Improving literacy through culturally rooted workshops

Shana Rochester

Shana Rochester

According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18 percent of African-American fourth-graders are proficient in reading. Shana Rochester, a graduate student in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology, hopes to change that. Rochester recently was awarded the Sarri Family Fellowship, enabling her to offer culturally appropriate literacy workshops to low-income, African-American families with first- and second-graders and then study the effectiveness of the program model.

Rochester’s passion for promoting literacy began as a teenager. For her final project as a Girl Scout in high school, she chose to host a literacy table at a Baltimore-area summer festival, passing out books and reading activities to families of young children. The literacy table earned her the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor available. For Rochester, attending the University of Michigan (U-M) was her first personal experience with public education. She attended private schools in Baltimore growing up and went to Spelman College in Atlanta for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in psychology.

“During my first few years as an undergraduate student, I wanted to be a teacher, but felt I didn’t know enough about public schools to support the children I wanted to serve,” she says. “After studying psychology and conducting research with my advisor, I wanted to understand the developmental processes and contextual factors that influence literacy for children of color from under-resourced communities. I also wanted to broaden my knowledge about educational theory and the foundations of schooling.”The collaborative nature of the Combined Program in Education and Psychology brought Rochester to U-M. “I knew I wanted to be at a place where I could workshop my ideas with different people and different projects, and I appreciated that this program emphasized an interdisciplinary approach and collaborations among multiple labs and faculty members,” she says.

In her four years at U-M, Rochester has gone out of her way to gain applied experience. She interned for a year with the Center for Early Education Evaluation, the research division of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, which is responsible for helping to develop assessments and serving as an external evaluator for state and local agencies. There, she conducted a needs assessment for child care in Flint. And last summer, Rochester worked as a servant leader intern for the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program, a six-week literacy program for pre-K through 12th grade students. Through reading skills development, culturally relevant texts and positive role models, students learn how they can make a difference in themselves, their community and their world “I felt like it was really important for me to have that classroom experience, since I didn’t come to graduate school with a teaching background,” says Rochester. “And it allowed me to merge my interests in working with children’s literacy and serving children from under-resourced communities.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Rochester’s idea for her fellowship project evolved from those experiences and her work on a project with her U-M advisor Nell Duke, a professor of Literacy, Language and Culture in the department of Educational Studies and the Combined Program in Education and Psychology, and collaborator Kathryn Roberts, an associate professor of Reading, Language and Literature at Wayne State University. The project, a series of five family workshops, taught families literacy tips for preschoolers. Rochester is co-authoring a research report on the project and recently presented its findings at a Literacy Research Association conference.

Rochester was struck by the success of a program that had a relatively small investment and only 10 contact hours with families. A key factor in its effectiveness, Rochester believes, was the ability to specifically tailor the workshops and activities to families of color. “I thought to myself that, if I want to craft a program for these families, what would that look like?” she says. “One opportunity I saw was to expand which adults could attend the workshops to include extended family members instead of only parents, since grandmas, aunties or other members often help raise children.”

Rochester could see firsthand how the preschool families she was working with loved and wanted so much to help their kids. They knew what to do in the early years by teaching letters, numbers and colors, but seemed to struggle with how to support those basics as kids grew older. “I saw the need for a program that was easy and digestible and that was authentic to the values and practices of the families participating,” says Rochester.

The Sarri Family Fellowship is allowing Rochester to offer literacy workshops on an even larger scale and study the results of the program. The pilot program began this summer with 10 families, but Rochester hopes to serve 50 families over the course of the workshop, with the study lasting until May.Similar to prior workshops, the adults will be taught strategies for literacy development in children, such as ways to learn words that children do not know and how to create opportunities for reading and writing at home. Families also will receive books and activities to take home.

“Receiving the Sarri Family Fellowship means so much to me because I’ll be able to compensate families generously for their time and give them books and a meal at every session,” she says. “And doing so will help improve attendance. I recognize the costs for these families to participate in these workshops, such as time away from work and transportation expenses, as well as giving up their own free time. I don’t think the study would be possible without the Sarri Fellowship.”

The education community anxiously awaits the result of Rochester’s project, which holds great promise as a model for helping communities with traditionally low literacy rates. “There is enormous interest in the results of Shana’s dissertation,” says Duke. “When I’ve referenced Shana’s work to various practitioners around the country, the response has consistently been ‘when will the workshops be ready?’ and/or ‘when will the study results be available?’ School districts and other educational organizations are hungry for effective models to engage families in promoting young children’s literacy. I believe Shana has an important career ahead of her in research on improving literacy in low-socioeconomic-status children.”

“Receiving the Sarri Family Fellowship allows Shana to use a more complex and effective research design, and to include more families in this important study,” says Stephanie Rowley, a U-M psychology professor, associate vice president for Research, and chair of the Combined Program in Education and Psychology. “Shana’s study will have a significant influence on the literature that has overlooked the value of culture in literacy learning. This work is a wonderful example of how to conduct rigorous research in ways that engage the knowledge and commitment of the communities involved.”

Rochester is working primarily through schools in nearby Ypsilanti to recruit families, with the help of community organizations, summer camps and word-of-mouth. “I really try to make these relationships reciprocal, so that I can help give back to the organizations that are helping my study, such as through tutoring sessions,” she says. “There is so much I learn every day from working with children and families. I think it’s important, whether I end up as an academic or in the field, that I maintain meaningful relationships with community members. It takes hard work, but I think that the way you make people feel helps this work move along a lot. It’s about relationship-building, and that’s something I’ve learned outside of the classroom. And I try to keep it at the forefront of my mind.”

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