The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 18, 2008

Labor of learning

Books with fiery future are now bound for African children

Tanner Kent

MANKATO — There’s something almost blasphemous in a school district burning its own books.

That’s what Kennedy Elementary teacher Diane Dobitz thought when she found out last year’s reading texts were headed for the district incinerator.

And even though those books would have been cooked into electricity for the district, Dobitz had another form of recycling in mind. As a veteran educator who has spent many years teaching in less fortunate areas than southern Minnesota, Dobitz knew those books held a power that far exceeded their electric energy potential.

“I taught in Kenya for five years,” she said, “and I just know what a resource they would be.”

Every year, the Mankato Area School District revisits the textbooks in a handful of its curriculum areas. Usually that means a textbook switch or at least a round of replacements.

In the past, the old texts were incinerated. But now, those texts will be headed across the Atlantic through the St. Paul-based Books for Africa.

“When I was in Africa, I saw kids using pencils until they were a half-inch long,” Dobitz said. “We just waste so many things on this side of the ocean.”

Two years ago, Dobitz and like-minded South Central College instructor Peter Johnson approached district officials about recycling the old textbooks.

They were told shipping the books to other districts or charity organizations was costly. But if Dobitz and Johnson were willing to load and haul the books themselves, they were welcome to have them.

Mankato’s Volk Transfer and Logistics offered to ship the books to St. Paul for free on an empty truck, and on Wednesday the books were picked up at Mankato West. They spent a night in the Volk warehouse before making the trip to the Twin Cities today.

Johnson also will deliver some of the books himself to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“When the district got its new books, we just put the old books right into those boxes,” Johnson said. “It was so encouraging to see all those books destined for people who could use them.”

Last year, hundreds of retired Mankato reading books made the over-the-ocean voyage in 40-foot shipping containers that hold upward of 35,000 books. This year, Volk Transfer will haul four pallets — about 1,500 books — of math texts to St. Paul where they, too, will make the voyage.

Dobitz and Johnson said they will continue recycling textbooks as long as they can keep finding people to help — which is a good thing because the district’s social studies curriculum is up next year.

“I just love the diversity and beauty in this world,” Dobitz said. “And I want to do my piece to make it a little bit better.”