were too troubled to name more than a title or two. Lord of the Flies seemed too dated and too irrelevant. Even To Kill a Mockingbird invited multiple objection. It was too unkind to African Americans, too sexual, too unflattering to the U.S. These concerns led to a string of questions: Should donated books portray american life accurately? Should they even be about Americans? Should books only portray African Americans or African immigrants kindly? Should books be ruled out for sexual content, un-christian values, excessive wealth? Are American novels, especially those for teens, too problem-centered, too dark, too selfish? Is the Harry Potter series too young? Roald Dahl too weird? We kept a running list on the white board (and I made a digital list), but it seemed that each day students erased as many as they added.
Ultimately, we came to the right conclusion: we needed to collaborate with the Ghanaian teachers and librarians. Because Ghanaian exams were over, and teachers were on break, we decided to browse books in the summer, seek Ghanaian teacher input, and start back up with our project in the fall. We finished with a much deeper respect for the complexities of book selection and cultural sensitivity. We were daunted, but determined.