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Summer Program Blends Literacy Skills With Fun

It’s not yet 9 a.m. on a steamy morning in July, but the Reavis Elementary School gym in Bronzeville is alive with chanting and arm-waving worthy of a church revival.

After an uplifting song about standing up to racism, a normally shy boy with a wide smile leads a call-and-response cheer: “Rock the Freedom School!” the kids shout, jumping and throwing their fists in the air.

A Reavis student reads "Freedom Riders," the story of two young civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the South.

Eric Young Smith

The Freedom School is not your typical summer school program—and not just because each morning starts with a rousing kick-off called Harambee, a Swahili word meaning “let’s pull together.”

The students—50 of them middle school-aged and 30 of their younger siblings—are taking part in a six-week national summer literacy program supported by the Children’s Defense Fund and modeled after one created for African-American children in Civil Rights-era Mississippi. The program includes workshops for parents on supporting children's literacy at home.

Kids say they signed up for Freedom School because it’s fun, with two educational field trips each week and a choice of recreational programs in the afternoon, ranging from hip-hop dance, to basketball to bike repair. But even the reading and writing activities that fill the bulk of each morning are designed to capture their interest.

“The program is geared toward minority kids in low-income communities, so all the books are about kids like them who go through the same struggles,” said Reavis teacher Moniqueca Hicks, who coordinates the summer program as part of the school’s Elev8 initiative.

Writing assignments based on the reading are creative—for example, students may write letters in the voice of a character or pretend to act out a movie trailer based on the plot. The goal is to boost reading and writing skills with high-interest activities during the summer, when low-income students typically experience a decline in academic skills.

Jason Harper, a seventh-grader, said if he hadn’t signed up for the Freedom School this summer, he would be playing sports and video games, but definitely not reading. With his classmates, he read six books; his favorite was “Day of Tears,” a fictional account about the largest slave auction in American history.

Another student holds up "Freedom Riders," one of the summer's reading selections for middle-schools students.

Eric Young Smith

Nya Sanders, also a seventh-grader, named “The Skin I’m In,” by Sharon Flake, as her favorite. It’s a story of about an African-American girl who confronts bullying and has to learn to like herself. “She didn’t like herself the way she was—I could relate to it,” said Nya.

Freedom School classes are small, with 10 or fewer kids. Each is led by an instructor, typically a college student, who has undergone intensive training at a national site to lead the curriculum, which follows a prescribed schedule. Following individual reading time each morning, kids gather in a circle, first, to recount the plot. Summaries can be straightforward, but creativity is encouraged.

In Kenneth Varner’s group of sixth- to eighth-graders, one boy writes a poem expressing how he imagines one character felt during a dramatic scene from “La Linea,” the story of a brother and sister’s treacherous journey across the U.S.-Mexican border. Meanwhile, another boy draws a cartoon strip on the dry erase board illustrating their encounter with bandits.

Afterward, Varner asks questions designed to help kids put themselves in the place of the story’s characters and understand their motivations. Do they think the risks characters take to enter the United States are worth the reward? Under what circumstances would they be willing to make similar sacrifices?

Students are excited to participate in the daily morning gathering at Reavis' Freedom School.

Eric Young Smith

Discussions about the novels, which also deal with grief, self-esteem, substance abuse and other issues, can get “intense, in a good way,” said Nya.

Jataun Blakemore, also in seventh grade, said discussing “Tears of a Tiger,” by Sharon M. Draper, his personal favorite, gave students a chance to talk about what it’s like to lose friends or family members unexpectedly. “Stuff we’ve been through,” Jataun said.

While the Freedom School gets kids thinking about the problems they confront in their lives and in their community, it’s also an escape from them. With gang activity outdoors and not enough to do, many students would otherwise spend much of the summer inside at home, explained Jataun, now in his second summer with the program. “It’s a nice getaway,” he said.

Posted in Education, Quad Communities

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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