In January and February, author Margy Burns Knight and I
worked at Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine, as part of a family literacy project sponsored by the Harwood Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College.
Lewiston's population is a mixture of Franco-American families who have been there for generations and recently-arrived families from Somalia, as well as other ethnic and cultural heritages.
We led Longley's third grade students in writing and illustrating books about "family treasures" - the activities, traditions and celebrations shared in their families. First, Margy and I met with the Bates College education students who would be assisting the Longley third graders with their project. We coached them in preparation for a Story Swap evening for the elementary students and their family members.
We started with a list of possible topics: games, wishes, jokes and riddles, folk tales, lullabies and songs, food, holidays and celebrations, and journeys. We encouraged the college students to share something from their own lives, followed by a question to evoke a story from the third graders and their family members. It was challenging to devise questions for a diverse audience that indicated a respect for all stories as having equal value.
For instance, one of the college students tried this prompt: "I went to a concert by my favorite band recently. Do you go to music concerts?" That helped the group see that the questions needed to be open-ended so that they encouraged stories rather than yes or no answers. They
also needed to be free from cultural and other assumptions. Music concerts might be outside the experience of an adult Somali whose background included war and a refugee camp, or the experience of any third grader.
We suggested that the college students use memories from their own childhoods, followed by a universal question such as "What makes your family laugh?"
The resulting Story Swap was a delightful evening full of lively exchanges among the Bates students, the Longley students, and their families, topped off with a shared meal of pizza.
The month of work that followed produced proud student authors, a collection of stories, and an opportunity for families to share literacy while preserving their traditions.