If Football Players Can Wear Pink, We Can End Illiteracy

Football blog collage

(Left to right) Cowboys & Lions in pink; Pam Good, Renee Prewitt, Leslie Andrews and Councilman James Tate at Beyond Basics Literacy Summit; Links Panel on Literacy; Art Wall at Starr Academy.

I believe that we will greatly diminish illiteracy–especially in Detroit–in my lifetime. I’m a believer because I’ve seen problems of this magnitude make significant advances since I’ve been around, and I’m convinced that, when it comes to illiteracy, this too shall pass.

For example, December 1 was the anniversary of the day that Civil Rights Advocate Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Today, Barack Obama sits in the White House as the nation’s first African American president. Decades ago, Nancy Brinker’s sister, Susan G. Komen, sat in the back room of a hospital at a time when it was taboo to say the words “breast cancer.” Today, even big, strapping football players wear pink shoes on the football field, and an army of survivors have helped to turn fear and shame into courage. I’m a big fan of classic movies, and beyond their black and white allure and stylish sophistication, they reflected a time when smoking cigarettes was considered cool and sexy. Today, cigarette cool is making its last stand. The little tobacco stick is not even allowed in its most sacred refuge, the bar! Who ever would have thought?

But, most of all, I’m a believer because every time I’m with a group of people who are committed to reading and literacy, the energy in the room is so powerful. The people and the programs underway are not overwhelmed by the problem here in Detroit, where 47% of people are illiterate. Rather, they are dedicated to exposing children to books, to new experiences and helping them to develop language. Small victories become huge successes over time.

I believe that we will win this war on illiteracy in Detroit, in America, and eventually, around the world. Think about it, and I am sure you will agree. We’ve all seen issues of this magnitude solved in the past, and in time, we will say, Illiteracy: Problem solved! The opportunities to be a part of the movement are everywhere!

Reading and Volunteer Resources
http://detroitk12.org/readingcorps/
www.beyondbasics.org
www.liveunitedsem.org
www.gradelevelreading.net
www.pnc.com/grow-up-great
www.matrixhumanservices.org
www.readingrecovery.org

Renee Prewitt is author of Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn, books about little boys whose chores turn into exciting adventures!

Still Holding On to the Dream

Renee & Sherri - Copy

It was a life changing moment for me when I realized that this was it, this is what I wanted. I wanted people to be lined up around the block, waiting for me to sign their book, my best seller, just like I was doing for Terry McMillan that afternoon in Chicago.

That day–decades ago–I stood in fellowship with a group of women whose singular gospel was how amazed we were  at Terry’s ability to break through the hierarchial publishing world and make Waiting to Exhale a must-read for black women around the world…or at least in the United States. She had busted out of the norm, had thrown open the curtain to reveal the romantic goings on in the real world of sexy, successful, single black women and their lovers. She had written prose that you didn’t need to read a hundred times to understand the breathless dance that happened when a man and woman became one. Someone had finally written our story and we reveled in it!

I had been working on yet another version of a short story that got longer with every new city I moved to, as my then husband ascended up the corporate ladder. With everything changing around me, writing was the anchor that bridged new jobs, new relationships, and new hair stylists. I got caught up in the flurry of possibilities that Terry had opened for writers like me who worked to satisfy appetites that wanted to hear what we said, to read what we wrote and to buy what we sold. Years later, after 47 rejection letters from publishers and agents, I self published From Morning Drive to Midnight. It was loosely based on a woman’s rough and tumble days as a radio talk show host, when FM was overtaking AM on the dial, when DJs’ ratings were tied to their gimmicks and personalities, and when singers toured the stations to promote records and gave lavish promotion parties for radio people who truly believed that you only live once. Those were the days!

Oh, but I digress. My book signings netted about four or five people at a time.  Not bad, but not a dream made real, either.

The other night, I thought of my dream as I waited for Sherri Shepherd of The View to sign the book I had purchased. She was our hilarious host at the annual Ford African Ancestry Network event, which had invited Henry Louis Gates to talk about his new PBS show, Finding Your Roots. You may not be aware of it, but this event has a reputation for challenging its guests to a Wobble Dance-off, and Sherri was up for the challenge.  At the end of the program, she announced, “I’m going to sign some books, but I’ll be back!”

