No child is too old to hear Goldilocks and The Three Bears read aloud to them. According to literacy advocate Vivian Johnson, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Education, Marygrove College, there are benefits for people of all ages to listen to a story—it's an important way to sharpen comprehension skills. Dr. Johnson recently challenged urban middle school students to re-write a classic like Goldilocks to reflect their own world view. Suddenly, reading and writing became more engaging to children who have never seen a forest -- or anything much beyond their own city limits. "To reach kids, no matter where they are, no matter how few resources they may have available to them, you have to be creative," Johnson says. "Finding what works can be a game." But literacy must win.
"The writing process takes time," Johnson says "...and the No Child Left Behind Act has put greater emphasis on test scores than language arts mastery." A solution? Create an extension of the classroom—a forum for kids to express themselves online. Johnson is Head Curator of a website sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)—the National Gallery of Writing. Her gallery, Between the Lines: Urban Writers Speak is a place where K-12 urban children have a voice. It's a space where they can express themselves and have their work published for others to enjoy and comment about. "That's empowering to a young child, to see his own words on the monitor," Johnson adds. "We're really excited to see how this develops."
The NCTE website promises a broad cross-section of writing, and can be anything from letters to lists, memoirs to memos. Between the Lines: Urban Writers Speak has a focus on reading and responding to literature written or illustrated by African Americans. Writers will engage in process writing and develop their own literary voice using mentor text. Submissions must be original pieces written within the last six months, and must be reviewed by a classroom teacher or writing mentor/coach. "Writings may be a sentence, a paragraph or an entire story, whatever the student would like to share," Johnson adds.
The fundamental ability to read and write is an important key to all learning; it is the foundation on which a child's academic life is built. Despite this fact, and all of the research that supports it, illiteracy rates are still high. An estimated 36% of residents 16 and older are at or below the lowest reading level in Wayne County. It is an issue that Vivian Johnson and her colleagues at Marygrove College take very seriously. Johnson gives a lot of her own time making sure the case for literacy beats throughout the city of Detroit, like a drum. It's not just a Detroit problem, though. Educators all around the country are trying to find innovative ways to fit reading and writing into their jam-packed curricula.
Johnson's previous experience in social work may give her special insight into how personal issues and hardships for children can impact the desire to read and write. She saw how journaling helped many adolescents get their feelings down on paper. "It can be very healing," she said. "I would tell them that they can say whatever they want on paper—so they don't have to act on it." Johnson's interactions today with kids still include journal writing. She asks them to staple or tape the entry shut if they don't want her to read it, if it's too personal. "The point is that they write, write, write," Johnson says. "We as educators, parents and mentors need to provide the space for a child to communicate—whether it is a journal page or a web page—but we must give them a space of their own."
Check out Curator Johnson's Gallery of Writing at http://www.galleryofwriting.org.