A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
Read With Me - September 1997
The Harvard Emerging Literacy Project (HELP)
How One Community Is Making a Difference
Many preschoolers love books. When young readers and volunteers spend time in the universe of books, they find themselves on special journeys through yet-undiscovered worlds filled with very hungry caterpillars, friendly dragons, and even hidden corners where the wild things are. Other young people, however, are reluctant to read--but it isn't always those hidden corners that make them uneasy.
Many of America's preschoolers aren't regularly read to on a one-on-one basis, if at all. While this is a sad fact, it also offers a wonderful opportunity to our country's volunteers. This handbook is designed for college students interested in starting public service reading programs in their communities. While specifically geared to college students working with preschool children, many of the ideas discussed can easily be applied to children of many different ages. All children benefit from the stimulation one-on-one reading provides. Children who have received little or no attention of this sort often benefit even more.
The Harvard Emerging Literacy Project (HELP), an independent undergraduate group, was founded in 1996 by an undergraduate's desire to help. The group began with just a few undergraduates volunteering to read in a single Head Start classroom once a month. From there the group has become one of the fastest-growing service organizations on campus and currently places weekly and biweekly reading volunteers in every Head Start classroom in Cambridge, with plans to expand next year.
Undergraduates involved with HELP have also gradually discovered that young children are by no means the only ones who benefit from volunteer literacy efforts. While most people understand that these preschoolers gain a great deal from this stimulation, many volunteers feel they learn as much as the children. As a result, these volunteers not only enjoy the experience of public service, but thrive on it.
Each volunteer's experience with these remarkable children has been different. Some speak of increased feelings of compassion, others greater sensitivity, and still others describe a heightened sense of perspective. However everyone has gained an increased appreciation for individual kindness in our often hectic society.
Growing up, no matter what your age, can be an unsettling experience. But somehow those places where the "wild things" live don't seem nearly as scary if you have a brave four-year-old beside you.
Basic Principles: How To Get Started
One of the hardest parts of setting up a literacy volunteer program is finding a group of children to help. While almost all day care centers love to have volunteers, the thought of working with an organized group of unknown volunteers makes some teachers and caregivers nervous--especially if they feel that the individual needs of their classrooms might be ignored. To avoid this problem, start slowly and plan carefully. Here are some things that worked for HELP:
- Start with someone who knows you or your group. If you already know a day care teacher, start by talking with that person. If he or she doesn't need any volunteers (which probably won't be the case) ask what other classrooms might like to be involved.
- Don't overwhelm classroom teachers. If you do pick up the phone and call a day care center out of the blue, don't try to explain all of your ideas over the phone--instead briefly explain what you're thinking about and ask if you could visit the center at a convenient time and talk in more depth. This not only gives you and the teacher a chance to get to know each other by talking face to face, it also enables you to gain an understanding of the center's environment and the children who are there.
- When talking with teachers be careful not to act as if you have all the answers. Some people and organizations are reluctant to work with student volunteers because of their supposed unreliability, problems with school breaks and exams, and the perception that college students think they have all the solutions. When entering a conversation with a teacher do not be afraid to be honest--admit that you have a great deal to learn and demonstrate that your interest is sincere. By doing these things, HELP volunteers found that many initially skeptical child care providers soon became our biggest advocates.
- Schedule volunteers at appropriate times. After you and the child care providers have agreed on what the role of volunteers will be, make sure to schedule reading visits at times that make these objectives possible. Teachers sometimes think it is enough to simply bring volunteers in to the classroom, however one-on-one reading is often impossible if volunteer visits are scheduled during play, nap, or snack time.
Take Advantage of Your School's Resources
The greatest resources volunteer literacy groups have are the specialized strengths of their individual members. Don't be afraid to challenge your college or university to support your efforts. A number of schools, for example, are beginning to give academic credit for some volunteer activities and others are implementing public service focus programs within certain majors. In addition, many fraternities, sororities, and other groups might be interested in getting involved with community outreach programs.
- Become a recognized student group. Many benefits come from having the official recognition of your college or university, and most colleges do not allow the school name to be used unless this recognition is granted. This process is usually a simple one and requires a list of members, a faculty advisor, and (occasionally) a written constitution. For more information contact your dean of students, who will probably also be able to offer additional resources.
