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By the Book: National reading program helps Native communities increase literacy skills, preserve culture

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Many people are wary of traveling to foreign countries because they can’t read crucial information found on traffic signs, on airport monitors and in front-page news stories.

Loriene Roy
Loriene Roy, founder of “If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything” and professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, will serve as president of the American Library Association in 2007-08.

For others, it doesn’t take a foreign country to trigger the same anxiety. For some, walking out their front door spurs similar apprehension. Like the travelers, they can’t translate the signs or billboards that surround them. Nor can they learn the latest news in the local paper or understand the instructions on their medications.

Why? They can’t read.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, more than 40 million Americans aged 16 and older have significant literacy needs. In the National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey done by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, 14 percent of those tested performed below the basic skill level, indicating they exhibited only the most simple and concrete literacy skills.

Literacy (or illiteracy) is a complex, nationwide problem. In the past several years, the federal government, along with state and local governments, has introduced a number of programs in hopes of addressing the issue.

One of those efforts, the National Book Festival, will be held Sept. 30 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The event is organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress and is hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. Since its inception in 2001, the festival has emphasized the joys of reading and lifelong literacy and has stimulated individuals to become advocates for literacy in schools, public libraries and homes.

Literacy is an essential ingredient in Native language recovery and economic stability in Indian country and libraries play an essential part in these efforts. Dr. Loriene Roy, School of Information, Founder of 'If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything'In that same spirit, Loriene Roy, professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, founded “If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything,” a national reading program for Native American children in fall 1999. Roy, an Anishinabe (Ojibwe) enrolled on the White Earth Reservation and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, has spent a lifetime promoting literacy for indigenous students.

“The mission of the program is to assist Indian communities in increasing literacy skills while preserving Native American culture,” said Roy. “We provide consulting and support services for tribal librarians while creating an online national reading club for Native children.”

The goals of the program are to encourage reading, endorse library use, promote intergenerational reading and to build book collections at the various sites that are served. Board members and student volunteers help teachers and librarians with event planning, grant writing and policy development. A Web site includes reading logs, information on reading themes and a list of literary materials that are available. Each semester, Roy and her students make site visits to various locations.

Children at participating schools receive an initial book bag with a membership card, reading log and incentives (such as bookmarks, magnets, pencils, posters and postcards). During the school year, they work with teachers and librarians to engage students in a variety of reading contests and events.

“For Children’s Book Week 2006, the elementary students at Andes Central School in Lake Andes, S.D., had a reading challenge with the elementary students at Andes Central School in Andes, N.Y.,” said Brenda DeHaan, K-12 librarian at Andes Central School. “The ‘If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything’ program provided nice incentives for each student. It was wonderful!”

Loriene Roy poses with graduate students Sandra Littletree and Robert Lee Yazzie Jr. at a poster session at the American Library Association meeting in New Orleans in spring 2006
Loriene Roy with graduate students Sandra Littletree and Robert Lee Yazzie Jr. at a poster session at the American Library Association meeting in New Orleans in spring 2006. Littletree and Yazzie assisted with the “If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything” program as part of a service-learning project called “Honoring Generations.”

The program serves 25 sites, including 23 schools and two tribal community libraries, in 10 states. Children in the program represent a number of tribes, including Blackfeet, Dine/Navajo, Laguna and the Gila River tribes. The majority of the sites are in New Mexico and Arizona. However, participating sites can be found as far away as Alaska, Washington state and Maine.

“Our Native American children attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in northern and southern Pueblo school districts in New Mexico,” said Laura Sierra, librarian at the Taos Day School. “Every year the ‘If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything’ program has been very generous in providing reading incentives for more than 80 elementary and middle school students participating in our reading program.”

The “If I Can Read” program helps participating schools build their library collections. Team members funnel donations of new books to the schools that request book donations, contributing 1,000 new books to each school over time and up to $500 worth of new books each subsequent year a school participates in the program.

Board members and volunteers contact publishers directly, solicit publishers exhibiting at professional conferences and hold book drives to collect donations. Staffers use cash donations to buy new books at Half Price Books stores in Austin, at the annual Austin book festival, at bookstore closings and at sales at state and national library conferences.

For the 12 sites in which data are available, seven reported increases in reading proficiency from five percent to 43 percent one year after joining the program.

Students in grades 4-8 participated in a reading competition for northern Pueblo schools in May 2006
More than 80 students in grades 4-8 participated in “Battle of the Books,” a competition for northern Pueblo schools held in May 2006 at the Santa Fe Indian School. The “If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything” program provided book bags and incentives for the event.

Roy will be the first Native person to serve as president of the 130-year-old American Library Association (ALA) in 2007-08. With a membership of nearly 67,000, ALA is the largest general membership library organization in the world. Roy’s Circle of Literacy Task Force will plan an international celebration of indigenous children’s reading and culture during National Library Week 2008. She previously served as president of the American Indian Library Association.

The “If I Can Read” program’s executive board is composed of Dr. Naomi Caldwell (University of Rhode Island), Susie Husted (library consultant), Marty Kreipe de Montano (National Museum of the American Indian), Dr. Mary Lynn Rice-Lively (The University of Texas at Austin), Narda Tafuri (University of Scranton), Karen Drake (retired from the Chandler Public Library), Sara Joiner (Brazoria County Library System), Marti Lindsey (Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center), Victor Schill (Harris County Public Library Fairbanks Branch) and Elayne Silversmith (Center for Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College).

Major funding for the program came from the American Library Association, the Tocker Foundation, the School of Information and the Four Directions Technology Challenge Grant.

“The ‘If I Can Read’ program is a community that works together to support Native children’s reading,” said Roy. “We are just beginning to explore how we can work together to support the work of tribal libraries. Literacy is an essential ingredient in Native language recovery and economic stability in Indian country and libraries play an essential part in these efforts.”

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