We thought a conference on informal education might be a small, informal gathering. To our delighted surprise, 650 people registered for the two-day event in October at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt. They came from Cairo and Alexandria but also Minya and other far-flung towns; there were librarians, college professors, teachers, authors and representatives of NGOs that work with children outside the regular school day.
The seed for the conference was planted soon after the publication of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books in 2012 when I met with library director Ismail Serageldin at a Starbucks in Arlington. Conference ideas were massaged and debated by email until the library staff took over, added its own themes and objectives and scheduled the conference for October 12-13.
Dr. Serageldin said informal education in libraries, museums, zoos and within families should give children “a sense of fun and wonder and a greater ability to interact with their surroundings.” The higher-than-expected registration demonstrated a huge demand for information, resources and tips on storytelling, ways to make learning exciting for children and keep reading important in a digital world. The audience applauded when one attendee said schools focus too much on preparing children to sit for examinations and earn certificates without providing real education.
That audience included people like Sawsan Radwan, whose foundation runs a preschool for poor children near Alexandria, Egypt. She creates her own storybooks and is seeking ways to publish them for a wider audience. There were several young people from the Nebny Foundation, which offers art and study programs in poor neighborhoods of Cairo. Khalid Aziz came from the Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages, which has started Egypt’s first accredited vocational qualification in childcare. (Wataneya video) It was suggested that a considerable number of young adults in Egypt are turning their revolutionary fervor to social action and the conference benefited from their enthusiasm.
Several people came to share books or educational products they had already created themselves, including Nazih Girgis who has long published his own series of children’s books, some incorporating classical music like Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and others drawing attention to environmental or health concerns. Olfat Salem and Nadia Atia Kandil came to learn about ways they could enhance their programs for children with special needs and in art at the Alexandria Sporting Club, where I was able to do a separate program about Hands Around the Library for a group of very engaged youngsters.
There were conference presentations on the impact of reading on the brain, the value of folklore and heritage, animation as an education tool, even a cancer hospital for children in Cairo that operates a full time school within its walls.
The Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Maryland/Washington, D.C., Virginia in the United States and the Baltimore Alexandria Sister City Committee sent Baltimore, Maryland, librarian Paula Willey to the conference as a presenter and participant. Willey said it is important “to get parents used to the idea that they are integral to developing their children’s learning process.” Parents are encouraged not to sit on the sidelines during library storytime so that children come to understand that learning and participating are important activities.
Hasmig Chahinian from the International Board on Books for Young People at the
National Library of France shared research showing that three areas of the brain are activated when a child listens to stories: visual imagery, association and meaning, and visual associations and meaning. Reading aloud to children, she said, is a “shared moment of joy, a gift with nothing expected in return.”
In organizing the conference agenda, Ingi Abd Elkader, Head of theBA Children’s Library Section, emphasized the importance of both modern multimedia and traditional folklore in informal education. Dr. Mervat Nasser, founder of New Hermopolis, talked about the value of sharing myths to connect children with Egypt’s heritage and teach values without preaching.
Susan Roth and I talked about their children’s picture book Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books as a way to empower children to be active in their own communities. Malak Wassef-Edgar, a member of the Egyptian Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, led a panel discussion on the importance of Egypt’s folkloric heritage, saying modernization should not be considered a threat but an opportunity to use modern tools to protect that heritage.
Several animators, including Shewekar Khalifa and Ahmed Ateyia, expressed concern about the lack of funding for high quality animated films that could open children’s eyes to the world and help preserve an interest in Egypt’s heritage in an increasingly digital world.
Concluding the conference, Lamia Abdel Fattah, Head of the BA Library Sector, announced that the library would establish an online network for participants to continue sharing ideas, networking and collaborating. I will also be encouraging the BA to plan webinars and smaller workshops to discuss issues and possibilities for which there just wasn’t time at the initial conference.
Several in Egypt and the US had been openly skeptical about whether a single conference could make any difference at all. Of course nothing changes with a couple of days of listening to people on a stage. But something stirred - people realized how many others shared their passion for improving opportunities and expanding access to knowledge for all children. It was an exhilarating, hopeful time.