- Utilize faculty advisors. Choose an advisor who has a sincere interest in what you are doing. HELP was lucky enough to have an incredible faculty member who was also the mother of a three-year-old. Tenured faculty members may have impressive credentials, but be sure to also consider assistant or junior professors who might be able to spend more time working and talking with you.
- Establish a lending library. Because many of the children we worked with had little or no access to new books, HELP is now working with other campus organizations to establish a lending library. Student volunteers will be able to borrow books from this on-campus resource in order to bring new reading materials to children in the community. Volunteers are encouraged to bring in books from home or donate others they might have enjoyed as children. When choosing books include selections with vivid illustrations, clearly defined text areas, and diverse cultural representation.Many government and non-profit organizations may also be interested in donating books. For more information on these groups consult the resource section at the end of this booklet.
- Consider resource opportunities your school might offer. The best resources are often under utilized: that incredible would-be advisor eager to get back in touch with undergraduate life, the never used meeting space over the financial aid office, the public service fund that people have all but forgotten about. Be creative. Be determined. For information about where to look try contacting your college's public service dean, volunteer coordinator, or America Reads Challenge contact person. Information on the President's America Reads Challenge is available at the back of this booklet.
When training volunteers remember that all children, including those with special needs, learn from the reading strategies discussed in this booklet. Also, many child care centers require volunteers to have certain vaccinations (which are usually required by colleges anyway) and complete a small amount of paperwork. This may seem tedious, but it often goes quickly--enabling you to get on to more important and meaningful things.
- Ask the group you work with for advice about training. Many child care groups or centers are interested in offering advice or assistance in training (usually free of charge). Be certain to include representatives from the group with whom you volunteer when planning the focus of training sessions. Ask if there are any unique cultural or community influences of which volunteers should be mindful.
- Build on children's strengths. Search for ways to expand or modify activities to maximize the benefits to specific children involved, including children with special needs. When working with a child who is easily distracted, for example, consider holding him or her close beside you as you read. If you have questions about how to best read with a particular child, ask child care providers for specific suggestions.
- Provide on-going training and support. HELP trained volunteers at a Saturday morning session lead by a Head Start education coordinator. Volunteer training, however, is an ongoing project because most questions come up after volunteers have worked with the children for a couple of weeks. When thinking about training consider working with other programs. Next year HELP, for example, will work in partnership with a graduate student reading specialist and will coordinate with other campus service groups to sponsor mid-year training workshops.
- A word about liability. Child care staff should always be aware of all interactions between volunteers and children. As a precaution, HELP volunteers only interact with children in situations where teachers or paid staff are present. This way, our volunteers can focus on reading. Behavior problems, should they arise, are handled by child care teachers or staff.
Take Advantage of Available Networks
HELP organizers spent an entire semester talking with early childhood teachers and visiting day care, play school, and Head Start classrooms before the first volunteer even signed up. While it may not take this long for you to find a classroom or set of classrooms that works for your group, realize that this "coalition building" is very important--many groups fail because they grow too big too quickly. HELP eventually chose Cambridge's Head Start program because these ten or so classrooms were already linked in many useful ways, making it easy for HELP to gradually expand from one classroom into others.
- Maximize the resources of the group with whom you work. Focus on the things the preschool or community has to offer, as opposed to what they lack. Working with a program like Head Start, for example, offers volunteers the advantage of resources like central administration and volunteer training programs; though they are by no means the only such network around.
- Link up with other groups and programs in the community. Many neighborhoods have established day care "associations" or "families" with resources similar to those of Head Start. To find out if such a group exists in your area try contacting your local Mayor's office, school board, or child care center. These groups and networks will likely be useful in volunteer training, though individual classroom teachers are often willing to offer advice and assistance in training as well. In addition, public libraries, shelters, hospitals, and a variety of other groups are often more than eager to have volunteers read with the children they serve.
- Consider other resources your own school might offer. Many colleges with large public service communities can often work together when training new volunteers or planning retreats. Two programs which are different can still work together. For more information, try contacting your college's public service dean, volunteer programming coordinator, or America Reads Challenge contact person.
