Literacy At Home and In the Community
by Sara Schwabacher, Liz McNeff and Deborah Hardye
Snapshot of Family Fun Friday
Let's take a peek inside the Parent/Teacher Resource Center at Freedman Elementary School, a fourth year Cornerstone school in Springfield, MA on a Friday afternoon. It is the first Family Fun Friday of the year and a small group of parents are seated at tables just finishing up an hour-long Book Study discussion of Mem Fox's Reading Magic. Their children are at the door, just a little hesitant to come in and join their parents. Liz McNeff and Deb Hardye, the two parents who have been facilitating the discussion, notice the children and encourage them to say "Hi" and greet their Mom or Dad with a hug. The plan was for the children to go to the carpet in the comfortable reading nook in the corner and for the parents to observe a read-aloud and fun learning activity. In a split second, Liz McNeff has a brainstorm and invites the parents to get up and join their children on the rug. She is very pleased when the parents and children sit together with their arms around each other and listen while she reads King Bob's New Clothes by Dom DeLuise. What a good feeling for parents to see how reading can be relaxed and fun. One Dad left the session saying, "Wow! I am amazed at the relaxed environment and that they are paying attention."
This scene is a direct result of several years of Cornerstone Parent/Community Engagement activity. The room itself was newly set up in the middle of Freedman's third year with Cornerstone. Everything about it conveys a welcoming, shared learning community:
- its central placement directly across from the office,
- the wonderful resources, including the bookcase full of children's books around a carpet and cozy seats,
- professional materials for teachers,
- an abundance of wall charts full of literacy strategies, photographs and examples of teacher, parent and student writing, and
- plentiful resources for parents and copies of Cornerstone materials, including the Freedman School Review reports.
Parents, leaders of parents and Cornerstone Parent Representative
Deb Hardye and Liz McNeff have been Cornerstone Parent Representatives for four years. They have attended Summer Institutes, Regional Meetings and school-based book studies, and participated on the school's Leadership Team. Their roles have evolved along with their confidence as literacy leaders. They now do something special to communicate with parents every week. They lead "Family Fun Fridays" one week. And the next week they publish a newsletter. Called Freedman Parent Connection, the one page newsletter shares what children are learning in the classroom and suggests strategies or activities parents can use at home to reinforce learning in the classroom. They also work closely with the coaches and the Leadership Team to plan additional family literacy activities to support the school's instructional goals. The school recognizes that these Cornerstone Parent Representatives have become so indispensable that they are now employed by the school in support roles.
Both parents are ready and eager to share how much they have gained personally from their Cornerstone experiences. When asked about what she does differently now, Ms. McNeff has a lot to say:
"We no longer stress our children sounding out a word that we think should they should be able to pronounce. We have noticed an increase in the pleasure in reading in our children. Ms. Hardye has noticed that her child is using more voice when reading. We are now asking deeper thinking questions of the children (metacognition). Ms. Hardye encourages more writing down of what her daughter is thinking. We also encourage more reading than TV. Write a poem, letter, or a book."
By visiting the McNeff and Hardye families at home, we can see how powerful Cornerstone literacy strategies become when they are purposefully used in home settings to solve problems and as parents take their own initiative to spread the word in their communities.
Let's visit Liz and Steven McNeff during their daily read aloud. Here's how Liz McNeff describes it:
Because of the book study of Reading Magic by Mem Fox two years ago, what I was working on was getting in the habit of reading daily, making it fun, and being able to turn it around at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it turned into a game. One time, all of a sudden Steven flipped the book upside down and wanted to read it upside down and backwards. I let him "go with the flow" and do it that way. I knew that he could read it the right way and he was doing this as a fun game.
When I started out reading aloud, I would say "you better follow along, because I might make mistakes." I would purposely make mistakes and Steven would follow along and we would make a game of catching mistakes. Then Steven turned it around and said, "I'll read to you and you have to catch MY mistakes." In retrospect, the words he chose to make mistakes were the ones he didn't know or understand and he made it so that I had to tell him the word. That just flowed. It was not planned.
