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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/11/11

Literature for All of Us - We Open Worlds By Opening Books

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My guest today is Karen Thomson, founder and executive director of Literature for All of Us.  Welcome to OpEdNews, Karen. Can you please tell our readers a bit about this program? What is it and how does it work?

photo credit: Jennifer A. Feeney

Literature for All of Us is a not-for-profit organization that empowers teen parents and other underserved youth to transform their lives.  Our innovative program blends reading and creative writing with discussion in weekly book groups that build confidence and create community.  Most of our work is in alternative schools during the school day and sometimes after school, to conduct 90-minute sessions with at-risk teens.  We set a "table", complete with lit candles and snacks. We introduce books they will want to read, often set in urban situations, set a focus through some kind of sharing or reading a great quote together, then read and discuss the books and write poetry in response to the discussion, most often about their lives.  We serve from 450-500 young people each year, with an average of 14 in a group.  

While research on reading for pleasure in adolescence shows that the majority of adolescents tend to decrease their voluntary reading over the course of a year, our evaluation data shows that 47% of students we serve report that they are more likely to read for their own enjoyment after participation in our program.  We "open worlds by opening books."   We also have significant success in improving seven social emotional learning skills:  self-awareness, self-management, perspective-taking, confidence in problem-solving, help-seeking behavior, cooperation, and assertiveness (the latter especially important for the young women we serve.)

All of this is accomplished by having professional book group leaders who set a non-judgmental and supportive environment that encourages young people who have failed to thrive in traditional schools.  The teens we serve live in impoverished neighborhoods, disproportionately impacted by teen pregnancy, infant mortality, violence, gangs and drugs.  We create safe spaces in which they can explore their thoughts and find their voices.  And it is all centered around reading and writing.

One of my favorite poems was written by Adriana Reyes, a girl in one of my groups:

"There have been days I opened

Old and ugly doors.

They were full of sadness and anger.

But now I've opened a door

Full of happiness and gratefulness."

How wonderful, Karen. It's amazing how much can be accomplished using books as a vehicle. How was  Literature for All of Us hatched? Where did the idea come from?

The history is all about my passion for reading for personal growth and pleasure.  I became a professional book group leader in 1981 as a part-time job I could do in the evenings while raising four children.  It quickly became the passion of my life, as I was able to discuss books I had selected with women who would read and discuss literature in a way that mattered to their lives.  There was connection going on as we read and discussed women authors who wrote about the issues women have been dealing with for a very long time.  I noticed that everyone was interested -- my business grew and grew by word of mouth.  I loved researching these books and composing lines of questioning that would stimulate critical thinking and connection among the book group members.  The work grew to include author visits, weekend retreats for women, and other related activities.  I had 20 groups at one time, all in the evening.  I read between visits to schools and doctors and at hockey games.

After I had been doing this for about 15 years, one of my book group friends suggested I take this concept to teen mothers who were enrolled in a GED program and who were on welfare.  I had been wanting to do something to "give back" to people not likely to have the benefits of being in a book group with a paid facilitator.  This seemed an opportunity worth trying.

I met the director of the welfare office and we planned that I would try a pilot group for 15 young mothers for 10 weeks.  I was hooked on the first week.  I brought poetry by Maya Angelou, as the books I had ordered had not arrived.  The young women sat in a circle and I had them name themselves as fruit as an ice-breaker.  It worked somewhat, then bringing out Maya Angelou poems got them more interested.  We had extra time after reading and discussing "Phenomenal Woman" and "And Still I Rise" so I had them try to write poems in imitation of some part of Angelou's style or rhythm.  This proved to be an inspiration that became an integral part of Literature for All of Us.  I noticed that when they shared their poems, the body language changed.  Shoulders went back, heads were up, and there was pride in the room. 
photo credit: Laura Friedlander

The second week, I brought copies of House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and the poetry writing in response to the reading and discussion continued.  At the end of 10 weeks, they had delved into Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and written over 100 poems.  I could not stop.  My heart was full -- they were so grateful and loved book group.  Attendance on book group day doubled.

Within a year, I had started a not-for-profit called Literature for All of Us to spread this type of program to more at-risk teens.  And it happened.  We have served about 6200 young people to date.  We have five professional leaders who conduct nurturing book groups that include reading aloud, discussing, writing poetry, and sharing as we become small communities of safety.

What a great story! You took your personal passion about books and ran with it.  How did you know that asking the women to write poems would be so transformational? I would have suspected that they would be  extremely reticent and self-conscious. I know I would be.

