Education Professor Helps Create Books in Native Guatemala Language

In 2011, Donna Kalmbach Phillips visited a remote Guatemalan village to observe a primary school. She returned home with more than just notes and souvenirs.

Phillips is an education professor and literacy expert at Pacific University, where she also coordinates a Woodburn, Ore.-based program preparing elementary teachers to serve English language learners.

In Guatemala, she noticed that the school lacked books for beginning readers in their indigenous language.

“Suddenly, I had a project on my hands,” Phillips said.

Phillips and her husband, John, are longtime volunteers with Helps International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to fight poverty in Guatemala. In 2011, they first visited Santa Avelina, a highland town that was established as a safe haven after a decades-long civil war razed many indigenous villages and killed thousands of civilians.

The town is home to the William M. Botnan School, which Helps International founded in the 1990s at the request of elders and mothers there.

Students at the Botnan school are taught in both Spanish and Ixil (pronounced ih-SHEEL), a practice that helps them stay connected to their Mayan heritage and preserves an ancient language.

But Ixil is primarily a spoken language, and when Phillips first visited, they had no children’s books in the language, only basic adult materials.

The material was “black and white with no picture cues,” Phillips said. Students were becoming “good little decoders,” but they weren’t learning to read for meaning. As a result, they also had difficulty learning to read for meaning in Spanish, a second language for many of Guatemala’s indigenous people.

“We know from research that kids need to learn [to read] in their home language,” Phillips said.

Since her initial visit, Phillips has returned to the Botnan school many times to help teachers there create books for beginning readers in Ixil. So far, the teachers – native speakers of Ixil – have written and illustrated more than 50 books.

Phillips and a friend, Kathleen Haney, an illustrator from Salem, Ore., visit the school every fall to hold writing and illustration workshops. Phillips has set her sights on producing a total of 80 books in both print and digital editions.

Many of the existing books are already available online through Pacific’s CommonKnowledge, a website for openly sharing the scholarly and creative work of students, faculty, staff and their collaborators.

The “teachers have never formally written in Ixil before,” Phillips said. “They have had to learn to do that, and it has been crazy fun because they don’t always know how to spell certain words.”

At times, village elders have been consulted to help resolve disagreements over the proper spelling of a certain word.

“It took three months to agree on how on spell the word twenty in Ixil,” Phillips said. “The language is emerging as a written language, and the teachers are doing all that work.”

The endeavor is a passion project for Phillips, but she also has brought it back to Pacific’s College of Education. Some of her students at the Woodburn campus have helped out by binding the Ixil children’s books by hand.

And, her experience in Guatemala is illustrative of the approach she takes to teacher preparation in the United States. Pacific’s teacher-training initiative in Woodburn prepares local students — many first-generation college students from diverse backgrounds — to become culturally proficient teachers in their own communities.

Jul. 20, 2017