In July 2009 I had the privilege of catching up with old friends and meeting some new faces when Jonathan Thurston, his wife Kristi, and past and present students arrived in Ghana to carry out a book making project with students at a primary school in Elmina, in the Central Region of Ghana.
What’s so special? They use simple, portable technology to inspire creativity and facilitate learning among Ghana’s poorest students. And they use ‘social media’ to establish networks with like-minded individuals and organizations internationally, enhancing development opportunities and increasing the possibility of involving other communities and countries as the organization grows.
I interviewed Jonathan, the founder, about 2009 summer’s project and the organization behind the project: The Intl School of Art, Business and Technology (ISABT ). Founded in 2006 by Jonathan Thurston, Trudy Obazee, former Chair of the Accounting Department at Albright College, and Sarah Philbrick, ISABT's mission is to operate educational programs in Ghana and give children an opportunity to become authors. You can view some of the books that students wrote in July 2009 at the Ghana Reale Library . For those interested, download Reale Writer  from the Reale site.
I asked Johnathan:
What groups are you working with in Ghana?
We’re working with schools and we’re trying to work with the PTA to sustain our program. We have some help from other NGOs like Global Mamas  with housing or advice. We have people that we work with in Ghana here that can go around and make appointments before we arrive to save us a lot of time. You know, sometimes things take a while so if we can get the ball rolling a month before we come and jump right in when we arrive.
So you’re working with Ghanaians on the ground?
Yes, former teachers. We have one who was actually hired to run the book making program. And what I’m trying to do is put our research from this summer and from the past together to educational units and share it with teachers across developing countries and solve their problems before they have them, like an issue with ink or different technology issues or equipment. Ideally you would have the educational units ready and all you need is a working printer and a working laptop that can run the software, and some paper and some crayons. If you have that, you can run it.
A video of 2008's visit with the teachers .
Last summer I came for a week and saw the possibility and impact that it had. One school I went to, Kakum Oda, had no power and very few books and resources. I only had a week and I had asked for just two students to work with to see. On the first day I sat down with the head teacher and greeted her and said, ‘Thank you for working with me, so, it would be great to meet the two students.’ And she started laughing. She said, ‘There’s more than two.’ I said, ‘Really, more than two?’ I thought, maybe, there’d be four or six. No. Every kid in the school wrote a story already! There were over a hundred stories. They all came up all of a sudden and put them on the desk. Just from hearing about the project they’d all written a story.
I couldn’t do all the stories last summer but I what I saw was that people want to do them. So we’re working through those stories and I have my college kids illustrating them, putting them into software—we’re working our way through that pile.
Click You Tube  to watch the Elmina Authors at work and interviewed.
So what’s happening this summer?
This summer we have a new program where we have writing instruction. It’s about how to write a story, descriptive language, setting, character, and plot. One thing I noticed with the pile of stories was that there was little structure so one thing we did this summer was introduce story-writing instruction—and they totally get it. From a few paragraphs to pages—we’re seeing very descriptive and rich stories.
I was just watching them write. I noticed some are copying—naughty kids. And some are writing freehand. The title of one story was “The girl who married a ghost”. I want to know what happens in that story.
I want to read that story. And maybe some will be copying from one at the beginning, we’re all going to sit and read them together and if we get a story twice, we’ll know.
Could you tell me what a typical session with the kids entails?
We’re still learning, but when I came last summer one thing I noticed is that a lot of the stories didn’t have a beginning, middle or an end. For a well-rounded story you have to introduce the story, tell the story, and then tie it up at the end. We talk about that during the teaching sessions.
I’ve been doing a lot of research into folk stories as well for a couple of years now, especially from West Africa. You know Ananse ? When I see an Ananse story, I know, often, whether it’s an original. If they do want to tell an Ananse story that’s fine, but we encourage them to make it their own a little bit and enrich it to make it different.
Click on the link to watch the children in the Book Making Project .
How does the project work this summer?
We’re working with this school and they pitched in their own money to buy the computers they have. Even though the computers are often twenty years old, although they have some newer ones, it’s still a foundation to start.
We brought volunteers from the USA with lap tops. They could work with three students each and put the stories into the lap tops. The next thing they’ll do tomorrow is proof-reading and illustrating pictures for the stories. The students write and illustrate the story and we help them get them on the lap top. And tomorrow we’ll run a training session for the teachers too, so when we leave they’ll be able to do it on their own.
What happens to their stories when they finish writing them?
On the final day we’ll have a book celebration. We’ll give each student a printed book and give a laptop and printer to the school. It’s everything they need to keep it going with the teacher who’s been involved from the beginning.
We’re promoting the healthy book cycle: Read, Create, Share. Always start with reading. Even better: start with reading a book another student has written. Then they get inspired to create a book that they then share. And then the next student will read it and be inspired to create and share. That’s the healthy book cycle. If they keep this going, it’s going to keep building. What we want to do is make sure they can continue to the cycle.
How does the books online work?
We have a library for Ghana . So any book made in Ghana is welcome to be included in that library. Anyone can access it. It’s all free. The software is free. The library is free. These books are available for anyone to read if they have a PC and internet. Kids from Kenya, Brooklyn, New Jersey and California will be reading these books. And they’re making their own books and putting them online too and kids in Ghana will be able to read those. And they can pull them off the library and print them.
Spotlighting Jonathan in Ghana  this year on You Tube
It’s inspiring. What is your vision for the future?
If we can get it working here, we can build a model that we can replicate. We also want to build a community centre to work with the schools and run after school programs. We would have a small library and computer lab and do programs like the book making program. We want to provide resources to run programs for the future. If someone wants to run an accounting workshop, we’ll bring an accountant from the US or a local accountant and run the workshop. We want to get involved in the community and give them what they need: programs that can enhance the community.
You spoke about the Ghanaian students who came from the USA to volunteer this summer; can you tell me about their involvement?
One is a former student of mine from Albright and one is a current student; he’s getting college credit for working on this project. Their help has been so wonderful on so many levels. They’re both so committed. I think the reactions of the students working in the project are special for them. For a Ghanaian student to study in the USA is very expensive so they’re from families that can afford that. They come back and help out the kids and hopefully those kids will have that opportunity in future. And it’s good role model for the students here to see someone who’s worked hard and graduated from university who cares about Ghana, coming back: someone like them but a bit older. It’s inspiring for the kids.
The educational paradigm is drawn as a pyramid and goes that everyone gets in on the bottom, but the higher up, the narrower it gets, less people in. We’re trying to make that pyramid a square.
Read the featured book, The Bakatue Festival , at RealeBooks.