I waited a while before retreating to the book signing area, but no matter. The line was still wrapped around several ropes that kept everyone in single file. After she signed a book, she would take a picture. Up and down, up and down she moved for more than an hour. Even Terry McMillan had not done that!

When I got back to my table, everyone asked me, “Where is she? When is she coming out to Wobble?”

“She’ll be out,” I said, “But right now, girlfriend is living my dream!”

(Note to self: I’ve got work to do.)

Renee Prewitt is the author of a new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage and is working on a little something that will make her dream come true.

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Let Their Imaginations Run Wild with Great Stories

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I’m having a good time reading Taj Cleans the Garage to young kids. I’m learning a lot in this reading and literacy process, namely:

–Make sure the children know what the words reward, allowance and lasso mean. I specifically put these words and others into the book to initiate discussion and help to develop their language skills.

–Engage them with “What if?” questions. I usually ask, “If you could go anywhere on a flying horse, where would you go? Aside from the occasional playground and Disney World, the top of the list is “Grandma’s house,” “the store,” and “Chucky Cheese,” all reflections of a child’s own world, and their exposure to things within their comfort zone. Still, I get some outer world answers like “The Black Hole.” (But, aren’t you afraid of getting lost in there? Nope!). I also hear “All over the city,” and “Outer space,” as well as “Deep, deep outer space!” Now, we’re getting somewhere!

That’s what I’m really trying to do by reading my book about a little boy whose chore turns into an adventure. Yes, I want to promote responsibility, but I also want to tap into a child’s imagination. In addition to the required 3 Rs: ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic, I want to say that I helped to turn on that endless flow of creativity that allows children to soar to heights never seen before, especially if it’s on a flying horse!

Maybe you want to do something like this too. Just call up your local school and tell them you want to read a book to a class. They’ll be glad to host you.

I Lived and Learned!

TCC Head Start 7-17-2013

Yesterday, my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, took its maiden voyage inside of a Head Start classroom where I read it to my intended audience: Several little people, from 3-5 years old. Yes, I was nervous, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like they were seasoned book critics who would analyze the quality of Taj’s many adventures, or whether or not the flying horse spread his wings east and west, instead of north and south. No, I think that I was nervous because I desperately wanted them to be excited about my book and to like it.  They were, and they did.

I have several questions at the end of the book, and when I asked, “Where would you like the flying horse to take you?” I was reminded over and over again that all things familiar were things that resonate with them the most. They said, “To Grandma’s house,” “Home,” and “To the store.” And they were so cute!  I was pleased that they sat and listened, and I was ready to talk to them forever, when one little girl asked, “Can I go and play now?”  Of course you can, sweetie; you all can.

So, lesson learned.  It’s not about me. Don’t ask the children all 10 questions at the end of the book, maybe three or four, and let them talk. Because they will, and their answers are priceless.

I met several vendors at the Head Start Fair who asked me to read at their upcoming events and/or passed on info about other opportunities to read my book.  I can’t wait.

To learn more about The Children’s Center Head Start Academy, please call them at 313.831.5535 or email TCCacademy@childrensctr.net.

The 32 Million Word Gap by Age 3

How many words?

I recently attended a fundraising breakfast for The Children’s Center, where President and CEO, Deborah Matthews listed a few facts about the many children the agency serves in its mental health, foster care and Head Start programs. She referred to a startling statistic:  By the time an impoverished child reaches age 3, he (or she) has heard about 30 million fewer words than a child from a more affluent family.

What?

She was referring to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called The Early Catastrophe, the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.The study was done in 1995 to learn why children in Head Start showed only small to moderate advances in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and none in math skills. They found that environment trumped genes, hands down.

Based on their elaborate study of 42 low, middle and high income families, Hart and Risley found that poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they turned three- and four-years old. Data showed that speaking, reading and listening to children early and often was the norm for professional families who averaged 215,000 words per child per week. A working class family averaged 125,000 words per week and a welfare family averaged 62,000 words a week. By third grade, vocabulary growth was on par with levels attained through Kindergarten.   

