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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

One Family at a Time

A literacy program for homeless families, its developers learned, is about much more than academic pursuits. It's about human relationships.

Roz is 31. She dropped out of school at 13. At 14, she gave birth to twins. One child died, and the other she gave to her mother to raise. Over time, Roz had three more children by a husband who abused her physically. Since leaving him, she's had several boyfriends. The last boyfriend was an ex-felon who had been sent to prison for rape. Her current boyfriend is 23 and unemployed.
Roz can read simple picture books, but neither of her sons can read at all. They attend self-contained classrooms for children with mild mental disabilities. Her daughter is a special education student in 6th grade. The family lives in a trailer park that rents by the week.
When I asked Roz what she wanted from our family literacy program, she squinted her eyes, appeared to be thinking hard, and finally announced, "I just want us to be friends." I felt as if I had been hit in the chest. How could we be so far off the mark with our goal?
Our reason for starting this project was to help legally homeless parents be their children's best teachers. The research told us that most parents, regardless of their socioeconomic status, love their children and want them to have quality lives. We believed that if we could show parents some strategies to help their children read better, the children would be more successful in school. With that school success, we hoped to break the cycle of poverty by giving the children more career choices.
But it was friendship she asked for. I sat back in my chair, studied Roz to see if she was sincere, and answered, "We can do that." It was then that I realized we needed to rethink our program. We had done our homework, but, as it turned out, we had a lot more learning to do. Roz is one of many parents who helped us reshape the project to meet the needs of their families.

Getting Started

I had long thought about helping the homeless. In fact, some of my students had been homeless. When a grant proposal crossed my desk advertising monies for literacy projects, I decided to stop talking about the homeless and do something to help them.
After I obtained a one-year grant, my school district became the fiscal agent and home for the project. Juvenile Probation loaned their vans for transportation. The International Reading Association provided teachers for the children. Americorps supplied two students to be van drivers, cooks, babysitters, and general care-givers. A local foundation gave us books and tapes for the adult curriculum. The State Department of Education subsidized our child meals, and Title I gave us five adult meals per session. The $4,000 grant was to be used for food, general supply needs, salaries for teachers of the adults, and teacher training.
For advice on advertising our program, we talked with the Homeless Headstart teachers. They told us that our flyers should contain a minimum of print. They also suggested that we make face-to-face contact with the families. Thus armed with what we thought were excellent flyers, our teams hit the streets and visited the motels and trailer parks that lined West Fourth Street in Reno, Nevada.
Most of the families we visited appeared interested in our work. We talked about where and when we would pick them up. I felt especially satisfied that I had masked my shock at the appalling living conditions I saw. My greatest worry that day was that we might not have enough space in the vans to collect all the families. I needn't have worried.
Opening day of the project arrived, and only two families were willing to attend. Some families had already moved. Most made excuses. What interesting misconceptions we had then. We thought that if we offered free literacy classes for both children and adults—combined with free food and transportation—folks would flock to us. We consoled ourselves by telling one another that it was best to start small while we worked out the kinks of a new project.

What We Envisioned

We were open for business on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m., and we regularly made the rounds of West Fourth Street to pick up any families willing to attend. In addition to meeting their literacy needs, we wanted to provide these families with a warm meal and two hours in a safe place. We were housed in an unused classroom that we'd tidied up. One family came consistently, and the mother recruited for us. She brought new children, but she couldn't coax their parents to come.
Disappointed with the small turnout, we contacted the only family homeless center in town to see whether we could include those families in our work. Because the shelter is a family emergency relief shelter, the average length of stay is seven days. This policy forced us to look again at our adult curriculum. If we could expect to see the adults only once or twice, we had to make the most of our time with them.
We based our literacy program around Prop Boxes, based on the model by Susan Neuman of Temple University. Each box has a theme, such as food or farm animals, and contains (1) a song, rap, or poem; (2) at least four books; (3) literacy props such as puppets an flannel board pieces; and (4) several writing extensions.
First, we planned to teach the adults the easily memorizable poem, rap, or song so that they would feel immediate success. Next, we would explain how allowing their children to play with literacy props after hearing stories and songs would make the children more likely to reenact or retell those stories themselves. During this lighthearted time, we also hoped to build the background knowledge that the parents would need to read the books successfully with their children. We had chosen the books—simple fiction stories, predictable nonfiction texts, and poetry—to demonstrate that we read for different purposes.
Then, we would teach the parents how writing extensions encourage children, after hearing a story, to respond in a literary way. One child might simply draw a picture of his favorite part of the story. Another might write a simple story of her own, imitating the one read. Behaving as a writer is as desirable as behaving as a reader; both are important pre-literate behaviors.
Our intent was to separate the adults and the children for the first hour so that the adults could learn useful teaching tips while practicing using the boxes themselves. After dinner, the parents would partner with their own children to practice their newly learned skills.

