Building Communication through Sharing Books

by Susan G. Tomlinson

"You'd have to see my students to believe it! It's on their faces, and their attitudes have changed. . . . These are the problem children, or they were!" --Marjorie Gaines, teacher and Parents Sharing Books program leader

Preadolescence is a crucial and often difficult time in the development of the individual. For some children, it is a rocky, but temporary, passage to young adulthood and greater maturity. For youths who are at risk, it is often the point at which the commitment to learning and achievement is abandoned. Communication between young people and their parents frequently breaks down at this age, and just when children need more reinforcement, parents typically become less involved in their children's education. As a result, children may lose interest in school and develop other more serious problems.

In 1990, the Family Literacy Center at Indiana University, under the direction of Carl B. Smith, a professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington, set out to improve reading levels among middle school-age children, to increase the involvement of parents in their children's education, and to encourage greater communication between preadolescent children and their parents. The Parents Sharing Books (PSB) project was launched with a grant from the Lilly Endowment and has continued as a self-supporting program. The program, usually sponsored by a school, involves parents in reading and talking about books with their children. PSB leaders are trained to give parents guidance in selecting appropriate books, making time for reading, making reading enjoyable, and listening to and sharing ideas with their children. Regular meetings offer parents opportunities to share experiences and learn from each other. Unlike many contacts between parents and schools, these meetings provide positive interactions that build mutual respect and understanding.

The program has been successful in its mission to prevent students from abandoning reading as they move through their teen years. Smith notes, however, that "improved communication has been the foremost benefit to participants." The majority of students and parents participating have reported that PSB has improved the level and quality of their communication with one another. One parent describes the impact of the program on her relationship with her daughter this way: "It allowed us to look at each other not as a child and a mother, but as people who have opinions and values and expectations." Another parent comments, "I found it easier to talk to my daughter about touchy situations. The books gave me the courage to bring up the difficult topics that every parent is concerned about."

Despite this success, after the first three years, one area of continuing disappointment was the program's failure to attract many socioeconomically disadvantaged families. According to Smith, the program attempted to target low income individuals, but most of those who chose to participate were middle-class parents already fairly involved with their children's education. Obstacles ranging from a lack of transportation to discomfort with the school were keeping many targeted parents away. Smith began searching for a way to reach out more effectively to those parents least likely to be actively involved with the school and to those students most likely to place a low value on reading and learning.

It was at this point that Smith connected with Carole Scifres, then an adjunct professor of education at IUB. Scifres had just completed a survey of residents of Abington Apartments, a housing project in Indianapolis. Through her research, she had discovered that parents living in the project--overwhelmingly single mothers--wanted to be involved with their children and expected their children to have more than they had, acquire more education, and achieve more in their careers. However, these parents were completely uncomfortable dealing with schools; the more contact they had with their child's school, the more negative their perception of the school. This was largely due to the predominantly negative nature of the interactions these parents had had with teachers and administrators--typically contacts about poor grades or discipline problems. Besides feeling antagonistic toward the school system, the parents felt they did not know how to help their children achieve.

Smith and Scifres decided that a program such as PSB might work better for these disadvantaged families if it were community based rather than school based. Smith arranged funding for a year-long program at Abington Apartments that provided reading materials, tutoring resources, computers, and a research assistant. Scifres, who coordinated the program, called Raising Expectations, conducted parent meetings, carried out assessments, and acted as liaison to the children's schools. She recruited Mark Robinson, a former IU basketball player, then completing his master's in counseling and guidance, to serve as a tutor. One condition that Robinson insisted upon was that Scifres not reveal he was a basketball player. He wanted the students to view him as a role model, not because he was a successful black athlete, but because he was a black man finding success through an academic career.

Scifres found that, to make the program work, she had to be flexible and to allow the needs of the parents and children to guide the content. Sharing books has remained a central focus of the program, and the selection of books that are culturally relevant has been important. Scifres found, however, that these students needed more than discussions about books for them to begin seeing value in school and learning. She responded by providing tutoring and guidance in appropriate classroom behavior. She has exposed the students to new experiences: trips to malls and bookstores; visits to the IUB campus; meetings with people such as Steve Birdine, director of IU's Office of Diversity Programs; and a trip with Smith to the International Reading Association convention in Anaheim, California. As a liaison, she visits the students' classrooms and helps their mothers communicate with the school.

The Raising Expectations program has never been large and the core group of students and parents participating consists of five African American boys, now between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and their mothers. Despite the loss of funding after the first year ended in 1994, Scifres has kept the program alive. The program has produced results. Teachers have reported that the children involved are more cooperative and productive in class and have had fewer discipline problems. Parents report that their children use more respectful language and are more accepting of their viewpoints. The children themselves see new possibilities for their lives, including college and careers.

What lessons can those concerned about youth gain from this program? Scifres believes that the program's greatest benefit is a reduction of conflict through improved communication and understanding. For all adolescents, learning how to relate to other people, whether peers, parents, or other authority figures, is an important part of the move to responsible adulthood. For youth who are at risk, this growth of communication and understanding can mean the difference between lives caught in a cycle of violence, crime, and poverty and the fulfillment of mothers' dreams of a better life for their children.

How can scholars contribute to our ability to serve youth who are at risk? Both Smith and Scifres believe that scholars must be willing to get involved and to interact with children and families. Smith says, "Scholars must be more than surveyors. They must get dirty and take a service approach." Scifres agrees. She believes that researchers must connect with children both in school and outside school, and that the clues to how to help children will come from the children themselves.

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