Now let's visit the Hardye household. Here's Deb Hardye's description of what you'll see:
Jarlyn will tell me something and I'll say, "Can you go and write it for me. I'm not following. If you write, you tend to make your thoughts flow better." She's now writing a lot and hardly ever watches TV. She likes reading and writing. You can see the pleasure in her face when she's reading. She reads aloud to her cousin who is in kindergarten, every day. She's picked up my encouragement to write. I overheard her saying, 'Mecca, write it down. Why don't you write it down Mecca.' Now Mecca is writing proficiently for a kindergartner. One time Mecca came to me and said, 'Aunt Det, can you read this note to make sure my teacher will understand it?' The content of the note was: Dear Mrs. Luscana. Mecca's not feeling very well today. If she tells you that her stomach is hurting, please let her go to the bathroom and she will feel better. She asked me for help in writing two letters, 'U' and 'Y' but said, 'Don't write it for me. Show me.'
Making a difference in their communities
These two parents have a deep personal understanding of literacy development in their children. In addition, their families and their communities look to them as resources because they know things about literacy, language, and schools. They make other people's lives go better. They make a difference in their communities.
A few examples:
Ms. McNeff has a nephew who struggles with writing. His mother brought it up and the two of them developed a plan for Steven and his cousin to write letters to each other. This is real literacy, not an exercise. The boys live more than an hour away from each other, don't see each other as often as they'd like, and their parents knew they would have real incentive to write to each other.
Ms. Hardye has a niece with a daughter who recently moved to a new school as a fourth grader. The niece was called in by the school and told that her daughter had difficulty with reading comprehension (she could "read" everything in front of her but had no idea what she just read). Ms. Hardye gave her niece the one page summary of Cornerstone comprehension strategies with suggestions for parents about using them that was sent home to Freedman parents. The child is no longer having problems in school. Ms. Hardye now carries this letter around with her at all times to share with other parents whenever the topic comes up in conversation.
Ms. McNeff talks with other parents whenever she is out in the community. At a recent basketball practice, she was talking about reading and writing with a mother who has 5 children, ages 3-13. One of the daughters came over with her homework about the roots of words, and the two of them played word games together until practice was over.
Family literacy takes on a life of its own. Ms. Hardye described coming into the room where Jarlyn and Mecca were playing and finding them writing "get well" cards to her Uncle Ralph in Tuskegee, Alabama, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. They sent him the cards and he loved them!
Connection to the Curriculum
What these parents are able to do in their homes, community and school is part of a larger picture, because Freedman Elementary School has a big picture of parent involvement taking place at home, in the classroom and in the home/school connections. The focus and goal of all of the activity remains the literacy instructional goals set by the Leadership Team and implemented in the classrooms. Once again, let's take a look at what that looks like in school.
This past February, the focus strategy for the entire school was "Determining Importance." Steven and Jarlyn's third grade teacher involved families in the study of the biography genre. Steven and Jarlyn each interviewed their mothers at home. In class they practiced "determining importance" when they decided what to include from the interviews in the written biographies. A culminating classroom Biography Night Celebration for student writers and subjects of the biographies is planned to honor the home/school connection.
Here is Jarlyn's biography:
|MY WONDERFUL MOMMY
Deborah grew up in Tuskegee Alabama. Deborah's parents names are Ella Rene Hardye and Willie James Hardye. Deborah is a funny person. She makes me laugh a lot. Deborah has six sisters their names are Barbara, Brigett, Charlotte, Jennifer, Tawanda, and Latoya. Deborah Hardye is my mom. Deborah said she likes having six sisters and family gatherings. Deborah disliked having 1 bathroom and there were 6 of them.
The focus strategy of "Determining Importance" was also reinforced by a whole school project, which involved every family in the creation of a school-wide heritage quilt. Every child in the school was given the homework assignment to create a "quilt square." They had to work with their family at home to determine a visual representation of what they consider important about their family heritage. The squares have been laminated and tied together with yarn and are on display on the wall outside the Parent/Teacher Resource Center as a cultural heritage quilt.
Freedman Elementary School is an exciting place. There is a real sense of community among parents, staff and students. The shared language, concepts and tools bring together the home, the school and the community for the purpose of community literacy. All are working together to make the Cornerstone definition of literacy, To read, to write, to think critically, to reason, to analyze and evaluate information, to communicate effectively in a variety of forms, and to inquire systematically into any important matter, a reality for every child and family.