What Really Happened

In reality, however, most of our parents spent a large part of that first hour just talking to the teachers—about their living conditions, their children, their relationships, and problems with the law.
Quite accidentally, the adult teachers realized that asking the parents to help make the literacy props provided an ideal way to share teaching tips with them. Reading the books, then, became less embarrassing for individual parents. Rather than merely practice reading aloud, the parents could read the books as a group to discover what kinds of props might work best for kids. Human relationships and parenting in general seemed to take precedence over literacy issues in our evolving project.
In the adjoining children's area, our volunteer teachers facilitated projects centered around either a theme or a book. For example, one teacher read a piece of fiction about a dinosaur to stimulate a discussion about dinosaur truths and myths. After exploring a bag of pretend dinosaur bones and eating pretend dinosaur eggs, the children pored over nonfiction books about dinosaurs and then colored and cut out pictures of their favorite ones. While the children were cutting, the teacher wrote a chart-story eliciting from the children possible things that dinosaurs might do if they lived today.
Meanwhile, the two student helpers and I prepared dinner—using hot plates, crockpots, and a microwave oven to try to simulate cooking in a motel room. We used a tablecloth and always asked the older children to help us by cutting fruits and vegetables or setting the table. They seemed to really enjoy creating a nice meal for everyone. Perhaps this was a new experience for them or a valued one from earlier, happier days. Either way, dinner time was an important aspect of the evening for these children.
Afterward, the older children were eager to play games or do puzzles with one another. The younger children seemed content to look at books. Their parents either wanted to sit and talk or go outside to smoke. Coaxing the parents to work with their own children did not prove successful in this environment.
Keeping the project alive with limited funds and staff proved difficult—and at times exhausting—but our commitment was strong, and community response, heartwarming.
A local business delivered a used refrigerator. A relative of mine sent a generous check for the purchase of cooking supplies, games, books, and art supplies. A retired women's group knitted caps and scarves for our children. Several teachers sent cash donations for extra food. People in the Curriculum and Instruction Division of our school district supported our project by supplying apples, oranges, raisins, crackers, and other foods easily carried by homeless families. At Christmas time, they bought presents for all our children. To keep dinner on the table, we also solicited food from local businesses. (Two bakeries regularly gave us bread and muffins.)

Living and Learning

Over a year's time, we met many homeless families. Our bulletin board—filled with children's artwork and family photos—was a testament to their attendance, if only for a short while. On any one Monday or Wednesday night, we'd transport three or four parents and from three to eight children, ages 2-15, to and from our makeshift classroom.
What did we discover along the way? For one, it is important to provide food in a program for homeless families, especially shelter children. Regular meals are not a given in their unpredictable lives. It doesn't have to be fancy food, but there must be enough of it. We encouraged our families to help themselves to all the food we'd prepared and sent any leftovers home with the motel families.
We also learned how to improve our advertising strategy after attending a Family Literacy Workshop with Carol Talon of California State Libraries. In designing our flyers, we'd overlooked the idea that minimally literate adults probably had poor school experiences. All the freebies in the world could not coax them to return to an environment where they felt unsuccessful. Carol suggested that we never use the words reading, writing, or literacy in our recruiting efforts. We promptly changed our name to Family Fun Night and made reading books one piece of the fun.
Perhaps our most important discovery was that human relationships must precede academic pursuits. Only if our parents trust and believe in us do we stand a chance of teaching them anything. To earn their trust, we had to accept them for who they were. At times, this meant overlooking actions we disagreed with—for example, a mother spending money on cigarettes to the neglect of her child's need for food. But values such as these were not ours to question or change, so we focused on our families' strengths.
So many memories come to mind. One shelter mom carried a backpack full of toys and art supplies so that her sons with attention deficit disorder would always have something constructive to do. Another shelter mom reassured her son that as long as they had each other to love, they would be all right. A motel mom worried about getting her paperwork in order so that her 5-year-old could begin school. We were dealing with survivors, and we had to admire their strength.
These homeless parents did care about their children, but they also had needs that had to be met. Building time into each evening just to talk was the most critical element of our program. We didn't touch a lot of people's lives, and we had no way of knowing how large an impact we made. But we cared, and we believe that people responded to our caring.
Roz might tell you that now she thinks we are her friends. And I think that Roz's children and the other children we worked with might say that they can't distinguish between the living experience and the learning experience.
A recent letter from a former motel mom who has relocated with her four children to Salt Lake warmed our hearts: We have just completed 130 hours with Habitat and hopefully will find out soon which house will be ours. We are excited about moving into our own home. Everyone is doing so well in school, but they still miss their friends in Reno.The Family Nights were great for us. We spend more time reading together and dreaming up new ideas for our boxes. God bless all of you. We are closer now, thanks to Reading Nights.
The continuing challenge is to reach out to more of the families of West Fourth Street and engender the same trust. I am reminded of "One at a Time" by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. In the story, a boy walks up and down the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. When a friend tells him that he can't possibly make a difference because there are too many starfish to rescue, the boy picks up yet another starfish, tosses it out to sea, and replies, "Made a difference to that one!"
Of course, we would like to see programs in place to assist every homeless family, but for now we must be content with helping one family at a time.
End Notes

1 S. Newman, (October 1995), “Reading Together: A Community-Supported Parent Tutoring Program,” The Reading Teacher 49, 2.

Karen A. McGee has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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