Imagination, Idealism, and Compassion: Lawrence Family Literacy Nights

May 14th, 2014 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Issue, Spring 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 9.07.01 AMHere’s what happened when Lou Bernieri and a core group of about twenty Lawrence Bread Loaf teachers expanded their work with English / Language Arts teachers to include students and community organizations:  In a city with a population of about 73,000,  the Andover Bread Loaf / Lawrence BLTN partnership is now reaching about 6,000 public school students annually. Family Literacy Nights are bringing families into their children’s literacy education.  This unique organization has implications for inclusive, effective urban education at all levels.  

-by Lou Bernieri
Director of Andover Bread Loaf, Lawrence, MA
M.A. 1980

At 6:00 p.m. on a cold and windy November night, over 300 grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters gathered in the cafeteria of the Robert Frost Middle School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They sat at tables, wrote poetry in Spanish and English, and shared their writings. Writing time ended, and Open Mic began. The kindergarten sibling of a sixth grader jumped up and down, eager to come to the mic to share the poem dictated to her mother. “I dream of being a mermaid. I dream of living in a house of red jello. I dream of being with my abuela forever.”  The little girl would be the first of more than 50 people reading their work at the Open Mic that evening.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the Bread Loaf Teacher Network in Lawrence collaborated with Lawrence Public School teachers, administrators, and staff to offer Family Literacy Nights (FLNs). The events featured families writing together with the option to share their work with a larger audience. The literacy nights focused on a grade level or levels in K-12 with whole families invited to attend. By March 12, we had hosted eleven Family Literacy Nights at seven schools with almost 2000 participants. We plan to offer FLNs at six more schools this year and expect to reach almost 3000 participants by June. The popularity of FLNs in the schools prompted us to offer them in community organizations. Our first one in January was at the YMCA. We plan to offer another at the Y this spring and others at the Boys and Girls Club and Movement City, an arts-based youth organization.

The joy and satisfaction families feel as they write and share their work characterize FLNs. Teachers, staff and administrators feel that same joy and satisfaction. We have witnessed teachers choking up as they watch their students furiously write and then step up to the mic to proudly share their writing with the audience.

Parents and grandparents tend to be more hesitant than the children to read their work aloud, but all of the parents and grandparents write. They have become more willing to share when we have returned to a school for a second FLN. At the last FLN we hosted, forty students, eight parents, and one grandmother read. Two of the parents and the grandmother read in Spanish.

Imagination, idealism, and compassion intrinsic to immigrant communities such as Lawrence characterize the writing the students and their families produce. A third grader writes, “I dream of a world where no one goes hungry.” A sixth grader says, “I hope to go to college and learn how to help my community.” A grandmother writes, “I wish my grandchildren to live a happy and healthy life.” Funny sentiments balance the serious ones. A fifth grader writes, “I want to live in a world of ice cream and candy.” A second grader says, “My favorite time of day is recess.” A third grader states, “My hero is Spongebob Squarepants.”

The main purpose of FLNs is to inspire youth and adults to love to write and to share their writing with others. The long term goal is to bring families into the center of their child’s education, so that they know how to support their children with their schoolwork and also understand  the most effective educational methods and pedagogies. BLTN has been working for almost 30 years in the gateway city of Lawrence. As in other economically-depressed communities in which we work, we have endured a merry-go-round of principals and superintendents and are currently in the middle of a state takeover of the educational system. Education in the city has improved over the last few years, but until the Lawrence community is deeply involved in the teaching and learning in their schools, no authentic, sustainable progress will be made.

The popularity of FLNs spurred the district to document the evenings using its own videographer, who insisted the video include a number of shots of the children reading their work at the mic. The videographer believed the longer video would give the viewer a sense of the participants’ eagerness to share and the quality of the writing. Following are links to videos of three recent FLNs, now hosted on the Lawrence Public Schools website. Below the clips, you’ll find a guide to hosting your own Family Literacy Night, based on lessons we’ve learned at Andover Bread Loaf and Lawrence.

Use the comments section below to share your experiences and ideas for family literacy events. 

Literacy Night at South Lawrence East Elementary

Other Family Litearcy Night Videos Online:

A Guide to Family Literacy Nights
Family Literacy Nightss last from 90 minutes to two hours. They are neither difficult nor expensive, but they do require careful planning.

  • Advertise before the event. Teachers and administrators can get students excited, who, in turn, will get parents excited.
  • Plan a modest meal for the beginning of the evening, and if possible, have a simple raffle at the end with items such as books, pizzas, writing journals, etc.
  • Be sensitive to bilingual communities and include both languages.
  • Have older students and/or teachers to assist young children with writing.
  • Have an emcee.
  • Go over the Bread Loaf writing rules.
    • Have fun!
    • Write in any language!
    • You can’t make a mistake! We don’t care about grammar or spelling. Just get your thoughts on the page.
    • Be kind! Don’t write anything that might offend.
    • Your writing is your own! You don’t have to share.
  • Have a high school or college student kick off the evening by reading a poem or rapping.
  • Keep the prompts short and simple.
    • Hand out a template, especially for younger children.
    • Make prompts versatile to reach the Spanish speaking grandmother, the preschool child, or a high school student (“I wish . . . “I hope .. . “If I ruled the world . . . “My favorite time of day . . . , etc.).
  • Have people write for approximately ten minutes per prompt.
  • Share!
    • You MUST have a microphone available no matter the size of the crowd to ensure that everyone’s words can be heard. A remote mic is preferable. More parents will read if they don’t have to stand in line at the front of the room.
    • Have each reader select one or two lines to read if you have too many readers.
    • Applaud each reader!





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