Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Immigrant, librarian team up for literacy

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Abreham Tsefaye (left), a senior at Montgomery Blair High School and immigrant from Eritrea, has put together an audio project about the life of Helen Keller for his community service learning hours with the help of mentor Phil Shapiro (right).
A partnership between a 19-year-old immigrant from Eritrea and an employee at the Takoma Park Maryland Library could soon provide people learning English with a tool to improve their reading, writing and conversation.

Abreham Tsefaye moved to Montgomery County two years ago from the African nation Eritrea, where he had taken English classes since he was 7 years old, and was able to speak English better than his parents and four siblings, he said.

When he enrolled at Montgomery Blair High School, where he is now a senior, Tsefaye was told that as part of the state’s student service learning program, he had to complete 40 hours of nonprofit community service work to graduate. But in order to support his family, Tsefaye had committed his weekends to working part-time, and he didn’t know how he’d find time to complete the graduation requirement.

Phil Shapiro, a public services librarian and self-proclaimed ‘‘public geek” at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, provided the answer.

Shapiro had met Tsefaye’s younger brother, Henos Tsefaye, an eighth-grader, at the library and one night went to the family’s home in Takoma Park to install a donated iMac computer. When he met Abreham Tsefaye and heard about his dilemma, Shapiro decided to help.

‘‘Abreham had this need,” Shapiro said. ‘‘I didn’t want to just have him do something where he’s not going to learn.”

Tsefaye said he needed to find a way to do his service learning hours from home, adding that he was interested in doing something that could help immigrants learn English.

‘‘English language is hard,” Tsefaye said. ‘‘It’s a challenge.”

Shapiro had already been interested in creating a free multimedia Web site, and proposed the idea of them taking an audio file of someone reading a book in English, chopping it into short segments, and then pairing the audio with the English text that would appear on screen.

Tsefaye checked with his teachers, and learned the project would work for his student service hours. The only question was what book to use.

‘‘When I was in fifth grade, I read the history of Helen Keller,” Tsefaye said. ‘‘She’s blind, she can’t hear.”

Shapiro discovered, too, that Keller’s autobiography was in the public domain, meaning they could use a reading of her book without copyright infringement.

Using the site librovox.org, where volunteers record themselves reading entire books, they found a file of Helen Keller’s autobiography read by Maria Uther, a volunteer from the United Kingdom.

Over several months, working mostly from home and late at night, Tsefaye took the large audio file and used free software called Audacity to turn it into 232 one-minute files, which would then be matched up with the English text using another free program called Powerbullet.

The idea, Tsefaye said, is for people to read along while listening to the audio, and replay it as much as they need.

‘‘They are listening and reading,” he said. ‘‘That’s helpful for people learning to speak English.”

So far, Tsefaye has completed 40 hours of work on the project, but says he plans to do 75 in an attempt to qualify for a scholarship at Montgomery College next year.

When the project is completed, the two hope to have more than five hours of English translation that can be distributed online, on CDs or on flash drives. And the best part, Shapiro says, is not only that they’ve done the whole project using free software, but that the product itself will be free.

‘‘I’m hoping this will be the first of many projects where high school students perform community service by creating usable educational multimedia resources for free distribution on the Web,” he said.

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The results of Abreham Tsefaye and Phil Shapiro’s project can be viewed at helenkellerbio.blogspot.com.