At evangelical institutions like Biola, there’s a lot of passion to share the gospel and make disciples across the globe. But what if the people we’re trying to share the gospel with can’t read? Literacy and education are crucial for effective evangelism and discipleship, and Biola’s School of Education is doing something about it.
As part of Aspiration 6 of Biola’s University Plan — which states that over the next decade the university will strive to make its educational resources accessible throughout the world through such efforts as curriculum development and strategic partnerships — the School of Education has dispatched faculty teams to places like Burundi, Cambodia and Lebanon.
“When we are asked to help out, as we have been by these countries, we go as an overflowing of what God has done in our lives,” said Tim Stranske, assistant dean of the School of Education. “God has blessed us with these resources in the United States and so when we’re asked, I think that we need to do as much as we can to help.”
In 2008, Burundi’s evangelical president, Pierre Nkrunziza, asked the International Christian Chamber of Commerce for help in improving schools in his nation, where literacy is low and only about 30 percent of students pass the exams that allow them to continue past the sixth grade.
Biola University was suggested and the School of Education soon became involved, sending professors Stranske and Fred Ramirez to Burundi in 2009 to begin work in conceiving and implementing curriculum to train teachers and improve literacy efforts in the nation’s primary schools.
Four years and eight trips to Burundi later, Stranske and his team from the School of Education are seeing their work bear fruit in the developing African nation, where education is just one of the areas in recovery after decades of civil war and genocide. DVD curriculum developed by Biola but filmed in Burundi with local teachers is now being used in more than 50 schools across the country. With Biola’s curriculum, students and teachers across Burundi are creating new books to fill the largely empty shelves in classrooms where books are necessary to help students learn how to read.
“Our goal is to provide them with tools that can be usable in the future, and we can eventually fade to the back,” said Stranske, who since the project began has been asked by Tanzania, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria and Liberia to develop similar DVD materials.
Stranske, whose work in Burundi was recently featured in an article in Christianity Today, hopes to continue the partnership with Burundi’s schools, in hopes of creating models for long-term, sustainable literacy development in Africa.
“If you don’t know how to read, it’s a whole lot harder to read the Bible and make it your own,” said Stranske. “Literacy is foundational to evangelism. It’s central to having a church that can study the Bible and be self-sustaining.”
In January, the School of Education sent professors Dennis Eastman and Carolyn Bishop, along with alumna Carly Bedard (M.A. ’10), to Cambodia to train expatriate and Khmer teachers, in partnership with Asian Hope, a Christian nonprofit serving the children of Cambodia.
Among the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent civil war in the 1970s and ’80s, Cambodia’s education system was left in shambles and is still struggling to recover, Eastman said.
“The teaching profession used to be very esteemed [in Cambodia],” he said. “But now these teachers are not highly respected and are not paid well. Many only have a high school education.”
Biola’s team came in to assist Asian Hope in providing inservice training for teachers at its three schools in Phnom Penh:Logos International School, Asian Hope International School, and KC International School. Over the course of nine days, Eastman, Bishop and Bedard worked in classrooms ranging from pre-K to grade 12, using translators at times to help overcome significant language barriers.
“Khmer is a very agrarian, descriptive language,” said Eastman. “If I said ‘good morning,’ my translator would take four or five seconds describing what a good morning is. Imagine trying to communicate a word like ‘pedagogy!’”
On April 22, professors Eastman, Bishop and Robin LaBarbera were invited to Beirut, Lebanon, to participate in activities surrounding the nation’s first-ever National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties.
Biola’s School of Education faculty were specifically sought out and invited to assist in inservice training and consulting to hundreds of teachers at Lebanese schools, including fundamentalist conservative Shi’ite Muslim schools.
Alongside Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and nonprofit Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences (SKILD), Biola’s team helped bring greater awareness about special education to a nation that has — like much of the world — historically had very little educational resources for students with learning disabilities.
Eastman hopes that more opportunities and invitations like this will allow Biola faculty to “go into all the world” and share the love of Christ by serving educators and students globally.
“Education opens doors,” said Eastman, recalling recent trips he took with Ramirez to Austria, Hungary and Romania. “I’m standing in these former communist countries talking about education and Jesus Christ. Education is a vehicle. But it’s still all about the king.”