More than books: The Cultivate World Literacy project is empowering schools and students to reach new readers globally

The 126 million illiterate youth in the world today are looking at an almost certain life of poverty. This fact is what has driven my passion to give children books as much as I am able, and to travel to South Africa – twice so far – to make a difference.

In my month as a volunteer teacher in Africa, I saw state-of-the-art schools. I also saw schools where children shared desks with three others in overcrowded classrooms. I recorded and later played back a chant one classroom of 6th graders sang to me, “Julie, we need you!” and felt discouraged. I didn’t have an answer on how I could help these students above what we were already doing.

Over the past six years, students at two schools, where I taught as a teacher-librarian, have raised funds and sent more than 7,000 books to teachers in my Microsoft Educator network in Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia. Yet, it wasn’t enough. We brought in more US partner teachers and they, too, sent books. Still, I could see from what these students were telling me, it wasn’t enough.

Our efforts needed to be bigger. They needed to be bolder. They needed to be powered by many teachers and many students.

We needed some faith and some luck. We got both after the Hack the Classroom event in Redmond, Washington and a short conversation with Tammy Brecht Dunbar, a 5th grade teacher in Manteca, California.

Having co-authored the successful Human Differences project, Tammy had experience with designing global projects. This Skype project paved the pathway for students from 50 schools, in 37 countries on six continents, to talk about invisible and tactile walls between people and the need to build bridges in their place. Tammy was energized by the positive teacher and student responses from these global and life-changing, collaborative connections. Teaching in a school with a high percentage of low-income families, she also understood the challenges of cultivating literacy in the classroom.

Our agreement, “Let’s talk more,” led to many conversations. We shared our common dreams and hopes via email, OneNote, Skype, texts and phone calls. Our global collaborative Skype project, “Cultivate World Literacy,” was born through those communications.

We believe that by cultivating world literacy, and empowering students in the process, we can rewrite the future of illiteracy.

Using the tools students have freely at their disposal, like Learning Tools, OneDrive and OneNote, students of all ages and abilities can both celebrate literacy and research the issues of illiteracy. Using Skype in the Classroom, they can connect with others around the globe to share their knowledge.

Cultivate World Literacy takes students and teachers through a journey, of focusing first on themselves and the issues of literacy at their local level, then moving beyond themselves in order to gain a perspective on the importance of literacy worldwide. Finally, they arrive at the ultimate challenge of becoming agents of change.

What we ultimately hope the Cultivate World Literacy project will be is a catalyst for change. We dream of this movement empowering students who don’t want to see another generation of children living in poverty, and emboldening students and teachers to step up and make a difference. They will rally for children, regardless of their circumstances, to have the opportunity to read, write, and have a quality education.

There are more than 110 classrooms across 33 countries and six continents already signed up, and we are currently registering teachers to join this project. We need you to join the Cultivate World Literacy Project. Dr. Ada Okika, Executive Director of UNESCO Center for Global Education, is one of the many celebrity supporters of Cultivate World Literacy.

We need you and your students to help teach the world to read.


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