Reading or Not

We think a lot about the internet as a tool for democratizing not just technology, but also skills, knowledge, and information. Since working in Kingston, I’ve been forced to rethink the potential of the internet in the face of illiteracy.

Using the internet is highly dependent on your ability to read. Sure you could speak and listen instead, there are voice recognition and text-to-speech options, but can you honestly imagine using the internet effectively while being illiterate?

To my surprise and disappointment we’ve met many illiterate kids in Kingston, mostly boys. It’s a really strange thing to meet a 10 year old boy who goes to school, seems completely normal, is intelligent and interested, but can’t read. A 7 year old boy who couldn’t read or write completed the Hour of Code Lightbot game on my phone much faster than I did. These kids go to school! So I honestly don’t get it. Whatever the case, illiteracy seems to be a chronic problem likely to plague Jamaica’s future. During our Design Thinking workshop we learned, through talking to people in the community, that the inadequate level of education was indeed a prevalent concern.


Honestly this is something we did not want to get into; it’s not our area of expertise. But it seems like such a central issue that we could no longer work around it. So this week we reluctantly launched a reading group and it went great! 18 kids and 2 volunteers participated. Some kids haven’t yet moved from letters to words, others struggled to move from words to sentences, but everybody tried. We read in Heroes park in Marcus Garvey’s company, and after an an hour we played in the park.


Imagine my surprise reading about this issue in the Atlantic in the same week! The article discusses how education has been feminized, but the boys I read with were eager to show off their reading skills. I let them pick their own books, and have worked with many of these kids in our STEAM workshops, so I’ve been able to see them open up. Other times I see these same kids cussed at and forced to read in a corner, where they sit quietly and stare vacantly at book pages.

It is this approach that I recognized in the way students were excluded from the program described by the Atlantic. The kids I meet in Kingston show no weakness. Maybe as a result of their environment they approach every challenge with confidence, even arrogance. This attitude hides the struggles they face. When they do fail or show weakness people around them routinely belittle them.

The kids I meet in Kingston all want to succeed, but the environment isn’t safe for these kids to fail without being shamed, or to simply learn through trial and error. But I want to be cautiously positive, even where teachers and school are failing. After months of working in Kingston with kids, I’ve seen them think creatively, learn in leaps and bounds, and build up the confidence to not just face the challenges they encounter but to fail without shame.