By Lisa Sandoz Robinson, Willow Meadows Baptist Church
A couple of years ago, Dian Kidd from Houston’s Union Baptist Association sent me an early literacy curriculum developed by Literacy ConneXus and the Refugee Ministry of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.* She thought maybe I could use it with some of the families at the elementary school where I had served as librarian since the fall of 2011.
I reviewed it and thought it looked like a great tool to help our families prepare their youngest children for life in a Houston public school classroom. But I knew I didn’t have time to implement it, so I passed it along to the Weekley YMCA outreach director, Shaun McCowen, who oversees programs for our school and neighborhood. He agreed it looked great but didn’t have the time or staff to kick off the program either.
Fast forward to January 2018. I had left my school and was ready for a new project. I reached out to Shaun to ask if he was still interested in starting the program at our neighborhood apartment complex. He gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. Then I reached out to our church’s ministry team and pastoral staff to see if this was a program that they could get behind. They of course said yes, and we quickly ordered the necessary books so that we could get started by the end of February.
My job was to be the volunteer lead teacher. YMCA paid staff, led by Linda Requeno, recruited families and provided assistance during the lessons. WMBC also provided a few volunteers to assist. With books in hand and little pots of play dough, triangle-shaped crayons, and handouts of fun songs, three of us from Willow Meadows and two YMCA staff members anxiously awaited our families that first week. Imagine our disappointment when only one mom and one little girl showed up. But we persevered, and for the following week, Linda redoubled her recruiting efforts by going door to door in the complex to convince families to join us and then called them the night before and the morning of our class to remind them to attend.
Slowly but surely, word spread throughout the complex that this was a fun and worthwhile program that children and their caregivers would enjoy. By the end of our first session of 12 classes, up to 24 people, including little ones and their moms, grandmothers, aunts, or babysitters, were attending each week. We even had a dad bring his little boy when the mom had a conflict.
Our weekly activities included singing songs, playing Simon Says, practicing our Magic Words like thank you and you’re welcome, and most importantly, story time. After free play at the tables, followed by a song and other opening activities, we hopped or jumped or walked backwards to the carpeted story time area. I read the book of the week, stopping frequently to talk about the pictures or repeat what I just read. Sometimes we would do a picture walk through the book. Then we always sang several songs, usually repeating songs from week to week because repetition is so important. We returned to the tables for snack time and distribution of their own copies of the book that I read during story time. Parents were instructed (in both Spanish and English) on activities to work on until we met again the following week. Sometimes, we used the same book for two lessons. By the end of the 12-week session, each child had started building their own “Forever Library” of books that were theirs to keep and read over and over.
This wonderful program has several goals. To me, the most important goal is to teach the parents and other caregivers that they are their child’s first teacher. We do this through both modeling and direct instruction. The next goal is to start building English language acquisition through conversation, songs, and story time for both children and adults. Most of our parents do not speak fluent English, and some speak none at all. The books we send home, when available, are bilingual so that they are able to read the story in Spanish but also see the English version right on the page. Of course, they are hearing me read the story in English. We always reinforce the importance of the children retaining their native language so that the children will be fully bilingual. The final goal is to work on skills to prepare the children for the demands of a modern prekindergarten program, including intellectual, social, and emotional development. An unintended goal, but maybe the most critical of all, is the sense of community that has formed among the families, the YMCA staff, and the WMBC volunteers.
I highly recommend this program to any churches who want to make an immediate and tangible difference in young children’s preparedness for school in the United States as well as connect with their parents. There is an ongoing cost involved, namely the purchase of the new books that are provided to participants every week to two weeks. But by working with partners such as neighborhood YMCAs, churches, or community centers, that cost can be shared and minimized. For our first 12-week session, WMBC and the Weekley YMCA split the cost. And for our fall session, we are the recipients of a CBF missional grant which will fully underwrite the cost of books and materials. We are so grateful for this support.
We celebrated the completion of the first session with a pot luck lunch and free “book fair” where all the children received at least 7 new and gently used books to add to their home libraries. We also were able to host a book fair of gently used books for all the older children who live at the apartments including a few high school students. We all had so much fun this first session that we will continue throughout the summer months with an informal story time, songs, and games each week. We will be ready to kick off another session of our “Ready for School!” program in September with both new and old friends.
The YMCA is so pleased with this program that they are expanding their services to these families through an additional partnership with the University of Houston School of Social Work beginning next week. And the Y is hoping to offer the program at another apartment complex in Southwest Houston once they identify volunteer teachers willing to lead the program. Please let me know if I can provide any additional information or answer questions about our implementation of this great program at my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Many thanks to the three authors of the curriculum: Caroline Bell, M.S., Jana Marbut-Ray, M.Ed., and Karen Morrow, M.R.E. Also I am especially grateful for Karen Morrow and Butch Green for their invaluable input and advice before we implemented the program.