The ‘Book Woman’

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Joan Boulerice from Mas­sachusetts has es­tab­lished li­braries in Chi­nese schools with thou­sands of books in English.>

Mas­sachusetts na­tive Joan Boulerice has es­tab­lished li­braries in Chi­nese schools and stocked them with thou­sands of books in her na­tive tongue, help­ing im­prove her stu­dents’ English-lan­guage pro­fi­ciency through read­ing, Chen Liang and Li Yingqing re­port.

That Book Woman, by Heather Hen­son, is one of thou­sands of books in English in Joan Boulerice’s li­brary at Yun­nan Nor­mal Univer­sity in Kun­ming, cap­i­tal of Yun­nan province.

It tells a mov­ing story of a woman who brings books to chil­dren in Ken­tucky’s Ap­palachian Moun­tains. The story also hon­ors a spe­cial part of Amer­i­can history — the Pack Horse Li­brar­i­ans — who helped un­told num­bers of chil­dren shape into life­time read­ers.

At 61, Boulerice, who teaches English and hails from Mas­sachusetts in the United States, has thought of her­self as “that book woman”. Since she came to China in 1985, she has en­cour­aged her Chi­nese stu­dents to read books in English.

While teach­ing at Jishou Univer­sity in Hu­nan province be­tween 1987 and 1989, she first built up a small li­brary for her stu­dents ma­jor­ing in English. Since then, she has pushed English-read­ing among her stu­dents through her Bao Qiong Li­brary, which car­ries her Chi­nese name.

“I just wanted a place for stu­dents to gather — we can talk a lit­tle bit, maybe they can do their home­work there and we can have some books to bor­row,” she told China Daily re­cently in her tworoom li­brary at Yun­nan Nor­mal Univer­sity.

She has opened a li­brary with books in English for her stu­dents in each city where she taught. Be­sides Jishou and Kun­ming, they in­clude Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui au­ton­o­mous re­gion, Bei­jing, Hanzhong and Xi’an in Shaanxi province.

She al­ways left her li­brary to the col­lege where she worked, un­til she started teach­ing in Xi’an in 2001. She stayed there for eight years. The li­brary was big­ger than all of her pre­vi­ous li­braries, she said, with about 5,000 books. When she left for Yun­nan Nor­mal Univer­sity in 2009, she de­cided to take the books with her, in about 155 boxes.

Now her li­brary has nearly 12,000 books and mag­a­zines, “more than dou­ble in the six years”. But why a li­brary? Boulerice ex­plained that over the years, she found that Chi­nese stu­dents’ English didn’t go be­yond a cer­tain point and was al­ways “ma ma hu hu (so so)” for her, even in Bei­jing and even if they were all English ma­jors.

“I be­gan to won­der why the Chi­nese stu­dents don’t make progress be­yond a cer­tain level. Then I thought per­haps the rea­son is they don’t read (English books),” she said.

She vis­ited the school li­brary and found that the books in English there were too hard for her stu­dents to read. She said she thinks that Chi­nese stu­dents can­not easily un­der­stand many English clas­sics such as Jane Eyre by Char­lotte Bronte.

“What they need is (English) books at their own level,” she said. “So in our li­brary we have books from very sim­ple up to very dif­fi­cult. So ev­ery stu­dent, in­clud­ing a fresh­man, can start read­ing books. When they read books, you can see a re­mark­able im­prove­ment in their English.”

The Amer­i­can teacher de­cided that her legacy in China would be hav­ing done what she could to im­prove Chi­nese stu­dents’ abil­ity to read English.

Her stu­dents al­ways read many more books in English than stu­dents of other for­eign teach­ers, she said. “Then they all in love with read­ing,” she said. “Even when I’m not their teacher any­more, they will still do it.”

In the past se­mes­ter, her stu­dents had to read at least 15 books in English and each one had to be at least 100 pages.

“You have to push them, so later they will push them­selves,” she said. “The hard­est thing is get­ting boys to read. Girls like read­ing more. Boys you have to re­ally push them harder.”

The li­brary of­fers very sim­ple books so that stu­dents can get started, she said. “When they get con­fi­dence, they can read,” she said. “If kids come and I see them con­fused, I will try to talk with them, help them find the books. We try to make sure no one is lost.”

In 2014, Boulerice opened a Bao Qiong Li­brary in Huaning No 1 Mid­dle School in Yuxi, Yun­nan.

It is a room with 1,700 books in English, she said. She and her stu­dents dec­o­rated the li­brary them­selves. “It’s not just the books, it’s the en­vi­ron­ment that is also im­por­tant.”

She said she hopes to build up li­braries in the province’s mid­dle schools, “as many as pos­si­ble”, and she is think­ing of set­ting up an or­ga­ni­za­tion to run the pro­ject. “In this province, es­pe­cially in re­mote ar­eas, the stu­dents’ English is not very good,” she said. “But if they have sup­port, some books and some help, they can do bet­ter.”

Many years ago she bought books mainly with her own money. While re­turn­ing home for sum­mer hol­i­days, she would buy many books and bring them back. “But it was very ex­pen­sive to do that,” she said.

Sev­eral years ago an in­ter­na­tional school was closed in Kun­ming. Boulerice wanted to buy the whole li­brary of the school, but she didn’t have money to do it. So she and her as­sis­tant Li Jingyuan called her for­mer stu­dents for help. They raised twice as much money as they needed.

Since then, she said, peo­ple of­ten do­nate to her li­brary, in­clud­ing Chi­nese teach­ers, for­mer stu­dents and even some strangers.

“Just re­cently a per­son gave me 12,000 yuan ($1,933) for the li­brary,” she said. “It was a per­son who didn’t know me per­son­ally, but knew me through other peo­ple.”

She is now think­ing about rais­ing funds to hire a li­brar­ian in the mid­dle school, be­cause she has been dis­ap­pointed in the mid­dle school’s teach­ers.

“Teach­ers are not get­ting on board to en­cour­age stu­dents to read,” she said. “They’re al­ways teach­ing to the test.” So she wants to hire a grad­u­ate from the col­lege to work at the school as a li­brary leader. The li­brar­ian could en­cour­age stu­dents to read and keep the li­brary in or­der. “In that way, I can also give jobs to my stu­dents be­cause jobs are not easy to find these days.”

She said that she en­joys be­ing a teacher be­cause she likes see­ing peo­ple’s lives change and she can do some­thing to help make that hap­pen. “No other job can have such in­flu­ence on a per­son as a teacher,” she said. “I think be­ing a teacher is the most valu­able use of my life. I also feel I was born to do this, and to do it in China.”

Con­tact the writ­ers through chen­liang@chi­


Top and left: Joan Boulerice and her as­sis­tant Li Jingyuan (the woman in green) rec­om­mend books in English to stu­dents at Bao Qiong Li­brary at Yun­nan Nor­mal Univer­sity in June. Right: A stu­dent pe­ruses books at Bao Qiong Li­brary at the univer­sity.

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