Recruiting volunteers is often one of the most rewarding aspects of this sort of work because it reminds current volunteers of all the things they love about the program--especially when they are passionate about what is being done. One of the very best ways to interest others is by allowing them to see the way in which this work has enriched your own life--not to mention the lives of the children with whom you have worked.
- Don't depend completely on the written word. Posters, fliers, and mass mailings might be effective at getting people to come to an introductory meeting, but they won't motivate volunteers to get out of bed an hour early to go to visit a day care center. Let's face it, you've probably thrown away a thousand of these "incredible" fliers already.
- Be sincere in both your invitation and commitment. HELP uses small, informal, introductory meetings as a way of bringing people "in" to the group. Pictures, displays, and--most importantly--active volunteers who are enthusiastic about sharing their experiences get potential volunteers excited and make them want to come back.
- Be intimate. When advertising your program you might consider keeping this personal tone in mind--people are far more likely to respond to a sincere, individual invitation than to a flier posted beside the locker room. Many people do this sort of service because, in addition to wanting to help, they feel that this work will deepen and enrich their own lives. Don't forget that volunteers, just like the children with whom you work, benefit from this interaction.
Work With--Not Simply For--Communities
Possibly more than anything else, lessons learned during HELP's first year highlight the critical importance of working with teachers, families, and communities instead of trying to simply do things for them. Don't misunderstand: an individual volunteer reading for an hour a week with a child is wonderful--the benefits multiply, however, when that volunteer also begins to interact with the child's teachers, family members, and community. When starting a new program, look for ways to integrate your group into the already existing structure of the children's lives.
- Learn about the children's lives. Sensitivity, both cultural and otherwise, is essential in this type of work. Understanding the issues playing a part in a child's life--including those children with special needs--greatly increases your ability to make a difference. When training volunteers seek input from experienced people regarding what volunteers should keep in mind if they come in contact with situations of child abuse, neglect, or cultural differences.
- Try something outside of your role as reading helper. HELP volunteers often act as chaperones (along with parents) on class field trips, take part in classroom parties, community festivals, and volunteer at monthly parenting classes.
Consider family literacy. Many other communities sponsor family literacy programs where children, parents, and volunteers interact with each other through reading. If your area doesn't have such a program it might not be too difficult to start--nearly all child care centers have family conference times that teachers might be eager to extend if only they had the necessary volunteer base. The Even Start Family Literacy Program (described in this booklet's "Resources" section) is such a program with projects nationwide.
- Require consistency. Many volunteers are astounded by young children's tremendous capacity to share, love, and trust. With this trust, however, comes a large degree of responsibility. If an individual wishes to volunteer, require her or him to sign a personal commitment form agreeing to be in the classroom each day required. Many children have been deeply hurt by volunteers who come to class for a few weeks and then disappear. Young children often have enough inconsistency in their lives as it is; well-meaning volunteer groups need not add more.
- Don't underestimate the importance of celebration. Celebration is important in both children's lives and in our own. At the conclusion of its first year HELP volunteers took part in Cambridge Head Start's annual "Picnic in the Park." At this day-long event children, teachers, parents, and volunteers all came together to reflect on, and celebrate, the events of the year-with everyone having something to contribute: children brought their artwork and made classroom T-shirts, parents brought food, teachers led games, volunteers did face painting, and local business groups set up a petting zoo. By bringing together all parts of the community--thus uniting all aspects of the children's lives--the event was a huge success.
Focus Your Efforts
Just as all children are different, each child care center has special strengths and diverse needs. By building on strengths and focusing on growth areas, volunteer groups can dramatically enhance a child's educational world. Specializing in family literacy is an excellent example of how some groups focus their work on individual community needs, though there are many other ways to do this as well.
- English as a second language. Head Start teachers in Cambridge, for example, cited mastering English as a second language as a major difficulty facing their early childhood population. In response, HELP targeted a considerable portion of its recruiting campaign on students from foreign countries with an interest in public service. These students not only helped preschool children with English, but--because they had a great deal in common with the students with whom they worked--were able to relate to the children on a very personal level, making them excellent mentors as well.
