Reading Unites Homeless Families to Learn Together

           While many people spent Wednesday nights last summer watching a sandlot baseball game, attending a pops concert in the park, or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park, homeless parents and their children experienced the fun of reading and dramatizing books through a program called The Reading Company.

            The Cleveland Municipal School District Project ACT (Action for Children and Youth in Transition) and The Cleveland Playhouse began a new literacy program from homeless parents and children in June. Their collaboration resulted in The Reading Company, a project to get children and parents reading together by creating a family activity that dramatized selected stories from the school district’s Summer Literary Academy. A different book was enacted each week on Wednesday evenings in the Studio One Theater at The Cleveland Playhouse. The evening performances allowed parents who work or attend school to participate.

            The presentations included enactment of Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott, Abiyoyo by Peter Seeger, Crow Boy by Taro Yashima, and Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood.

            “We used African tales like Abiyoyo and Crow Boy, the story of an Asian child who is isolated by his differences from the other children in his school,” said Marcia Zashin, coordinator of Project ACT. “We tried to select books that represented the diversity of the population of families that Project ACT serves and to present a multicultural experience for children and families.”

            Each week, more than 100 people participated. Most of the children were in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Reading Company is funded by the Cleveland Municipal School District, Division of Compensatory Education.

            The Cleveland Playhouse has been a partner with Project ACT on several other projects since Project ACT’s inception in 1993. Funded by the Ohio Department of Education, Project ACT provides tutoring, educational enrichment, and support services to homeless children and youth in temporary emergency shelters. The two organizations collaborated on a play about homeless children called Shelter, and produced the award-winning video, Even You, based on the play which documents that homelessness can happen to anyone. The video states that on any given night as many as one million children in this country are homeless. William Hoffman, education director of The Cleveland Playhouse, wrote and directed both the play and the video.

            “We wanted to encourage children to read and to make parents realize how important it is for them to read with their children. Parental involvement is the key to education if children are to be successful in school,” said Zashin.

            The cast of The Reading Company was comprised of students from The Cleveland Municipal School District. Under Hoffman’s direction, the cast acted out the parts in each book first, and then parents and students from the audience were invited onstage to dramatize the books. The cast members were Christal Christian, Thomas Davis, Herbert L. Hostetter Jr., and Shane Marshall.

            “I liked the high spirit of the young actors,” said Cheryl, one of the mothers who participated in The Reading Company dramatizations. “They really helped the children get involved in the storytelling.”

            Prior to the performance, Hoffman asked children in the audience to come up front and make a big circle, stretch, bounce, and to move their shoulders up and down to limber up.

            “The students stretched their minds and bodies, and were introduced to new books,” said Hoffman. “The joy expressed by the audience, and the knowledge that we were imparting the idea that reading can be fun, made this a pleasurable experience for me too.”

            The Reading Company offered an evening out of the shelter for the parents and children. Following the performance, the children asked the actors questions, like how old they were when they started acting, what it is like to be on stage, and what was the actor’s most difficult part.

            “When we get back to the shelter, my kids keep asking me to read the book to them. They want me to read it over and over again,” said Bobbie, another mother.

            Zashin believes The Reading Company provides an opportunity for homeless children to interact and emphasizes that it is important for them to feel comfortable in cultural settings such as The Cleveland Playhouse.

            “People need to understand that children are not homeless because they have done anything wrong,” Zashin said. “They are in a very difficult circumstance.”

            She noted that parents must be role modes and reinforce their children’s reading. When children see parents reading they will want to read themselves. Project ACT makes sure that the shelters have libraries so children have access to books. Teachers from the Cleveland Municipal School District, who work with Project ACT during the summer and in an after school tutoring and educational enrichment program, also try to reinforce the importance of reading.

            At the conclusion of the evening, the audience was served refreshments and each child left with the book featured during the evening. Throughout the summer, about 500 of the books were distributed to children. The program’s participants were encouraged to continue reading when they returned to the shelters.

            Community volunteers and teachers from the Cleveland Municipal School system helped make the evenings with The Reading Company a success. During the presentations, parents who needed to make telephone calls to check on the status of jobs and housing were able to use cell phones donated to Project ACT by Sprint PCS.

            Children and parents were enthusiastic about The Reading Company and returned week after week to participate. Many parents felt that their children’s interest in reading had increased as a result of the program.

            “This is a great treat for my children and me,” one mother said. “Other kids can attend these things because their parents can afford to take them to plays. My kid occasionally attended plays with their classmates but never with me. This is something we can do together.”

            Based on the success of the program, plans are underway to continue The Reading Company on a monthly basis during the school year.

            For more information about the Even You video or other issues about children, contact Marcia Zashin, coordinator, Project ACT, by phone at 216-574-8203 or by email at info@projectact.com .

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999