The ‘Book Woman’
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.”
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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.