Author | Speaker | Teacher

Attending Prime Time Family Literacy Sessions

Prime Time Literacy ProgramA small boy waves his hand excitedly in the air—the first time he’s volunteered an answer in five weeks.

“I think this story is about friendship and how friends are people who pay attention to you and sit with you at lunch and give you chocolate chip cookies,” he announces, a big grin on his face. His listeners clap, his grin widens.

At the end of this Prime Time Family Literacy session in Garden City, the boy’s mother smiles proudly at her son, and confides, “Jacob’s teacher told me that he could read words, but he didn’t understand what he was reading. Now I understand that I have to do what you do—read with him, ask him about what he just read, and then ask him what he thinks about the story. Is that right?”

It is!

Louisiana’s Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) launched the Prime Time Family Literacy program for low-income families in 1991, when Louisiana ranked 50th in the U.S. for literacy. PT promotes long-term improvements in family engagement and students’ academics, but along the way, much more happens. Busy families come together for fun and a free meal, relaxing and intellectually stimulating conversation, and an introduction to library services.

Louisiana has tracked PT results through the years, and they’re impressive: most participating students improve their standardized test scores as much as 81% (high school) to 96% (elementary) and 100% (middle school), while 85 percent of the parents report improved family interactions at the end of the six-week sessions.

Forty other states have been impressed enough to adopt the PT program; the LEH offers training in New Orleans in January and July. This year, the Michigan Humanities Council will fund two dozen programs.

After dinner (donated by community organizations) and a short message about the library, the Reader models ways to read aloud effectively and the Scholar leads discussions about the book’s themes, vocabulary, character development, setting, story, and art. There are no wrong answers. The night ends with door prizes and three new books.

I’ve served as Scholar in rural and urban libraries, from Luna Pier to Hartland and Ypsilanti to Harper Woods—a treat for a children’s writer who loves talking about books—and I’ve seen miracles take place over six weeks:

*A second grader volunteers to read to her illiterate 86-year-old great-grandmother, who is raising the child.

*A busy mother at first answers all questions for her husband and four children, but by the end of the second session, she sits back and listens to their opinions.

*Parents talk to their children about their dreams (Fanny’s Dream), siblings (My Rotten Red-headed Older Brother), peer pressure (The Orange Spot), role models (Tomas and the Library Lady), and bravery (Brave Irene).

*A teary-eyed mother, whose abusive ex-husband had been sentenced to jail that day, whispers, “Thank you. This is the best night I’ve had in a very long time.”

*Sixty eager parents and children crowd into Ypsilanti’s downtown meeting room each PT night; they represent six African nations, five religions, and speak a combined 11 languages.

*Parents and children continue talking to teach other about a book long past PT’s official end.

And the list goes on and on…