- Include children with special needs. It is important to make the most out of the time you spend with each child. When working with a child with special needs, focus your efforts to capitalize on their individual strengths. For example, if a child has trouble paying attention don't feel obligated to "finish" the book. Instead, engage the child in conversation as you read. For example, ask creative questions about the story that require more than a yes or no response. If the child loses interest try drawing a picture or making up a song about what might happen next.
- Recruit men. The absence of male role models in the lives of many children was another issue that concerned teachers in Cambridge. HELP actively recruited men and, as a result, large numbers of male undergraduates turned out to volunteer, despite the fact that similar groups often have relatively few male volunteers. While any person interested in getting involved was more than encouraged, these efforts helped keep the needs of the community front and center in the minds of volunteers.
Keep the Dialogue Going
Even by the end of the first introduction meeting you will probably notice that people will hang around to talk, compare their experiences, and begin to become friends. People tend naturally to combine in this way, despite the fact that many organizations try to eliminate these "unproductive" times altogether. Do not make this mistake. Discussion about the future of your program and reflection on personal and shared experiences are absolutely critical for any healthy service group.
- Incorporate weekly reflection sessions and make them mandatory. Because of the importance HELP places on reflection, volunteers interested in the program agreed to attend a reflection session every two weeks. These have proved to be excellent forums for discussion and often included guest speakers or panel discussions, or both. Instead of feeling like a requirement, these meetings quickly became rewarding times for students to come together to discuss important, successful, or frustrating aspects of their work with fellow volunteers. In addition, these sessions served another purpose--people who had simply been strangers with similar interests quickly became advocates excited about both their cause and their friendships with each other.
- Use the reflection sessions to talk about the future of the group. Take advantage of the wealth of experience coming together during the reflection sessions and use the time to talk about critical issues and the future of the organization.
Finally, Establish a Firm Base From Which To Grow
While setting up the group requires the most energy, other things need to be considered after this is done. Most importantly, remember to keep enthusiasm and interest up--but don't worry if the first weeks are rocky. Volunteers are normally very excited by the first few encounters. After the initial visits, enthusiasm might lag for a brief period while people get adjusted, but it will rise again as volunteers and preschoolers begin to form true friendships. During this time, focus on strengthening the relationships within your organization and between your group and the larger community.
Without question, one of the most important things about this sort of project is the recruitment of new leaders. In addition, the distinction between working for and working with communities is also essential. By encouraging members to take an active role in both your organization and the larger community, your group will be better able to respond to the changing interests of everyone involved. Finally, starting early is crucial. Hopefully you will find younger undergraduates to run the program after you leave and, with any luck at all, maybe one day some of your preschoolers will take over for them. Best of luck.
- Evaluate your progress. It is important to know what your efforts are accomplishing and how your program can improve. Take advantage of time at the end of the year to get feedback from teachers and parents. While form letters and evaluation sheets sometimes get the job done, many groups also consider end-of-the-year discussion meetings with volunteers and teachers from different sites. This way teachers know their input is valued and interactive conversation often sparks new ideas for the future.
- Be cautious when expanding. Groups often expand before they are ready. HELP, for example, chose not to expand into surrounding neighborhoods during its first year because volunteers decided it was more important to grow "inwardly" at first--strengthening ties to the teachers, communities, and classrooms already being served. From this firm base, future expansion will be both easier and more successful.
- Build "institutional memory." Keep good records of what you do and who you work with during the first years of the program. Lists of helpful training leaders and interested contact people prove to be invaluable to future volunteers. Also, encourage young volunteers to continue their involvement in years to come.
- Nurture new leaders. No matter how much you love your program, graduation day will eventually come. While you're still in school take steps to ensure that there are students ready to lead the program after you leave. Start recruiting student leaders during their first years at college, and offer them chances to take on increasingly important projects. After its first year, HELP chose several assistant directors to manage different aspects of the program, such as administration, recruitment of volunteers, and community liaison. Because these students were all freshmen, they will each have the opportunity to develop their leadership styles as the program grows.
[Making Connections: How Children Learn]