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Notes from Best OST Literacy Practices: Using Stories to Make Connections between Cultures and Ourselves January 22, 2015 Networking Meeting

Mar 16, 2015  Anne Lawrence

This Bowne Foundation Networking meeting marked the second in a series this year focused on the theme of best literacy practices in Out-of-School Time (OST) programs. The Foundation’s program officer, Anne Lawrence, welcomed participants and connected this theme to Bowne Foundation’s on-going work to support and highlight best literacy practices and create forums for the sharing of best practices, ideas, concerns and questions in the OST field. Suzanne Marten, facilitator from the Center for Educational Options, framed this second session as building from a broad and inclusive idea of literacy as rooted in language, and building on the idea that afterschool providers have unique opportunities to create and expand the literacy lives of their young people.

Acknowledging “the serious culture of literacy in our youth” Suzanne introduced Marilyn Worrell and Renee Smith of Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy who led the group in some of Ifetayo’s best literacy practices around storytelling. Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy is an arts and cultural organization that supports the creative, educational and vocational development of youth and families of African descent in Flatbush, Brooklyn and the surrounding communities. Marilyn is a dancer, choreographer, storyteller, spoken word artist, writer, teacher, visual artist and research specialist who has worked with Ifetayo for the past 15 years. Renee is also a dancer, choreographer, singer, visual artist and teacher with knowledge of marketing and technology as well. They noted that the name of their organization, Ifetayo, is a Yoruba word that means “love is enough for joy” or “love brings happiness” and essential to their work is the idea of the circle in which no one is above or below, all from youngest to eldest are included.

Suzanne noted that Ifetayo’s work with the arts and culture meant that they were always thinking and re-thinking the role of literacy. In fact, many people have been talking about both the challenges and joys of literacy in this present moment in time. In this digital age our literacies are changing - perhaps for both good and bad. We have entered into that time in young people’s school year when the testing pressure begins to increase and opportunities to find joy in literacy might shrink at school. Yet young people are being asked to read and write in a wide variety of ways that is exciting.

Marilyn, in preparation for this Networking meeting, had said, “We have to acknowledge the serious literacy culture amongst our youth.” And if we look around, and listen, this is true. Youth are engaged in a wide range of literacy all the time, even when they insist they do not read or write. They are researching on the internet, communicating via social media, deciphering the directions to new video games, writing rap/song lyrics, reading or creating their own comics and graphic novels. Our definitions of literacy culture needs to expand - for us and for the youth we serve.

Marilyn and Renee introduced the group to Madison and we watched a brief video clip of this exuberant girl talking about the importance of libraries and books. (8-year-old Madison Reid of Cleveland was interviewed by WKYC Channel 3 at a November grand opening for a new Little Free Library. She was there with her mother, Tracy Reid, who is a steward for one of five Little Free Libraries that PNC has funded for the Fairfax neighborhood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGHeh6OPhg4 Watch until the end for a real treat!) This got us all thinking about literacy and generating excitement in young people; as Madison says, “The world would be blank without books... Like a brain without knowledge.”

Reflection on a word: Relevancy

The group next engaged in an activity known as “Reflection of a Word.” Reflecting on a word is a way to get us thinking about an idea or topic. Marilyn posed the word “relevancy” to both expand and pull our thinking together.

Everyone wrote briefly what they thought of when they thought of relevancy and then each person shared, creating a collective idea or picture of the concept. Some of the ideas that emerged were that relevancy has to do with what “really matters” and connectedness or relatedness. It is about building and creating those connections. It’s considering what is relevant, useful, important, reliable, current, authentic, having value or carrying truth. Many noted that relevancy is not the same for everyone, but is dependent on time and circumstances; what is relevant now might not be at another time or to another person. Some commented that relevancy is about what touches not only the mind but also the spirit. One person described the power of many different relevancies as “many colors to paint a brilliant picture.”

Storytelling and Singing: Connecting stories and songs across cultures

Marilyn and Renee spoke about the importance of building relevancy for young people. They invited participants to bring “who you are” to develop relevancy with youth. For example, Renee shares her love of singing to her work. She sings and shares with children the many songs she knows from the Caribbean that have messages embedded in them about paying attention or staying together. They do so in a fun way. She engaged participants in singing a couple call and response songs, sharing her joy of singing. She noted that when you sing with children, they bring you songs.

Marilyn then led the group in a guided visualization, asking us each to invoke in our minds objects of particular importance or relevancy to ourselves in each of the vital colors. She invited us to each call on an ancestor, someone from our family or past who had deeply influenced us. This is another way to be in touch with who we are. She remarked that we each have stories in us to tell and that we are the scribes through who stories come to. She described how a piece came to her and she performed an excerpt of that piece: “My Cells are Awake and Remember”. Her story was both unique to her experience and universal in that it tells of the global movement of people. She spoke of the importance of getting to know our own stories and carrying them with us. Marilyn said when we know our own stories we then begin to see the interconnections with others’ stories (or songs, poems, movies). Then we can find or build relevancy between stories.

