Posts Tagged ‘Literacy’

Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.

The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.

Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.

There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.

And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.

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“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

Every teacher knows that there is more to teaching than giving kids information to fill in the right bubbles on a test. A lot more goes on in a classroom than that. It’s not talked about much these days. Actually the mention of it probably makes some education reformers cringe. But all day teachers are instructing kids in the untestable: respect, tolerance, curiosity about the world around them. They are also teaching students about the world and culture of books, words, images and the imagination. Not the bubble facts. Not the essay template. But the world and culture of literacy that does, and will shape how they move in the world and define what kind of people they will be.  Today’s post in the Teachers in Their Own Words series by Tomasen, “The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play,” explores this culture of literacy and the obligation of teachers “to show students first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life.” A lover of books and words, of reading and writing, Tomasen was a classroom teacher, grades 3-6, for 13 years in New Hampshire. Presently she spends her days happily (and the happiness comes out in her piece) working with teachers and students in New Hampshire and Maine in the “Learning Through Teaching” model of embedded professional development through the University of New Hampshire’s English Department. You can read more about her work on her blog http://conversationeducation.wordpress.com/ where this piece originally appeared.

The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play

When my daughter Emma was three, she was playing happily in her corner of the kitchen where I had created her own little “house” complete with a wooden hutch, oven, highchair and cradle for her own dolls.  She spent hours creating her own reality of being a Mom.  One day I was about to wander in when I stopped and peered around the corner (yes mothers do spy!) and as I watched her rock her baby and look into her eyes adoringly, one of those warm washes of love and perfection poured over me.  It was a moment that I wanted to sink into and enjoy.

Emma took her baby, placed her into the high chair and began feeding her and gently said,   “Eat, dammit.  Eat your food, dammit.”

I stood there in horror, unable to move and continued to watch.  After the lovely meal, Emma placed her baby into the cradle and in a very nurturing way, covered her up with the blanket and said, “Now time to go to sleep, dammit.”

Again, that word hit me, smacked me right across the face and left a sting.  What had happened to my perfect mother moment?

“Emma”, I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Putting my baby to bed.  She is tired.”

“I see that.  I heard you use a “D” word that I was wondering about.”

“A D word?” she contemplated.  “Oh, Dammit?”

“Yes that is the one.”

“Oh, that is my baby’s name Momma.”

Silenced again.

The power of modeling…

I have been known to tell this story when working with teachers to show how modeling is one of the most powerful tools we have and that we can use it to show our literate lives for our students every day.  It is what we do, not just what we say.  We need to talk about what we read, write and wonder; to show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life.  When students see that we are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.

Bridging the gap between “school” reading and “life” reading is critical.  As an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I have the privilege of going into classrooms and supporting teachers in their coursework.  Every time I enter a classroom I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my Ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When I am modeling a lesson for a teacher or group of teachers, I start by talking to the class about my passion for reading and writing; my excitement over a new author I have found, what I am working on myself in writing or how a word looks or sounds.   And it is authentic.  I love words.  I love to read and write and when kids feel that from me, they too want to be a part of that energy.  It is infectious and it is not hard to get them to buy in as I ask them to repeat a word with me, a nice long juicy word like onomatopoeia, that they can take home with them and share with their families. “There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds.

Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart under my arm, I entered Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I was greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I received the confection’s love, knowing it would never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

I settled into the comfy rocker and had a brief time to reconnect as they told me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices rang all around me as they shared their latest “sound” words.   Three little girls got closer and asked about the pink necklace I was wearing twirling it in their hands and marveling when I told them it was a crystal.  “ooooh…you must be rich!”.  I explained it was a gift from my sister and that SHE was the rich one because she had ME for a sister.  They giggled.

Taking this time to connect with these kids is a critical part of the modeling process.  It only took a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions showed them I was interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and can then move into our writing time together.  I am reconnecting and we are exchanging trust in these small moments.

I read aloud, knowing that I wanted to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stopped and wrote some examples on the white board:

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

We talked about these words and wondered why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identified that it made it into one word, made the reader say the word more quickly and created rhythm.  For each dance in the book I asked for a volunteer to get up and “perform” each season’s ballet.  They were eager to move and the movement brought this story to life for all.

We then brainstormed a name for these words and the list consisted of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It was democratically decided that DASH-ing words described them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  And while some may be thinking this is not correct it is playful and something the kids will remember.  Let’s just call it poetic license!  Next, I asked them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

And the play began.  Some kids came up with what we called Double DASH-ing words such as tweet-tweet-tweeting. Morgan, who I thought was struggling was left to her own thinking for some time and arrived at my side with this incredible poem:

Swish-swash

Slush-sliding

Icicles-banging

Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all came back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a  model of what is possible.   Trusting our students.  What a concept and something we can all do, Dammit!!

 

She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.

“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”

Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.

“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”

I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.

But I knew where Marge was headed.

“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”

I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.

When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk, I thought things might have changed.

“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.

But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.

“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.

Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.

And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.

I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside