Potato Chip Assisted Learning: The Quest to Return Literature to Teens
Maya Gaul founded the Roxbury YMCA Teen Literacy Program: The Teen Book Club in 2007. She is a Patricia Watson Intern at Peacework.
Multitudes of brightly colored sneakers squelched down the damp, chlorine-scented hallway one Wednesday evening at the YMCA in Roxbury, MA. This was one of the many weekly meetings of the Teen Literacy Program.
Carrying bags of chips, packets of readings, paper and pens, six teens sat down, read out loud, and discussed various lesser-known poets, using questions as a guide to the conversation. The questions are a tool I bring in to help participants engage with the material -- but more importantly, this is a type of potato chip assisted learning that greatly differs from the traditional classroom. Our lessons draw in people with different ages and experiences in different schools, and each individual's real-life, candid stories are valued. Literature provides a vehicle for expression and discussion, and each story we read and decode hands us a different tool to express and discuss troubles within our schools, neighborhoods, and homes. The pressures of test results are not present, creating an atmosphere free of pressure and robust with the freelance responsibility of using real life experiences to learn.
Of course there are many gripes during the discussion about "why do we have to spend our time reading more?" One young man consistently tried to avoid coming to the Book Club, but he also consistently appointed himself the dictionary guardian, and insisted on looking up all the words we were not familiar with. A strength of our group is the positive feeling that we always take the time to learn from each other by explaining concepts to each other if someone is asking questions. This type of learning needs to begin with a relationship that is established with respect, because it is easy to alienate or demean each other. This is the delicate balance in peer learning. Eventually most negative attitudes melt away as the participants are able to voice their opinions and fully experience their own curiosity and drive to learn.
The ability to think and write in our society are not truly accessible to many. When literature is negated from a community, young people lose an important means of creating and carrying their own tools of success, and imagining their own future. Our literacy program is trying to reinstate teens as agents of their own education and contributors to their communities.
After the meeting, the various multihued sneakers squelched off
down the halls to different cars, back to the basketball court,
or to hang out in the teen center. The Roxbury YMCA's Teen
Literacy Program has had many bumps along the way and is not exactly
what it was planned to be, but all of those factors have made
it a better program. It is not a glamorous program with all the
resources it needs. But it is a program that is necessary for
my community because of the small but pivotal resource that it
provides: knowledge. The program has battled through low funding,
unenthusiastic members and challenges of faith. Along the way
there have been nights of singlehandedly creating 30 poetry and
short story packets until two in the morning. But the program's
resilience allows it to more closely fit its audience and community,
and with each refitting, it provides our communities with a better
means for self-taught knowledge. We want our communities to be
filled with wisdom and the ability to grow. Supplying each generation
with literature will give them a necessary means to keep our society
improving over time.