Reading To Evolve, To Connect, and To Share

By Dawn Miller, Head Teacher at Lindsay Community School

An image of Dawn with her students as they hold up copies of the book,  Pride .

An image of Dawn with her students as they hold up copies of the book, Pride.

Twenty years ago, I was approached by my then principal Tracy Thompson and Leslye Lyons about launching a book club for my students at Lindsay Community School. Books and reading had played an integral role in my own survival as a child and young adult, and this fundamental understanding of the undeniable power of words naturally translated into my classroom at Lindsay, where we try to provide any and every opportunity for our students to latch onto a book and fly

So of course, when I met Leslye, we jumped at the chance to work with her and her new Words Alive project. And for any of you who have ever met Leslye, you know that she has that twinkle of the eye when she’s talking about books -- the one that tells you she doesn’t just read for leisure or entertainment, Leslye reads to evolve,  to connect, to unlock and share the secrets of our own humanity.  This rare and discerning awareness provided the foundation for Words Alive, and has guided the powerful work that has continued to come out of this project for the last 20 years. I recognized that twinkle the moment I met her, like when pain sees pain, or struggle sees struggle, with no words spoken -- and we couldn’t wait to begin the work.  

For the past 20 years, Words Alive volunteers have come into our school space, each month, to engage in the sparring of book talk. If I could give a quick shout out to our current volunteers - Mona, Geri, Sally and Jean - these extraordinary women also go around flashing that eye-twinkle-thingy and they share so much of their hearts with our students — we are deeply indebted. 

I’m assuming that most of the folks in attendance here today, also have a passion for reading, and you all might think that conveying that passion to and with a group of young folks might be challenging, but ultimately doable because you just know they’re gonna love that right book so much because your own love of books - it’s just a matter of getting that right book in the right hands . . .   But with our students, both at Lindsay and JCCS-wide, sharing this love requires you to put in work - real work - sometimes uncomfortable, often gut-wrenching and always formidable, work. Because as you may or may not know, the students of Lindsay are young mothers, and this already exiled status is compounded by homelessness, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, family separation, system brutalities and endless other traumas and tragedies that the very best of us here, could not withstand.  BUT they make their way, each day - and I share their struggles with you now, not for sympathy (for sympathy does not empower), but to highlight their extraordinary resilience and undeniable courage in a world that works daily to smother them.

So when our Words Alive volunteers come monthly to spar - they come armed with books, of course, but more importantly, they come armed with compassion and understanding, without judgement or verdict, ready to learn and listen to one another in endless acts of patience and love. The girls also come packing - with sharp and quick-witted tongues, astute analyses, profound reflections, and grand criticisms. And somewhere in the middle of this motley crew, a million magical moments of hope are born. Books and reading are already mighty in their own right, but in the right context and wielded in a righteous way, they are also transformative.

What is borne of those monthly book circles is hard to describe, but what I witness can most aptly be called a political act. Sometimes the students are emboldened by stories of rebellion and insurrection, led by stronger-than-life women characters, real and unreal. Other times they are enthralled by collections of poetry that rip their already broken hearts out, but also remind them that through their pain comes strength. Often, they are so moved by a story or character battling similar Sisyphean struggles to their own, they become immediately resolved to pen their own stories of inequity, but this time, and in real life, with endings of justice and liberation.

Regardless of the book, it is in these moments that reading becomes an emancipatory act - a momentary vision of what is possible and how to get there. These students, who have been systematically stripped of their dignity, are suddenly circled in a space where they find themselves, their dreams and their words, ALIVE.  

A New Perspective on ABG

By Tait Longhi, Blog Intern

An image of an ABG student working on a writing prompt.

An image of an ABG student working on a writing prompt.

As I walked into Monarch School in downtown San Diego, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I knew that I would be sitting in on an Adolescent Book Group to get a sense of what Words Alive volunteers do and see how it affects the teens. When Jeffery Goldman, Words Alive volunteer and former Board Chair,walked into the lobby and took me to the classroom, he gave me more details about the school, specifically how every child who walks through the doors has been affected by homelessness.  

What struck me immediately was the excitement from the students to partake in the warm up activities. Jeffery tasked the kids with writing as many words ending with “r”, then “t”, then “e” in a minute. While all the kids focused on their own task at hand, however, there was still a level of collaboration with one another. The desire for each student to help their classmate was evident, giving the exercise a new depth. While it was a friendly competition, they wanted each other to succeed.

Next, Jeffery gave them their writing assignment for the session that would be turned in via Google Docs before the next time he meets with them. Since they were reading Night by Elie Wiesel, the writing topic was “when was there a time when you felt as if you lost hope, but overcame it.” This question obviously can get quite personal, but many of the students took it head on, while others pondered on what they might write about. Watching the natural writing process in these young students was inspiring and really brought me back to when I was young, first experiencing writer's block or nerves of starting to put words on paper. All that being said, the support from Jeffery, their teacher and fellow classmates got the ball rolling for most and those who didn’t finish their work knew that they could thaw out their ideas in time and share it with Jeffery when they were ready.

One student shared her piece with the class, about when her father fell and hit his head and had to go to the hospital. I was taken aback by how eloquent her story was and how much bravery it took to share her story, especially at her age. Upon leaving, Jeffery and I talked about the program. He explained that that the stories they kids tell are truly incredible and can even move him (or many) to tears.