Tone and complexity of words were also measured. The study found:

·         In the first four years after birth, the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback;

·         A working- class child receives 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements;

·         A welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.

I’m writing a children’s book that I hope will be one of many that parents use to help their kids to learn to love reading.  Studies like this have reshaped my mission: I want to help close the 30 million word gap and encourage others, whether parents or not, to do the same.  I also want more people to talk about intelligence: it’s not fixed, it’s learned.

I’ve raised two children and have had my own share of child rearing challenges. Even now, I cringe at some of the ways that I communicated with them—sometimes I was too short and too inattentive—but I always tried to make the next encounter better than the last.

If we’re serious—and I believe that so many of us are—about bridging the education gap in minority and low income communities, and preparing our kids for a better future, let’s make it cool to talk about stuff like this, and find ways to change it as Literacy Empowers All Families (LEAF) points out here: http://alamosa.k12.co.us/evans/assets/files/ssanchez/Word%20Gap.pdf

Information is power…always has been, always will be.

New books coming soon!

Taj Cleans the Garage is a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Michaela Nienaber. Taj always wants new cars for his train set, so his parents encourage him to start earning the money to buy them. Much to his surprise, Taj’s new chore turns into an exciting adventure where he is the only one who can save the day.

Coming in September:

Malcolm Mows the Lawn, a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Scott Everett is about a little boy who wants a new car for his train.  His Mom suggests that he mow the lawn to earn enough money to buy it himself. Join Malcolm as his new chore takes him on a great adventure. Who knew that working could be so exciting? Coming July 2013.

Note: Subsequent studies have shown that children in Head Start achieve high scores in many of the soft skills that employers value today, such as teamwork, planning, negotiation and task completion.

Bedtime Rituals

I saw a story the other day about reading to your children that started with, “It’s pretty hard to screw up reading to a child.”  Have fun and engage your audience, the author said. Oh yeah, I thought. I certainly did that.

When my son and daughter were little, one of my favorite parts of the day was bedtime. Yes, I’ll admit that I was exhausted, and part of me hoped that their day full of questions, play dates, and emotional highs and lows had worn them out too. But there was also a much more compelling reason that gave nighttime a higher purpose. The end of the day meant impressing upon them that they had played as hard as they could, and that they needed their rest so they could start all over again tomorrow. It meant tucking them in and reading them a bedtime story and I always looked forward to that.

This was a time when I had their full attention and they had mine. It was a cozy time. Bathed and in their favorite jammies, I would have one or both of them entrenched under each arm. No television or video games or phone calls, this was “us” time where my voice and their occasional giggles and questions were all we heard. That was, unless I read Octopus Hug by Laurence Pringle. This was not a bedtime story!

This was a rousing picture book story that was one of those rare gems that appealed to both boys and girls.  Here is how the author described it:

Octopus Hug is a charming look at the games a father plays with his children when he’s left in charge for the evening. The games are wonderfully active — and interactive. The dad gets down on the floor with Becky and Jesse, pretends to be different animals and objects, and encourages the children to join in. The fun is still going on when the mom returns home, so she gets to experience the games, too.

My kids loved that book. The first time I read it, I would pretend to be one of the animals in the story, making bold sounds and I would pick them up, rock them, roll on the floor, and encourage them to do the same. Night after night I would ask, “What do we want to read?” and they would say, “Octopus Hug!” and then settle into their favorite places to be roared at until finally, the giant octopus (me) grabbed them and rocked them back and forth in a victorious hug. There was lots of laughter and running around, but the innocence of it all always warmed my heart. It still does. Of course, I quickly learned to follow up with another story that calmed them down because this book defeated the whole purpose of a bedtime story!

I still have Octopus Hug on my book shelf. Sometimes give a copy as a gift to parents and grandparents who are welcoming new little people into their lives. It is one of those books that underscores that all important message that we want all of our children to embrace: Reading is fun. And we all know that children learn by example.

Congratulations to my daughter, Lisa, who is a member of the 2013 graduating class of Wayne State University, and last night, was recognized as an Honors College graduate.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-04-02/features/sc-fam-0402-reading-to-kids-20130402_1_child-silly-books-age-appropriate-books

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