December 1, 2023

Jacob was browsing an archive of travel stamps dating back 1990s, a collage of sticky pictures representing different countries – a national flower, a crown of a monarch, a golden pagoda. He liked pictures. He doesn’t want to join the group; he doesn’t cooperate or do the reading activities.
Around him were thick old encyclopedias piled in an old wooden cabinet, on the sides were several dictionaries on long tables together with a globe; while a few computer desktops were lined at the back. The library is somewhat forgotten with its creaking wooden floors, faded white walls, and old books.
“Go to the fiction area, there are stories that might interest you there,” I told Jacob whom the teacher brought in along with other non-readers to join our reading program in their library. I am afraid that we are ending this year with some of the students in high school not yet able to read, I thought to myself.
After two hours and a half of traversing the roller coaster ride on the Halsema Highway, Teacher Candice, our extension coordinator, and I together with two faculty members of the college have reached Atok National High School, which is nestled in a remote vicinity of the province. We passed along the rolling hills covered with a carpet of chayote farms laid at a very steep angle. Few houses dotted along the way, pine trees grew robust with vertical trunks, white lilies, and various cactus flowers decorated the road. The principal greeted us with warm smiles and offered their famous coffee and pancake.
Today is our culminating program of a month-long school visitation we offered in a reading program to their students. The school set on top of a mountain is composed of four classroom buildings, a covered court, and an elevated oval – one could have a view of the surrounding municipalities. Students come from far places thus two separate dormitories for girls and boys were built near the school.
Some of these students, I later found out, do not have the support of their parents and siblings in doing their assignments and helping them to read. They were living away from the family at a very young age – they go home only on weekends to do some gardening and ask for allowance. Their parents were also overworked in far-flung farms and oftentimes do not attend school meetings nor attend to the poor grades of their children.
For five Fridays, we went to the school and meet with students in the library for a reading intervention activity. Most students have difficulty understanding sentences and paragraphs. Grade 7 and 8 students have low comprehension skills – they were shy to speak, hesitant to pronounce words, and preoccupied with gadgets.
So we teachers have gone to basic reading patterns, storytelling, translation, and a series of battery reading tests to enhance their comprehension. We cannot do it overnight, of course. It was a good thing the college and the school extended our partnership until the next school year.
During the last day of the reading program, we gathered with the principal and reported what we had been doing. Teacher Candice is very patient and kind to the students, and they loved her. She left them crying during the program.
The students were not only non-academic performers. I observe they seem to have been lacking emotional support and attention that they have no motivation to read. Some were neglected, some bullied, impoverished, and unappreciated. There seemed to be some underlying problems they experienced and non-reading/low comprehension was just the result of their unbecoming. We are glad we made them feel the school cares for them, and that we are all trying to reach out to them.
Jacob stood in the fiction area and picked a colorful storybook for children. He wears an oversized jacket, dirty jeans, and shoes – he seemed small for a grade 8 student. He came to where I’m seated and sat beside me, he opened a book titled, “May mga Lihim Kami ni Ingkong” written by Luis Gatmaitan.
He looks at the pictures and when I point out the first sentence, “Ako ang paborito ni Ingkong,” he did not speak but turned his eyes in the window, I saw a world full of doubt and fear. I knew then that he was ashamed to admit that he cannot read. “Don’t worry it’s our secret,” I said, and read to him the first line while he followed after me. We spent the last Friday of the school year reading a children’s book.