Thursday, August 1, 2013

Emancipation through Reading

On August 1, 2013, Jamaica celebrates a hundred and seventy five years since the royal decree proclaiming all slaves to be free people. However, the effects of slavery on the psyche of the nation are felt even to this day. Marcus Garvey was acutely aware of this. He challenged people to:
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.” As he also recommended that reading and writing are the instruments to achieve this, all efforts to encourage children to read and write will in turn contribute to emancipation.
 One such effort is the highly successful Summer Arts Workshop, part of the Granville Reading and Art Programme. It is now in its 3rd year, thanks to the dedication, energy and creativity of its director, Natalie Bennett and her hard working assistants.
Children following while a story is read
What is the Summer Arts Workshop? In Natalie’s words,
“The idea of the programme is to designate time in the summer months, and to give
children unmediated access to books where they can read what they like, be read to, practice various reading and thinking skills, and create works of art that they can use to create and write their own stories.
“The focus is on providing a nurturing space where children can develop a love of reading, where reading becomes a habit that they are happy to feed, and which can be fed without them having to leave their community to go downtown Montego Bay, and whether or not they are in school.
Parents can be drawn into the reading experience through a variety of strategies, whether sending home books and asking them to read with their children, or having them volunteer in the day program." 
Natalie Bennett

The importance of involving parents in children’s education is well documented, but how to get them involved is a well kept secret, which Natalie seems to have unearthed. This was her entry on the programme’s facebook page on July 24:
The highlight was one parent who has two sons in the program, and who cut me off in the middle of my introduction:
"Miss, I don't cut you, but I don't know what unnu doing up there, but these boys love to read all of a sudden. They used to hate reading. Hate it like poison. Now! They cannot wait to go to the program in the morning. You should see them when they come home with their books. Miss, I love that program. I would like to make a contribution towards lunch, or to volunteer -- anything."
Getting parents so enthusiastic is such a ground-breaking achievement, I had to ask Natalie how she did it. This is what she said:
“How I did it? I picked up the phone. Seriously. I dialed their numbers, asked for them, joked with them, encouraged them to continue (or to cease and desist from some unproductive behaviours), and told them I looked forward to seeing them again. It will take more than one phone call, but it's what I feel needed to be done. I think we really underestimate how disempowered the parents feel, and the profound sense of shame they experience when their children are not doing well, they don't know what to ask, and don't even always understand what they are being told.
I think they were all caught off-guard because I didn't call them to tell them their kids were acting the fool. Instead, I called them to thank them for sending their children to the program, to find out what their children's experiences were saying about the program, and to remind them of our expectations of how parents would participate and support the work.

When you tell people what you expect of them, help them to reach those expectations, and give them some options about how they can do it, mostly, they will respond. At least, that's what I believe and that's what I practice until I have evidence contrary to such.”
Shelani reading 'Bolo the Monkey'

I first visited the Granville Reading and Art Programme in July 2012, when I read from Delroy in the Marog Kingdom. I returned today with Bolo the Monkey, by Jonathan Burke. My nine-year-old friend, Shelani, came with me to read. She has a strong voice and reads with expression. Tanya Batson-Savage, publisher of the book had visited the previous week and donated copies, which the children could follow during the reading.
Compared with my visit last year, I noticed that the children settled more quickly, with an air of expectation that a story would be worth listening to, and they were more attentive. There was also something intangible in the atmosphere, which I can only describe as happiness.
Once again I congratulate Natalie Bennett, Director, and Jacqueline Strong-Rhoden, Co-ordinator, and all the volunteers for giving their time and energies to a programme which will continue to produce positive results.
If you would like to know more about the Granville Reading and Art Programme, you can visit their facebook page. Better still, visit the Granville Community Centre on Exhibition Day, August 16, when art work will be on display.


Diane Browne said...

Oh, Helen, this is so encouraging, and really wonderful for Emancipation Day. Congratulations to Natalie Bennett. It would be great to have others who can inspire our children and their parents as she is doing. Perhaps there are others and we do not know about them. Wouldn't that be something!

Helen said...

Very encouraging. Maybe there are others who would like to do what she is doing and can follow her example.

Melanie K Wood said...

What a wonderful program headed by Natalie Bennett, who really understands what children and parents need to be free to learn: encouragement, love, and compassion. Creating an environment and structure in which they can grow, centered around books and the readers' connections, is part of what allows them to free themselves into the world of endless good possibilities. I liked hearing your experience, too, Helen, of seeing a difference in the children's attentiveness and focus. I hope that this program continues to thrive and build these and future readers; clearly this is working. They deserve to and we need them to reach their full potential!

Helen said...

Thank you for your comments, Melanie. You too provide encouragement, give love and show compassion to your students, which makes you the successful and well-loved teacher that you are.