Storytelling program mixes art to bridge literacy gap among local at-risk youth

Arts and literacy educator Bess Perry Garcia reads ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to middle-school students inside Legion Park's after-school classroom.
Arts and literacy educator Bess Perry Garcia reads ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to middle-school students inside Legion Park's after-school classroom. For the Miami Herald

Arts and literacy educator Bess Perry Garcia sets up paint kits, cups of water, sheets of paper and new books on desks inside a classroom in Legion Park’s community center, along Biscayne Bay in Miami’s Upper East Side district. Seconds after the final desk is set up, a schoolbus arrives with 20 kindergarten and first-grade students from Morningside Elementary. Their piercing and unwavering excitement from being released from school paired with seeing art supplies and new books lined up on desks leads Ms. Bess, as they refer to her, to ask: “Did you guys all eat lots of chocolate before you came here today?”

They’ve come, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, to attend StoryArts, a weekly class that blends storytelling with creative thinking and art to boost literacy among early readers. It’s held at different community centers in three city of Miami parks: Little Haiti Park, Legion Memorial Park and Charles Hadley Park. One of four Generation Genius programs being offered through The Center for Writing and Literature at Miami-Dade College, the aim is to foster literacy while decreasing the literacy achievement gap among Miami’s at-risk youth.

Ms. Bess and the students take turns reading aloud from the much loved picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak in the early 1960s, which shows the adventures of a boy who imagines he’s king of the “wild things.” Some of the students pass their turn, unsure of how to pronounce the words, while others, with hands darting up, are eager to show their classmates and Ms. Bess that they can read.

“Sound it out,” she reminds them when they get stuck with words.

After the last page is turned, the kids create artwork inspired by the story with pencils and paintbrushes. Ms. Bess tells them to imagine three different animals and to combine the features of those animals to create their own “wild thing.”

Seven-year-old Naiyah Bethel makes a tiger-panda-tick while Kaih Zaney, also 7, chooses a crocodile, stinkbug and a parrot and makes her creature come to life on paper.

“The kids get so much out of it,” Perry Garcia says of the StoryArts program, which partners with Miami’s parks department to bring the ancient art of storytelling to after-school and community centers. “From literacy, to critical thinking and language skills, and self confidence, I see a huge difference in the kids who have been attending this program consistently.”

The after-school students get to keep the brand-new books that they’ve read in class, to help them build their personal libraries at home. Jack and the Beanstalk, Crazy Hair Day, and Rapunzel were some of the previous books featured in the outreach program.

Among The Center for Writing and Literature’s other programs aimed to improve literacy among at-risk youth are children’s book author readings, held at the three park’s community centers, and “Read to Learn/Books for Free,” where kids from all over Miami-Dade can take home free books.

Bookshelves set up in 40 locations in Miami-Dade County from Miami Gardens to Homestead are stocked with new or gently used childrens’ books that have been donated by people or purchased on the center’s online discount-bookstore. This program, which encourages kids to read by letting them choose their own books, is in collaboration with The Children’s Trust and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Accelerate Literacy program.

In the past two years, 190,000 books have been given out via the Books for Free program.

“The goal is to get kids to have more books,” says Lissette Mendez, programs director of Miami Book Fair International and The Center for Writing and Literature at Miami Dade College, which hosts the fair. “The more access kids have to books, the more they’ll read.”

She credits the program’s success to community partners, people and local and national businesses and organizations that have hosted book drives, made financial donations, and donated books or purchased them via the center’s online bookstore.

“One of the big issues is kids not learning how to read on time” she says. “The more they read, the more they’ll be able to learn and comprehend as they move forward in their learning.” She foresees long-term rewards for those who make an effort to read to learn: “We want kids to be able to graduate from high school and move on to have good jobs.”

“Read to Learn/Books for Free” is modeled off a program that started in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the goal being to get as many books as possible into the community, especially in areas where people have less resources to purchase books.

Mendez relies on information from Dade County Public School’s Education Transformation Office to identify different hot-spot areas in the city where there’s a strong need for educational resources.

“Poor families, poor kids,” she adds, “they have almost no books because their resources are going to maintaining food and shelter.”

The bookshelves are placed in locations where large numbers of families with small children often visit like public health clinics, the Juvenile Justice Center, the Children’s Courthouse, Books & Books in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour Shops and at various community centers in city parks.

Mendez and her small team makes sure the shelves are stocked with a constant supply of books so that every child can take a book home with them. While the shelves feature books for kids of all ages, one of the main age groups the team is focusing on are 8-year-olds, with good reason.

“Right before this program got started, some of the findings that the Children’s Trust discovered is that a lot of kids were not learning to read at grade-level by the age of eight,” says Mendez. “Around that age and in the third grade is when a shift in learning happens where kids were not just learning to read but were reading so that they could learn subject matters.”

Juan Perez, Miami-Dade Police’s deputy director, says there’s a parallel between low literacy and crime rates. “If children don’t learn how to read at an early age, they’re at a huge disadvantage” he says.

According to U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Literacy, 14% of adults in the U.S. can’t read while a whopping 63% of prison inmates in the U.S. are illiterate.

Bins to collect gently used or new children’s books are placed in nearly 30 locations throughout the county, including Coral Gables and Pinecrest branch libraries and, as of recently, Miami-Dade County’s police stations, including headquarters.

“Every time we make something it looks good,” says 6-year-old Kevin Simon about why he likes art. As for stories, he says his favorite books are ones that have a lot of pictures. “You can know what the words are if the books have pictures,” he asserts while holding on to his Where the Wild Things Are book.

Eight-year-old Oliver Allen’s “wild thing” is a force to be reckoned with: an octopus-cheetah-elephant-porcupine-gorilla. He points to the myriad colors that he painted on one area of the paper – “Octopuses can change color,” he says, before adding that he chose some of the fiercest animals for his five-being creation. “Combined,” he says, “whoa – no army can beat that.”

For more information

Do you have children's books at home you're no longer using? Donate them to the Read to Learn Books for Free program, which puts them in the hands of children in need.

Other ways to help: Organize a book drive, adopt a bookshelf or volunteer to sort and stack books.

Visit The Center for Writing and Literature's website for more information and to view a list of drop-off and pick-up locations for ‘Read to Learn/Books for Free’ program.

For more information call or email 305-237-7418 or