Books to Africa and A Personal Transformation to a Global Educator

Julie Hembree and her students are sending Books to Africa. But that’s not all. She’s also started the Cultivate World Literacy Project and more. Learn about her transformation into a global educator because her students got excited and led the way. This is a pattern we can all emulate. Connect your students and join.

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Books to Africa and My Personal Transformation to a Global Educator

Link to show:
Date: January 17, 2018

Vicki: Today we’re talking with my friend Julie Hembree @mrs_hembree. She is in Seattle, Washington, and she and I have actually spent some time together when I was out there at an event.

Julie, you have kind of traveled some, and you’re doing a lot with literacy. But tell us a little about where your journey to connect to the world has taken you.

Julie: Well, I am very passionate about the fact that I think that all children should have equal access to education.

All Children Should Have Equal Access To Education

Through traveling to South Africa now twice, I have had the opportunity to bear witness to the inequities that I’ve seen in different places in the world. Some children have access to quality education, and some children don’t.

This bothers me because the UN is working on the sustainable development goals, and their belief and work toward making sure that all children have inclusive and quality education. I think that my students can be part of that, so I’m working toward that.

Vicki: So what are you and your students doing to help students in other places have a better education?

Julie: Well, at this point it’s threefold.

  1. I have had a Books to Africa program going since 2012. Every year my students do a coin drive, and they raise money to pay for the shipping of books. We shipped gently used or new books to teachers that I have met personally in Africa — South Africa, Lesotho, Nigeria, Zambia — I think that’s all the countries we’ve been sending to.
  1. The other project we’ve started this year is we’ve joined the WeSchool Movement, so we are also collecting books to bring to children who are in the local hospitals during the holidays who don’t have access to books there.
  1. The third thing that I’m trying to do is bring focus to illiteracy. I’m working with a teacher, Tammy Dunbar in California, and we’ve developed a program called Cultivate World Literacy that’s going to go live in January. It’s a global collaboration project, where teachers can sign up and be part of a 5-week project, meet with one another via Skype, and investigate the whole idea of literacy/illiteracy and how that is different around the world.

Editor’s note: I received this note from Julie about the project. The website is and the hashtag is #cultivateworldliteracy

Vicki: That sounds like so much!

Do you feel like your students are really passionate about literacy? Are they feeding off your passion? Are they becoming advocates for this?

What’s that looking like?

Students are Becoming Advocates for This Cause

Julie: Yes, I think they’re feeding off it, because I have kids coming in (saying), “And when are you starting Books to Africa?”

I love it when they come up to me and are asking about it. We always start this in January with the New Year. It works out better for our schedule.

To see the kids coming in and asking me (about it), wanting to know, bringing books ahead of time, or asking “Do you think this would be good for us to send overseas?”

I love seeing that energy coming from the students!

Parents give me feedback as well. They’re emailing me and wanting to know when we’re going to start.

I think we’re really trying to have a culture of literacy at our school, and sharing what we have with those less fortunate.

Vicki: I love that! So it really is becoming part of what they think.

Julie: Yes! Most definitely. They love it.

They like to be involved, and when we Skype with students, and they can see the other students on the other side and really realize, “They’re just the same. The difference really is that they live in a different country. So they are kids inside. They might not have the same opportunities, but inside? They’re kids. They love to play. They love to have fun. They play games. We eat different food, but the differences are few. The things that are similar are great.”

Vicki: What is the most remarkable thing your students have learned as a part of this process?

Julie: That they can make a difference.

My Students Have Learned That They Can Make a Difference

You know, when they see pictures, and I come back with stories about the books that they have sent — seeing pictures and stories from overseas — they really grasp the idea that the work that they are doing is just not going “out into the atmosphere” somewhere.

This person is holding a book on camera with us and saying, “Hey, I read this book.” They’re talking back and forth about it. That’s exciting!

They really begin understanding that they have the ability to make a difference in another person’s life.

Vicki: So if I had talked to you eight or nine years ago, before this transformation happened, would you have believed that you would be where you are now?

Julie: Absolutely not. (laughs) Absolutely not.

If you had asked me ten years ago if I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have.

It’s been a real huge transformation for me, and it’s been a wonderful way for me to find my passion because I’ve always been passionate about education and reading, but I’ve kind of found my global focus.