Dialogue: Making Our Own Connections

Participants then worked in groups with story excerpts paired by Marilyn and Renee. (see attached for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and The Diary of Anne Frank andThe Red Buffalo Woman (a Yoruba story) and SealSkin, SoulSkin (an Inuit tale)

The groups read the pieces out loud and then identified parallels between the two texts and also made personal connections. The texts for the three groups were:

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and The Diary of Anne Frank
  • The Red Buffalo Woman (a Yoruba story) and SealSkin, SoulSkin (an Inuit tale)
  • Cocoa Ice by Diana Appelbaum and Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle

Reading these stories got the groups into deep discussions. All the excerpts were such wonderful literature that there was much to talk about in order to digest them. Many participants had immediate personal connections and also thought about the young people in their programs and the connections they might make. The pairings brought home the ways in which when we know our own stories, we can find relevancy in the stories of others.

The group reading The Red Buffalo Woman and SealSkin, SoulSkin spoke about the idea of having a skin that covered you so that you did not show your full self in some contexts. The Red Buffalo Woman raised questions for the group about what defines beauty. They spoke about their associations with different cultural standards of beauty. SealSkin, SoulSkin provoked similar questions about beauty, who defines it and further raised questions about men’s power and women’s power.

The group reading excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The Diary of Anne Frank commented on how much “lighter” the description of the hiding place for Anne Frank’s family sounds than the hiding place for the slaves. But they also noted the fact that Harriet Jacobs lived to tell her story and was written after, whereas Anne Frank was writing in the moment of hiding and she did not survive to reflect on the horrors of her experience. They discussed the ways in which the Holocaust had an ending and the legacy of slavery continues. Members of this group pointed out that history is often sugar-coated for younger children and while we do not want to scare them, they do deserve to know the truth in an age appropriate way.

The group reading Cocoa and Ice and Crossing Bok Chitto relished these picture books and made many personal connections to childhood experiences in the Caribbean or to the cross cultural mixing and not mixing that they have experienced. They described themes of connection between peoples when those peoples are not even so aware of the connections and relevancy. For example, the children in Maine who need the cocoa from the Caribbean for their hot cocoa and the Caribbean children who like the ice that comes from the north. Or the ways in which Native American peoples helped African Americans to escape slavery.

Participants then wrote and shared with a partner their own stories about rituals or celebrations shared in their culture or family - perhaps inspired by the story they had read or by something that they had heard from one of the other groups. Participants wrote a wide variety of stories - about being judged by their skin color, about trying to fit others‘ definitions of beauty, about being able to return to their country of origin or not, about singing or praying together in their family. Some people wrote narrative, some made descriptive lists, some drew their stories.

Connecting to Our Practice

Participants shared what they were walking away with from the Networking meeting. Here are some of the highlights of participants’ comments:

  • Not pushing books on children, but also looking for other ways to share literacy like songs and storytelling.
  • Incorporating folklore and folk tales into our work with children because there are so many connections within the diversity of stories from different cultures.
  • Engaging children from all different cultures even though what I teach (Latin Dance) is culturally specific.
  • Displaying books and setting up a book exchange, where children (or adults) can trade in their old books for something that someone else has contributed.
  • Looking for and using stories that have a message, and focus on those messages as much as the story itself.
  • Being more creative and mindful of delivery when reading aloud to children.
  • Using songs in transitions, to sing with younger children and even playing pop songs for older children.
  • Helping children find their own stories and telling them.
  • Helping staff find their own stories and telling them so that they can begin to bring the heart of who they are to their work with children.
  • Engaging in storytelling more, using specific techniques, and sharing our own stories with children.
  • Not being so tied to your lesson plan that you cannot be creative and sing or have more movement and music in afterschool.
  • Appreciating more your own story and history, and understanding how it is relevant to working with children.
  • Working with families to help them tell their stories too.
  • Searching for books with more truth, especially about history.
  • Using stories with metaphor and moral codes embedded in them and getting young people to delve into them.
  • Remembering how much middle school children just want to fit in, to assimilate and not be different; searching for ways to help them do that but also be their unique selves.

And finally one participant noted that he was taking away a renewed faith that there are a lot of people out there doing good work in the field of Out-of-School Time!

New Resource:

Facing Our History and Ourselves ( https://www.facinghistory.org/ ) provides ideas, methods, and tools that support the practical needs, and the spirits, of educators worldwide who share the goal of creating a better, more informed, and more thoughtful society.