As I got in my car and looked over my notes before leaving, I was particularly moved by how these kids threw themselves onto the page, or at least made the effort to. It reminded me of my own time in middle school a decade ago, and how vulnerable that can be but how important that process is. Self expression through writing can be one of the best ways to release or understand your own emotions or thoughts, in my personal opinion. The fact that Words Alive not only sees that, but promotes it to young children makes me particularly happy to be working (and writing) for this organization.  

Annual Report: Adolescent Book Group

What happened in our Adolescent Book Group Program in the 2017-2018 school year? To start, ABG more than tripled the number of program sessions delivered within Juvenile Court and Community Schools. As students and volunteers met more frequently (bi-weekly or weekly), they not only developed a greater rapport, they dove deeper into the books. New extensive curriculum guides gave students the opportunity to explore more real-life contexts in order to connect the texts to themselves and bring books alive!

More than 80% of students:

  • agree that ABG has helped them develop a positive attitude toward books.

  • agree that ABG has helped their ability to express themselves in group discussions.

  • agree that ABG has improved their literary analysis abilities.

  • agree that ABG has improved their vocabulary.

Meet Brittany

Brittany being interviewed by Channel 8 News reporter, Jeff Zevely, during our annual Share Your Love of Reading campaign.

Brittany being interviewed by Channel 8 News reporter, Jeff Zevely, during our annual Share Your Love of Reading campaign.

Brittany Jackson truly represents our next generation of readers and leaders. Just seven years ago, Brittany was sitting on the other side of the Adolescent Book Group (ABG) discussion circle. Her first experience with Words Alive as an ABG participant was at Monarch School for homeless youth. After graduating from high school, Brittany became a Words Alive Westreich Scholarship (WAWS) recipient and her ABG volunteer mentored her through her college years. Now, the duo is back in ABG where it all began — this time as co-facilitators. Brittany is our first Teen Services participant to become a volunteer. She is both an ABG facilitator and WAWS mentor. Talk about full circle!

“Words Alive has supported me throughout the years, and I wanted to give back to them, and those involved, to show that same support. There’s not a day that I volunteer with Words Alive where I wish I wasn’t there. I love seeing all of the different youth involved in the program and how Words Alive positively impacts each of them.” -Brittany Jackson

Art & Literacy Event

An image of one of the communal wood sculptures designed by students during last year’s Art & Literacy Event.

An image of one of the communal wood sculptures designed by students during last year’s Art & Literacy Event.

For the fourth year in a row, we hosted an Art & Literacy project with our Adolescent Book Group students. The Love You Give Event was a response to The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel. The project creatively weaved the book’s message and themes into communal wood sculptures (pictured above) designed by local artist Isaias Crow, facilitated by Words Alive volunteers, and produced by students who attend alternative schools between North County and the border. Using the book as inspiration, students explored the duality of themes that they read about while expressing what it all meant to them and their world. San Diego Art Institute hosted a public exhibition of their work in June of 2018.

Read more about the event here!

Student Perspectives

“Whenever I read a book that really interested me, I liked how we would all have a discussion about it by sharing thoughts and opinions. I have always liked creative writing, especially when it is about a subject that has always fascinated me. The projects have helped me delve deeper into the story and learn more about the setting and the characters...Words Alive was helpful in expanding my interests in other reading genres.” —Student, Adolescent Book Group

2016 Adolescent Book Group Impact Report

It's that time of year when Words Alive begins sharing the outcomes of its programs from the recently completed school year. Through our work with the San Diego County Office of Education, we've been able to share quantitative outcomes of our Adolescent Book Group - the numerical value the program has had on teen participants. This has generally included test scores and other measurable indicators highlighting increased critical thinking skills and better language and vocabulary usage.

However, another element we really want to know is whether or not HABITS around reading have formed. Are the students BECOMING readers? Has the PRACTICE of reading taken hold? These are very important qualitative indicators that show that the lives of the young people in the ABG program are improving. Gathering this data, and creating a narrative around these outcomes have proven more difficult to get.

Since January 2016, with the support of the William R. Gumpert Foundation and under the direction and guidance of Dr. Steve Patty's organization, Dialogues In Action, we joined a cohort of other local non-profits to explore just that - the deeper, more meaningful findings that qualitative data tells us about the impact of our programs. We designed evaluation instruments that gave us insight to the role that reading plays on the students' lives, and the kind of people they were evolving into because of their relationship to reading. 

On August 11th, we had the opportunity to present, briefly, some high points of this discovery publicly. This month, we also shared with the Board of Directors, the findings as anthologized in the 2016 Project Impact Report as published by Dialogues in Action. Here, we're proud to provide to you the full report, complete with findings as well as our methodology. We encourage you to read it. It's fascinating to see how these young people evolve and change in some extremely positive ways. 

Many of us take the act and practice of reading for granted. We've always done it. We know that the ability to read and write effectively is responsible for much of our success. We see how reading plays a vital role in nearly every aspect of our lives. But for a lot of young people in our community, the regular act of reading - and the benefits there of, have yet to be fully present. This is the purpose of Words Alive - to make reading MATTER. You'll see in the pages of this report, that this purpose is taking hold, and consequently changing a lot of lives for the better.

Please, click HERE to read the report.