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Cougar Ridge Librarian Promotes a Culture of Reading and a Culture of Kindness Both Near and Far

Cougar Ridge Librarian Promotes a Culture of Reading and a Culture of Kindness Both Near and Far

Posted by Elizabeth Egan on 14 September, 2017

Julie Hembre believes that every child deserves to become a reader and a learner, no matter the circumstances or place in the world a child happens to live. This core belief drove the Cougar Ridge librarian to lead and develop her Books to Africa Project with the help of students here in the Issaquah School District.

Prior to the project, Julie’s dedication caught the attention of Microsoft, earning her a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic through the Microsoft Educators Program. There, Julie met with other Microsoft Educator prize winners from around the world who began connecting her with other educators, including Thejane Malakane of Lesotho and Phuti Ragophala of South Africa. Julie then began traveling to Africa and discovering firsthand the deficiencies with facilities, supplies, and books that schools experience there.

Back in the US, the Books to Africa really began when Julie discovered several boxes of unused picture books at her school. She shared with her students that she wished these books could be given to children who needed them. The students engaged immediately with the idea to send these books to South Africa and worked to organize and raise money for the project. Students developed a promotional video as a class and many students donated their own money! The project was successful, and Julie kept the engagement going by having her students Skype with classrooms in Africa. 

“I want my students here at Cougar Ridge to think of themselves as learning partners,” says Julie. “We aren’t approaching this as charity. We Skype with other classrooms a couple of times a quarter, which is fun for the students in both countries and truly connects them.”
In our district, Julie notes, we are fortunate that most of our students have access to books and are encouraged by parents to read them at home. Such a reading culture is not always present in other parts of the world, especially in disadvantaged areas. It is one thing to send books to classrooms in Africa, it is another for a teacher to know how to create a classroom of readers with those books. 

This key point is what sparked Julie to return to Africa in the summer of 2017. “By going the first time,” Julie explains, “I really saw how important books are because there are very few reading materials. I found out very quickly the only ones they had were the ones we had sent over as a classroom. I also saw teachers struggling to motivate kids to read. Next time, I want to go back and give time to work with the teachers to help them with some techniques to help encourage the students to read at home, even when they don’t live in a reading culture.” 

There is no doubt, Julie would be welcomed back with open arms. This past summer, many students and teachers she had met on her prior trip rushed up to her and were so excited to see her again. The schools put on quite a big celebration in her honor with posters and music, and poetry recitations. There are many amazing stories that Julie has to share about her experiences. You can read more about her latest trip and the Books to Africa project on her blog at http://bellbulldogreaders.edublogs.org/. We are proud of Julie and her desire to go above and beyond to develop cross-cultural learning partnerships that result not only in a culture of reading, but also a culture of kindness.