Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks
The Black and White of Using Diverse Literature
literacy attributes found in high stakes testing as identifying an author’s purpose and asking questions that demonstrate an understanding and interest in the text (Eva-Wood, 2004).
An early introduction to poetry can hook children into a love for poetry for a lifetime. Adults who continue to read and write poetry were typically introduced to poetry by teachers during childhood (Schwartz et al., 2006). Reading poetry aloud to children provides an opportunity to model the way a strategic reader makes sense of language sounds, imagery, and word choices in a way that is fun, rhythmic, even playful. Poetry that is read aloud to children is both text and art, to be presented not just as an academic activity but also as an opportunity for imaginative play that is both intellectually rich and deeply engaging.
Reading aloud to children from a young age encourages growth in concepts of print and phonological awareness (Swanson et al., 2011), as well as cognitive development and achievement on assessments of literacy skills (Kalb & Ours, 2014). Exposure to language through read-aloud activities builds vocabulary so that children gain an increased ability to independently understand complex texts (Farrant & Zubrick, 2012). Reading aloud to children also helps build composition skills including spelling (Mol & Bus, 2011).
The Literacy is a Family Affair project focuses on the improvement of literacy skills and academic performance of children while enhancing the knowledge, advocacy skills, and literacy of their parents. Preservice teachers serve as tutors in the project while receiving instruction in language arts and literacy classes with syllabi featuring this service-learning course component. The university, families, and four community agencies/organizations, all committed to reading, a love of books and family literacy, partner to address social, economic, and educational needs of community members.
The University and Community Women Against Hardship (CWAH), the major project partners, are located less than five miles apart. Community partners for the Literacy is a Family Affair project include the College of Education (COE) where the authors teach; Community Women Against Hardship; St. Louis African American Authors of Children’s Literature; Metropolitan St. Louis Alliance of Black School Educators (MSLABSE); and St. Louis Suburban Regional Literacy Association. MSLABSE is the senior partner in the Literacy is a Family Affair project, as is the College of Education. Our College of Education joined the partnership eight years ago.
Metropolitan St. Louis Alliance of Black School Educators (MSLABSE) has operated a literacy-based program at the facilities of Community Women Against Hardship for more than 15 years. Betty was familiar with Community Women Against Hardship (CWAH), admired its work and had volunteered and contributed to its efforts for several years. An organization of which she was the program director, MSLABSE, had conducted family reading activities at CWAH for many years. Ideas to provide an opportunity for preservice teachers to apply literacy knowledge and instructional skills they were learning in a community setting were explored. CWAH emerged as a known viable agency with a welcoming environment at an urban location with a director committed to community service and an active family clientele of parents and children interested in reading and academic performance. The MSLABSE literacy-based community service program had operated at CWAH for years. A new partnership was formed between the College of Education and Community Women Against Hardship.
William Kerns and Betty Porter Wall