Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) piloted reading and writing workshops for 260 rising third- through-fifth graders as part of its 2016 summer program. The workshops were patterned after a model developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

The workshops were designed to build each youth’s interest, excitement, and self-confidence in literacy, which furthers the goal of the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative to enhance community literacy. In keeping with its core mission to develop social and emotional learning, Y.O.U. used the workshops to simultaneously build both a youth’s excitment in literacy and his or her social and emotional learning, Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U. told the RoundTable.

The workshops will be expanded to Y.O.U.’s afterschool programs this fall.

Promoting Community Literacy And Social and Emotional Learning

“Where we’ve been continuing to move as an organization is deeply addressing the opportunity gap that we see as a precursor of the achievement gap,” said Mr. Green. Our focus as an agency has been what is the unique role that we can play alongside our schools in addressing opportunity gaps that show up ultimately in achievement.

“One of the big gaps that we have seen – and see even more clearly thanks to the leadership of Cradle to Career’s naming community literacy as its initial focus – is the opportunity gap of young people to really build that excitement and motivation around literacy. And so we really wanted to focus as an agency on where can we build the academic, social and emotional capabilities of our kids with this deep commitment to community literacy.”

Goal of the Workshops

Hannah Steinman, formerly a Project Manager at Y.O.U. and now a consultant, recommended that Y.O.U. base the workshops on the model developed by Ms. Calkins. Ms. Steinman used the model as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools and said, “I saw how excited my students were about reading and writing and saw their self-confidence grow a lot using that style of instruction.”

One unique thing about the model, said Ms. Steinman, is it is “naturally designed to be at every student’s individual level,” and the model is “naturally differentiated.” She explained that students are exposed to the same skill and the same strategies during a mini-lesson with the instructor, and then they practice the skill and strategies while independently reading a book that is “just right” for their reading level.

Youth also have protected time for writing, and have wide latitude to decide what to write on and build their confidence as writers.

While Y.O.U.’s workshops are patterned after Ms. Calkins’ model, they are not the same. “The way we are incorporating the model at Y.O.U. is different from the model used during the school day because we’re not focusing on whether all our students are growing at a certain rate during the year,” said Ms. Steinman. “The goal is not to advance in a reading level or a writing level.” While that may be a side-effect of the work, she said, “We are focusing heavily on building youths’ self-confidence as readers and writers, as well as developing their reading and writing habits” and creating interest and excitement in reading and writing.

Likewise, Mr. Green said, “This is not an effort in the immediate level to necessarily dramatically raise reading proficiency levels. The biggest indicator we’re focused on is kids saying they are excited about reading and writing because we know that excitement and familiarity and connection in writing is the long term predictor of achievement. 

“This is really Y.O.U. seeking to think about what’s our unique role in achieving Cradle to Career’s community literacy goal, and we really focused in on this model because we thought it built the academic, social, and emotional capabilities of our young people around an excitement and motivation for literacy,” Mr. Green added.

The Workshops

In Y.O.U.’s summer program, a reading workshop and a writing workshop were each offered one time each week during the nine-week program. The 30-minute workshops were provided at the beginning of the day at Dawes, Oakton, Walker, and Washington elementary schools.

Each class had between 10 and 15 youth, led by a Y.O.U. youth development specialist, and one or two support staff who were either college students or recent college graduates. All teachers were provided training.

The curriculum for the reading workshop was prepared by Ms. Steinman, said Megan Orleans, Director of Y.O.U.’s Elementary Out-of-School-Time Programs, and it focused on one overall theme: “characterization.” An essential question posed for the youth was, “What does geƫting to know characters teach me about who I am and how I relate to others?”

One of seven lessons focused on “inner traits – what are our characters showing on the outside versus how might you think they’re feeling on the inside,” said Ms. Orleans. The teachers led a short class discussion using readings from a model text.

After the mini-lesson, youth could independently read a book that they selected and practiced what they learned in the mini-lesson. Students, with the aid of staff, selected a book at the “just right” reading level. If a youth chose a book that was too easy or too challenging or not interesting, they were encouraged to select another, said Ms. Steinman.

Each site had 200 books available for different ages and reading levels.  The books were selected so that the youth could find themselves in the books, and also provide a lesson on social and emotional learning. 