I have confidence somewhat because of my own love for writing poetry.  I told them that I had started by copying the masters -- masters of romantic poetry -- and that they could write, too"I didn't know at first that writing would be so transformational -- it just seemed like the right thing to do -- and then I observed that it was really good for them in ways I didn't even anticipate.  It was a mutual discovery -- a love story.

Literature for All of Us started out primarily as a program for teen girls at risk. In the meantime, you've also branched out and included junior and senior high school aged boys and young fathers as well. How did that come about? And how's it going?

Since expanding to alternative schools that had boys as well as girls, we had been getting requests from the young men for books for themselves, too.  They saw the intense involvement of the girls with the book group program, and wanted that for themselves.  One young mother in the welfare department group asked me if I didn't have books for her children's father -- she said she wanted him to read and think about things the way she was doing in the book group.  I heard her -- she wanted the rewards of reading for her partner too.  So, in 2005, I agreed to conduct a pilot group for the young men at one of the alternative schools where we were serving the girls. And it was a bit different -- the boys made a lot of jokes when asked to share themselves with each other -- and they were interested in different books than the girls -- books like "My Bloody Life, The Making of a Latin King" by Raymundo Sanchez and the poetry of Tupac Shakur.  

We incorporated art projects into our book groups for the guys -- giving them another mode of self-expression, added drumming lessons, and put on a poetry reading/art show at Intuit Gallery that brought down the house, so to speak.  The guys displayed (and sold) their art work and spoke their poems at the mic, accompanied by their book group fellows on drums.  And later, at a restaurant celebrating, they announced to the wait staff that they were "poets" -- a new definition for themselves, rather than "drop-out", "gang banger", or "young thug."  It was beautiful to witness.

Not so successful was our attempt to serve 5th and 6th grade boys in an after-school setting.  They were often just too restless to engage in sustained reading activities, and although we experienced some success with poetry writing, we have pulled back from that age group for the time being, as needing special curriculum development to be as successful as it needs to be.

Today, we serve 20% young men, aged 17-21, out of approximately 500 young people a year.  We struggle to find the right books to engage these young men and get them to try opening up in the book groups about themselves.  The young men, in general, are not as interested in reading to start with, as are the young women, but we do experience success with poetry and with some books.  We now have mixed gender groups at some high schools. This is also successful, although a bit different in terms of book selections and topics that can be discussed safely.   "Book group" is universally loved, however, no matter the gender or mix of genders. 

photo credit: Laura Friedlander

You all have given every aspect so much thought and it shows. Has your program been copied elsewhere in the country?

Well, actually one of our former volunteers started a program in Toronto when she moved there after helping out at LFAOU for a few years.  It's called "Literature for Life" and copies most of our program, with some innovations of their own.  It is very successful from what I've heard.

Also, we have trained over 100 teachers, social workers, etc. in our program model and some have replicated it in their own groups -- in Indiana, in some outlying areas of Chicago, in Pennsylvania.  Some teachers have been able to incorporate elements of it into their teaching, as added tools.  A teacher of education at DePaul University, Chicago, Dr. Ginger Malin, did her PhD dissertation on LFAOU in the early 2000s and has been teaching new teachers elements of our paradigm, with reported success, as well.  We have hopes of incorporating more teacher training into our mission when it is feasible.  This will enable us to serve more students, through teachers using the model in regular classes.  This is a long-held dream that may be part of our strategic planning in the near future.

A work in progress! You were invited to the White House in 2006. That must have been a thrill. Did that recognition help in fundraising and raising awareness of your program?

Well, at least it means we can say that we are a "national award-winning organization".  It was a wonderful experience.  I got to take an alum from our program who was thrilled beyond telling.  We were also introduced at then-Senator Obama's Thursday morning constituency breakfast, right after the visiting university presidents and visiting mayors.  It has helped in that general way that all recognition does -- it did not bring instant money, but, definitely, more awareness of our work.

Congratulations! What haven't we touched on that you'd like to talk about before we conclude, Karen?

I think all I want to leave you with is our tagline, "opening worlds by opening books" -- the wonderful worlds of imagination and learning that available to us through both the written words of others and our own verbal and written responses.  Literacy is about understanding the world and our place in it.  One of our opening "rituals" has words from a poem by Joy Harjo, "Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.  Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you."  And a namaste to all.

Namaste to you, too. Thanks so much for this opportunity to hear about Literature for All of Us. It's a wonderful program! 
photo credit: Laura Friedlander


Literature for All of Us website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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