I got my start in community literacy with the work I did in Augusta, Arkansas, particularly the Copper Sun project, and Rogers, Arkansas, with the Razorback Writers project. These experiences with sixth graders and ninth graders helped me understand the important role language arts plays in literacy development.
Copper Sun: Ninth-graders’ literacy project
While I was finishing my PhD, I did community literacy work in the Arkansas Delta region, which is considerably less affluent than the northwest corner of the state where the University of Arkansas is located. I have been involved in community service as long as I can remember, but I am particularly thankful to my mentor David Jolliffe and to the entire town of Augusta, Arkansas for helping me make the connections between the reading and writing I was learning about in my graduate courses and the needs and desires of the communities outside the doors of my university.
In this project, I collaborated with a fellow graduate student to choose an appropriate book for 9th graders to study during Black History Month, and we chose Copper Sun, a historical fiction book about a young girl who is forced to take the Middle Passage and become a slave in the Carolinas. We assisted the students’ English teacher with developing lesson plans, and we met with the students several times to arrange for a community-wide exhibition of their reaction to the book. We were pleased to hear from parents and teachers that teens who had not previously shown an interest in reading had devoured Copper Sun. The final exhibition reflected a unique 9th grade mix of heartfelt responses to the book and humorous remarks just when things got a little too serious.
During the 2012-2013 school year, I led an arts and literacy after-school program for sixth graders in Rogers, Arkansas who scores did not meet a schoolwide benchmark on their standardized tests. Razorback Writers was an alternative to a test prep class, and I can say with a great deal of certainty that this program was a more effective and fun way to raise test scores and promote a better relationship with literacy. After completing a unit on photography and poetry, students produced a multimedia portrait that answered the question, “Who am I?” These portraits were on display at the Rogers Public Library for four months.
Later in the school year, the sixth graders learned about dance, folk music, and digital storytelling, and, together with the help of secondary education students from the University of Arkansas, made this multimedia study of self on the same theme of “Who Am I?”:
This video was presented at a public exhibition at Crystal Bridges Art Museum for the students, their family, and their friends.