The goal of Morocco Library Project (MLP) is not just to help teachers boost English, but also to inspire a love of reading and learning more broadly. Especially among young people who have never had access to the riches of a library before. So a lot of thought goes into choosing books that will hit the mark to nurture avid young readers in rural Morocco.
by Barb Mackraz
People have been asking me for years how we choose books for high schools in Morocco, so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about it!
We're probably an unusual program as far as international library projects go. We generally don't send donated books. Instead, we buy everything new and choose in close collaboration with the teachers. Each shipment is tailored to its location and the needs, desires, and interests of the students. We buy from suppliers in the U.S. at an educator's discount and ship from here.
These are our guiding principles:
a variety of genres and levels so that everyone can find something to read
relevance and real-life interest to the local readers
Morocco Library Project (MLP) is definitely a high-touch program, but at this point we have a system in place that allows us to be efficient without compromising quality and the personal touch. For those who aren't familiar with MLP, it preceded Oliveseed by several years. It was my own program that I was doing after making friends with teachers in Morocco. I still manage MLP and give it my passion, but by running it under Oliveseed, we're able to apply the strength of teams and robust systems including an app and database we've developed for scanning books by ISBN to generate book lists for teachers.
I believe that the highest value we provide in MLP is curation, and this happens because of a close working relationship with teachers, refined through constant feedback.
The MLP libraries vary from large for a school, to smaller for classes and after-school clubs. As MLP has evolved, we've come to focus on the latter, as that is what's most needed. The teachers we collaborate with have clubs for the most motivated English learners at their school, and they are our audience — in fact, these clubs began with the Purple Library (the first MLP site). Most of these students started English in the 8th grade, so they've had a year or two by the time they join this initiative. Still, the reading levels vary greatly.
Quite simply, our goal is to nurture a love of reading. We believe this is best achieved by providing free reading time; abundant choice; and opportunities to engage with peers about reading, such as giving presentations, writing book reviews, and participating in group discussion. This creativity is happening in these after-school clubs! We support this by not only giving books but also providing a wider network for sharing book reviews and other student writing.
Assessing the Need
We begin with a set of online forms that allow the teacher to provide information about the context, capacity, needs, interests, and (from a long checklist) genres most desired. Then we follow up with interviews to learn about the finer points and any sensitivities to be aware of.
At a high level, we do know that these teachers and the students are interested in a global view and want access to international literature and perspectives. Thankfully, it's easy to provide this in English, and I'm grateful every single day for the richness and diversity of materials in the English language!
Favorites & How We Know
Once we have a framework of understanding, we choose titles. I've worked out these categories and titles over time with teachers, and we're constantly gathering feedback to refine the choices.
Here's a typical mix:
Picture-rich nonfiction on nature, science, history, architecture, places, and inventions — such as DK, Nat Geo, and Smithsonian books and works by David Macaulay. We have an environmental bent at Oliveseed, so we usually aim for at least 20% of the collection to be related to nature. If the teacher asks, we'll send more advanced environmental books like Drawdown.
Essays from the classic (e.g., Epictetus) to the current (Soul of an Octopus).
Short stories and novels from the English-speaking world and from elsewhere in translation, both classic and contemporary. The Alchemist is popular, as it's set in North Africa; Hemingway is popular, as his language is straightforward. We include North African and Sub-Saharan authors, such as Lalami, Mernissi, Adichie, Achebe.
Contemporary young adult (YA) fiction from the U.S. These are very popular with advancing readers. Fault in Our Stars is just one example — we're constantly adding new titles. We consult with the teacher on any cultural sensitivities. Many students love to write reviews of these books (see a few on the MLP website).
Middle-level fiction from classics (Wrinkle in Time, Matilda) to current (Brown Girl Dreaming, Louis Sachar). These are the sweet spot for many readers. Teachers often ask for multiples of this level for group reading.
Easier books for students starting to read in English. We've learned over time that the Who Is / Who Was biographies are especially popular. Actually, readers of all levels like these, and teachers ask for them all the time. Abridged classics also work.
Biographies of inspiring people, such as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Malala, usually in young reader editions. Also, we like to send books that focus on the accomplishments of women, such as Girls Think of Everything. A biography of Rachel Carson has inspired more than one club to start an environmental group.
Folktales and traditional stories from around the world. The Last Storytellers (Richard Hamilton) is one of the Moroccan collections we're sending these days.
Graphic novels, including adaptations of classics like The Odyssey.
Poetry, such as Neruda, Angelou, Rumi, and collections for young readers.
Plays, from Greek (Antigone) to Shakespeare (or modern adaptations) to contemporary. A few teachers ask for these.
Children's picture story books, because people end up loving them even if they don't ask for them. They add beauty to a library, and we always hope students will take them home to share with younger siblings.
We're flexible, so if a student wants books on cars and motorcycles, why not? Whatever sparks an enjoyment of reading!
Relevance & Real Life
We've discovered from feedback on books that many students are interested in current environmental topics such as climate and pollution. It's no wonder, because young people today see these issues as affecting their lives and their future. We use this feedback to refine book choices and also to create new programs. In 2018, we ran an initiative called Environmental Changemakers and sent advanced materials to three schools; it was funded by the U.S. Embassy. This year (2021), we're running an Earth Day Student Collaboration between students in Morocco and elsewhere. We've also seen environmental groups evolve out of these reading clubs.
You might wonder why so many of these titles are from the U.S. and other countries outside Morocco. One reason is that the teachers and students have asked for a global perspective. But at the same time, we do want to expand our books from within Morocco. That is why we have an annual Short Story Competition for students — we publish these stories and put them back in the MLP libraries. (That's the beauty of having a library!) We're also planning to launch an Indigenous Story Project in 2022, with students collecting oral tales from elders. We plan to publish those tales in English and the original language, and those will go in the libraries as well.
Thanks for listening! If you'd ever like to buy books for schools in Morocco through our program, I hope this information will give you some guidelines. And THANK YOU so much to Books Inc Palo Alto and to our long-time library advisor Debbie Abilock.