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Bank Street College Graduate Offers Insights In to Developing Literacy and Creating Children’s Books Globally

November 30, 2018
                                          Keywords: Room to Read, Literacy, International Development


Christabel Pinto (1)


We asked Bank Street Graduate of Education alumna, Christabel Pinto (GSE ’05), Global Literacy Director at Room to Read, a global organization dedicated to literacy and girls’ education, about her experiences helping to create high quality and engaging literature for children in low-income communities around the world.  Here is how she responded to our questions.


(1) Christabel, you have visited schools in low-resourced communities all over the world. What do you see in most classrooms that has inspired you to work in education globally?

Imagine a grade 1 classroom in which there are 100 children or more, not a single children’s book in sight, no materials beyond a chalkboard, and one teacher who may not be trained or supported.  In my experience working with some of the world’s most marginalized children, a version of this scene is a reality that poses steep challenges to the Bank Street way.  When I have observed lessons, I have noticed that these challenges manifest in remarkably consistent ways across the globe: teachers talk (too loudly) and children listen; teachers recite and children repeat (often shouting); teachers write on the board and children copy in their exercise books.  Entire lessons can largely consist of loud choral chanting.  It’s mind-numbingly boring, and I leave a classroom observation with seared eardrums and the knowledge that, despite everyone’s best efforts, very little teaching and learning took place.

(2) How has the international development sector responded to training teachers in low-resourced communities to help children become literate? What do you think of this approach?

The international development sector has developed interventions that are simple and offer the direct instruction of literacy skills, often arming teachers with a script for what they should say or do in a regimented routine that is repeated every lesson. It’s efficient: a teacher without much prior training can implement this intervention within a week or two of training. It’s more effective than the usual chanting: on average, children in a literacy program learn phonics and decoding skills that are crucial to becoming independent readers better than children who do not receive the intervention. But the educator in me asks: what’s missing? In this case, I think taking a simple approach to a complex endeavor leaves children and teachers without an independent or creative voice in the classroom.   Schooling is not a socially neutral act, so I am always critically examining how the design of education interventions reflects what we value for some of the world’s most disadvantaged children and teachers.


Children learning from phonics-based student books developed by Room to Read in Tanzania

(3) Can you talk specifically about Room to Read’s work in establishing libraries in schools?

Most schools we work in do not have school libraries and if they do, they are neglected rooms with piles of dusty, dull books on a shelf. It is no wonder that they remain unused and are perceived as useless.  Or, worse, books are locked away in the principal’s office, preserved from the potentially damaging hands of the very children who could benefit from their use. Room to Read partners with local ministries of education and school communities to establish children’s libraries in government schools, providing children with engaging and age-appropriate books in their local language, a welcoming place to read, and the opportunity to borrow books to take home and read with their families.  In addition, we train educators to conduct reading activities with children, encourage independent reading, and manage the library through book leveling and check out procedures, with the overall mission of unlocking the magic of reading. Training teachers to read aloud to children is no easy feat because teachers we work with have generally never themselves experienced books being read out loud to them!

An existing school “library” (left) and a Room to Read supported children’s library (right) in Indonesia.

(4) Particularly interesting is Room to Read’s focus on creating children’s books in local languages using local authors. Can you talk a little bit about this process?  Why do you believe cultural authenticity/relevance is so important in children’s literature?

At Room to Read, we want children to have both the skills to read and a deep desire to do so.  Many children do not have access to books in their own language and at an appropriate level because these books are not available on the market.  To address this gap, our team trains local authors and illustrators to develop children’s books in countries where children’s book industries often do not even exist.  I think it is important to develop local talent in book creation because it gives people the power to be the creator of their own narratives. It also contributes to nurturing a culture of reading and an industry around it. For children, culturally relevant books could be mirrors for them to see their lives and familiar surroundings validated. That said, we know that children need a variety of books to inspire them, so Room to Read also supports books that serve as windows for children to experience new ideas and expand their world view.  Room to Read’s worldwide publishing program now consists of nearly 1500 fiction and nonfiction children’s books in 35 languages as we continue our journey to ensure that children all over the world have something as simple and as powerful as a good book to read.  (See below for images.)

(5) How did your graduate work at Bank Street, your time as a School for Children teacher as well as other educational experiences prepare you/shape you for what you are doing now?

I consider myself lucky to have received so much supportive mentoring in my early development as a teacher, and two brilliant, caring mentors, in particular, helped me find my own voice as a teacher: Madeleine Ray, my advisor and children’s literature instructor in the graduate school, and Michael Cook, the math-science coordinator for many years at the School for Children.  From these experiences and mentors, I learned the value of taking a developmentally oriented approach that meets the needs of the “whole child”.  The required course, The Study of Children in Diverse & Inclusive Educational Settings Through Observation and Recording (known colloquially as O&R), reinforced my understanding that the curriculum is everything that happens in the classroom and not just the planned course of study. With a lens for observing teaching and learning that has been shaped by Bank Street, I seek opportunities to add depth and breadth to the learning experiences of both children and their teachers in my work now.  I recognize that the Bank Street way is not an appropriate fit for every context, but I also know that the danger to taking an expedient approach to education is that it is not human enough.


KH_Reading under desk

This child in a Room to Read supported classroom in Cambodia cannot tear herself away from a Room to Read published book she is hiding under her desk.


Christabel Pinto is a 2005 graduate of the Bank Street College of Education.  She taught at Bank Street School for Children from 2004 to 2007 and then again from 2010 to 2012.  In 2009, she graduated with a second masters in international educational development from Teachers College, Columbia University.  She worked with Save the Children from 2012 to 2016 as a senior specialist for basic education and literacy and is now the global literacy director at Room to Read.  You can reach Christabel at:  #roomtoread


Below are illustrations from books created by Room to Read and their partners:

JD_2017_A plane that brings love

From A Plane That Brings Love (Jordan). Written by Wafa T. Qusous and illustrated by Kamil Adil. ©2017 Jabal Amman (Room to Read publishing partner)

LA_2016_Bounty's singing bird

From Bounty’s Singing Bird (Laos). Written by Sinthanou Sidavone and illustrated by Nivong Sengsakoun.  ©2016 Room to Read

NP_2017_Wow A Ribbon

From Wow! A Ribbon (Nepal). Written by Harihar Timilsina and illustrated by Sonam Tamad.  Awarded Best Illustration in 2017 by the Nepalese Society for Children’s Literature.©2016 Room to Read


From Wanyama (Animals) ©2018 Tanzania Ministry of Education and Vocational Training. Developed with Room to Read Technical Assistance

VN_2016_Tiger's trouble with sewing

From Tiger’s Trouble with Sewing (Vietnam). Written and illustrated by Pham Quang Phuc. ©2016 Room to Read

ID_2017_The Little Friend of Putri Pandan Berduri

From The Little Friend of Putri Pandan Berduri, an Indonesian folktale adaptation written and illustrated by Fanny Santoso. Awarded Best Illustration by the 2018 Islamic Book Award in Indonesia. © 2017 Penerbit Bestari (Room to Read publishing partner)

Illustrations from books created by Room to Read





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