Ms. Orleans said the reading workshops increased youth’s interest and self-confidence in reading, but also tied into Y.O.U.’s mission to improve social and emotional learning.

For example, Ms. Steinman said the mini-lessons engaged youth in “analyzing what characters are going through” and focused on having students put themselves “in another character’s shoes.” By doing this, students “get a chance to think deeply about empathy … and about ways an experience may have uprooted a character’s life and the choices that they’ve made. Empathy is really a strong conversation topic when we’re talking about character development.”

The essential question for the writing workshops was, “What does it mean to be a writer?” The overall theme was for youth to get to know themselves as writers as they learn from the authors of the books they were reading.

“With writing what we tried to do is to build up the idea of creative writing and to build up a free space for youth to, again, practice a tangible writing skill through a variety of different strategies,” said Ms. Orleans. “They were free to write on any topic that was interesting to them, whether it was fiction or non-fiction, based on an event that just happened or a dream that night. We gave them the space and autonomy to create those different writing scenarios.”

The idea is to make writing “fun and exciting,” added Ms. Orleans. “We’re not looking at grammar, not looking at spelling, what we’re doing is just looking at the creative process and how exciting that can be within the strategy of a story plot that has a beginning, middle and end.”

 “Kids love to talk about themselves,” said Ms. Steinman. “Writing is an amazing outlet for them to tell stories about their lives or to be really creative and inventive and they got a lot of opportunities to share their stories with other youth and that incentivized them to write more, and to try different writing styles that they heard from their friends or during the mini-lesson.”

 “One student described the last moments with a loved one, which was extremely powerful,” said Mr. Green. “She was gaining skills to be able to better express herself in a way meaningful to her.

“This is what I would say is the core social and emotional development. The idea of being able to tell stories and express yourself and be empathetic to others.”

When asked if the program could have an impact in one hour a week over nine weeks, Ms. Steinman said “it’s not enough time for them to show strong gains academically, but we’re hoping we’re providing them skills and strategies for them to improve their writing habits. We are hoping that it’s enough time to build confidence and interest and excitement in reading and that it will transfer over to all other areas of their life, definitely in the classroom and at home.”

Testing and Measuring Success

Mr. Green said Y.O.U. decided not to conduct pre- and post-tests to measure gains in reading skills during the summer because the reading and writing workshops were not designed to produce gains in reading levels, but to build confidence, interest and excitement in reading and writing.

He said, “Our feeling is that if we measure something that is different from what we’re designing the program to achieve, we run the risk of having the metrics drive the strategy, rather than the strategy drive the metric.”

Measured by generating excitement in reading and writing, the program gets high marks. “They loved it, especially the writing portion,” said Ms. Orleans. “They were so excited to share their writing notebooks and to talk with us about the stories they were writing. … The engagement was off the charts. It was really awesome to see.”

Ms. Steinman said, “Our youth were very engaged in the reading and writing workshops over the summer, so much so that during the free-choice time, they would ask if they could write in their writing notebooks or choose a book to read.” 

Amas Carr, the father of a rising fourth-grader in the program, said that his son was very excited about reading and has started to read more and to read different types of novels and that his son’s writing has improved. “We’re very satisfied with the program,” Mr. Carr said.

Mr. Green said several questions on a general survey administered after the summer program indicate that the reading and writing workshops built students’ interest and confidence. In the survey, 93% of students reported they had greater confidence in their skills, 85% reported additional interests and hobbies, and 80% reported seeing new connections between their interests and what they learn at school.

Going Forward

Y.O.U. plans to provide the reading and writing workshops in its afterschool program in three cycles this school year: fall, winter, and spring. As in the summer, a reading workshop and a writing workshop will each be offered for 30 minutes one time a week.

Ms. Steinman is developing the curriculum. The theme for each cycle has not yet been decided, but she said the themes “are all going to be very much rooted in social and emotional learning. That’s a really big focus of our program over all.”

The writing workshops may include graphic novels, based on interest expressed by students.

 “We’ve been very thoughtful as an agency and we’ve had a lot of discussions about how do we embrace community literacy while not making it just about grade level achievement,” Mr. Green said. “I think we came out in a place that really honors the core of what we do. It strengthens the community fabric for literacy, and ultimately sets our kids up to succeed better in school and life.

“We’re in the very early stages, and we have more data to gather to learn from, but we’re very happy with the infancy that we’re currently at.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...