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Jamaican Teacher Turns Kingston Walls into Blackboards

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This story was originally published Oct. 29, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

KINGSTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - With most schools in Jamaica still closed due to the pandemic, schoolteacher Taneka Mckoy every day braves the risk of stray gunshots from gang warfare and the oppressive Caribbean heat as she trudges around her inner city Kingston community to write lessons on blackboards painted on its walls.

Educator Taneka Mckoy Phipps teaches a lesson with a blackboard painted on a wall, in a low-income neighborhood, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica October 27, 2020. October 27, 2020. | REUTERS/Gladstone Taylor
Educator Taneka Mckoy Phipps teaches a lesson with a blackboard painted on a wall, in a low-income neighborhood, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica October 27, 2020. October 27, 2020. | REUTERS/Gladstone Taylor

Parents and children of primary school age take photos on their phones of the lessons or write them down in a notebook. Later, the children pass by Mckoy's home to hand in or pick up their homework, wearing face masks and respecting social distancing measures while they stand in line.

Mckoy, 39, said she felt compelled to start the project when the new coronavirus reached Jamaica seven months ago and the government closed down its schools in order to contain infections.

"I said that if we don't meet them and bring them (to learn), the family would have lost this opportunity that lies within these inner-city community children," she told Reuters. "I said I have to do something."

First, Mckoy got her husband to paint nine blackboards, then she started getting up before dawn to plod through a warren of muddy lanes and potholed streets to write numeracy and literacy lessons on them in green, purple and white chalk.

The teacher, who is now joined in her mission by other teachers, including her 23-year old daughter, estimated she is now reaching around 120 children.

And while lessons resumed earlier this month online, her project is as relevant as ever because many schoolchildren in Jamaica do not have access to the necessary technology or the internet — a problem for many families in Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the epicenters of the pandemic.

Educator Taneka Mckoy Phipps writes a lesson on a blackboard painted on a zinc fence, in a low-income neighbourhood, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica October 27, 2020. October 27, 2020. | REUTERS/Gladstone Taylor
Educator Taneka Mckoy Phipps writes a lesson on a blackboard painted on a zinc fence, in a low-income neighbourhood, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica October 27, 2020. October 27, 2020. | REUTERS/Gladstone Taylor

Locals say her lessons provide a respite from the harsh realities of the community.

"Right now the community we are living in is very violent, and it affects the kids, so if they can come and see the work on the board, at least something can occupy their time," said local mother Natalie Turner.

If people in the community see children running around, they will urge them to get the daily lessons, she added.

The initiative has gone viral nationally, motivating the private sector to provide financial support and supplies.

"For some, teaching is a calling, and she exemplifies this," says Rebecca Tortello, education specialist at the Jamaica branch of United Nations children's agency UNICEF. "We ... are liaising with the government to see if, and how best, her innovative and practical process can be scaled up."

Reporting by Kate Chappell Editing by Sarah Marsh and Rosalba O'Brien.

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