Yeah. It makes me feel good inside. It’s very rewarding.

Vicki: So Julie, what started this transformation? What was the decision that has taken you in this direction?

Julie: Well, the funny story was that we found some books. When I went to the kids and said, “What do you want to do with it?” They said,, “Hey, we want to do this.”

It was turning the power over to students.

Every time I’ve turned the power to kids and said, “What do you think? What do you want to do?” they take it me on a ride that has been absolutely amazing.

So when I take myself out of it and let them drive, great things happen.

When We Turn the Power Over to Students, Great Things Happen

That’s been the transformation — listening to them, and going forward, and not giving up when times have been difficult, and just letting them see what they can do, and going along for the ride, I guess.

Vicki: So when you said, “What do you want to do with these books?” what did they say they wanted to do?

Julie: They said that they wanted to give them to some children that needed help.

They did some research. They found out where the most need was.

At that time, they found out it was Africa. So I met up with teachers through the Microsoft Educator Program.

My students had made a video, and kind of made an advertisement.

I took it to these teachers and said, “Hey, there are what my kids would like to do. Are you interested?”

And they were.

Now, we've had one person that we’ve been connecting with since the very beginning. He lives in Lesotho, and our student have been connecting for the last five years. So it’s really a long term project that’s had a lot of rewards.

Vicki: And you probably have some of those students now who are getting a little older, don’t you?

Julie: Yes! Some of them are now in middle school and high school. I hear back from time to time.

But we’re also expanding.

The Project Has Expanded Beyond Books

Last spring, we sent over some instruments because we found out that the school didn’t have any kind of instruments.

Our music teacher and P.E. Teacher — we all wanted to work together. So he found some old recorders that weren’t being used anymore. We packed them up and shipped them over to the school.

Tomorrow on their last day of the school year, they’re playing, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” on the recorders that we sent over.

So it’s kind of fun to see — to bring literacy and music together — and let kids know! Look what they can do, when they have access to quality things.

Vicki: Do you ever get criticized for this?

Julie: Not so far, but… you know, it could happen.

Vicki: I know sometimes people will say, “Well, what are they learning? Are they taking the tests?”

I mean, how could you even say that? This is such a great project.

Julie: Well, I’ll tell you what the kids are learning.

They’re learning how to be global citizens.

You can’t be a citizen in this world without learning how to get along with others.

And so I think that what we’re doing — can’t be done on a test.

These are the soft skills that students need to learn so that they can be future citizens, so that they can be citizens that work well with other people around the world.

Vicki: Well, I’ll put the link in to the project, because this should be airing and going live in January 2018.

Julie Hembree is definitely somebody you want to follow. I find her very exciting. It’s also very exciting to get lost in Seattle with her. (laughs)


Julie: (laughs)

Vicki: She showed me Seattle, and it was so amazing and so memorable. She is just a charming, hospitable person who is changing the world with her passion for literacy.

I would just encourage you remarkable teachers to do two big things:

  1. She is handing over a lot of the drive and energy to her students, and going where they want to go. That’s one of my own secrets to transformation – really empowering my students. When you empower your students, you don’t just change your students’ lives, you change your own life!
  1. And then just connecting with the world, and being the connector. I think that’s a big job for teachers in the modern era. We’re kind of those connectors. We’re kind of that glue to the world, an introducer to the world.

So, this is just very exciting, Julie! Well done!


Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Julie Hembree is a teacher-librarian at Cougar Ridge Elementary School near Seattle, WA. This is her 29th year of teaching. Prior to landing her librarian dream job, she was both a secondary and primary classroom teacher.

Julie believes that we need to use technology to lower the walls of learning. Together with her students, she started the Books to Africa program in 2012. They have sent over 7500 books to disadvantaged schools in Ghana, Lesotho, South Africa and Zambia .She has traveled twice to South Africa and volunteered as a teacher there.

She has been a Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator since 2012 and traveled with Team USA to the Global Forums in Prague, Barcelona and Budapest. She also hosts the Bulldog Reader blog and writes about books, lessons, technology and all things library.

Julie is always looking for more book partners to help with the Books to Africa Program. Let’s connect.

Bulldog Reader Blog

Books to Africa Partnership

Blog: Bulldog Reader Blog

Twitter: @mrs_hembree

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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