Lulu Delacre at the book club. Photo by Ariel Martino.

Students need to experience reading as a pleasure and not just as a chore.  One DC program aims to nurture a love of reading in a critical population: DC students who are also parents.

Twice a month, a group of high school students at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), a DCPS school serving 6th through 12th grades, gathers over lunch to read and discuss books. The students, young women between the ages of 15 and 18, are also mothers, with children ranging from infants to two-year-olds.

Some of the young women can read aloud comfortably for several pages, while others stumble over unfamiliar words.  English is a second language for most, but their differences in fluency are more apparent when they read than when they speak.  However, in the supportive environment of the Student Parent Book Club, there are no groans or titters when someone reads slowly or imperfectly.

The book club is a collaboration between PEN/Faulkner, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literature; DCPS; and New Heights, a program that provides services to expectant and parenting students at 13 DCPS and 2 District charter schools.

New Heights offers many workshops for its students, whose children benefit from on-site child care during the school day. And it sponsors book clubs at CHEC and 3 other schools: Anacostia, Ballou, and Cardozo.

As a volunteer for PEN/Faulkner, I have been helping to lead the book club at CHEC since October, along with PEN/Faulkner’s energetic Programs Coordinator Ariel Martino, who brings Subway sandwiches and books to each meeting. CHEC’s New Heights Program Coordinator, Lucy Trejo, works with the students on a daily basis and joins us for the sessions.

Students need to develop own potential

What makes the book club successful is that it focuses primarily on the parents as readers and secondarily on how they can impact their children as future readers.  In order to nurture their children’s potential, they first need to develop their own. So the reading includes children’s literature, but we devote more time to books that will engage the students themselves.

Reading levels and proficiency on standardized tests don’t matter in our book club.  Ariel and I sometimes pause to ask questions to make sure everyone understands the story or to explain something confusing, but everyone knows there will be no quizzes or essay assignments on the material.  The lunch time context also helps to set an informal tone.

The book clubs are part of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program, which connects DC-area authors with public school students.  Our book club has had visits from authors of two books so far this year and we expect to have two additional author visits in the spring.

One of the books was Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a short story collection by Danielle Evans.  We devoted 4 sessions to the book prior to the author’s visit.  The first story we read was “Virgins,” about a 15-year-old African-American girl losing her virginity.  It was obvious that these young moms could relate to the story of a girl’s rationalizing that sex, “if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”

After reading 3 stories from the collection, we were all excited about meeting the author.  Evans read aloud a portion of one of her other stories and answered questions about how she became a writer and how she goes about creating her stories.

Our next visit was from bilingual children’s author Lulu Delacre, who read aloud from and passed out copies of her latest picture book, How Far Do You Love Me?  Delacre suggested ways that the young moms could interact with their children by asking questions about the pictures and introducing new vocabulary in both English and Spanish.

Extend the idea to other parents?

My experience with the Student Parent Book Club has made me think about how little support and encouragement most new parents get in our society.  I worry in particular about those who do not graduate from high school and go on to become parents, or who drop out after having children.

Many DC schools have social workers who help parents access social services and adult education programs, but it would be valuable to expand the concept of parent book clubs to benefit parents no longer enrolled in school.  As DC schools struggle to improve literacy rates among low-income students, they should do anything they can to promote a love of reading among parents.

The promise of free books, free food, and free child care might not be enough to appeal to all parents.  But for those curious enough to show up, it could make a genuine difference for them and for their children.

Kelly Hand is the administrator for Machar, a humanistic Jewish congregation. She has taught ESL and family literacy classes for parents as well as college-level English composition and literature courses, and has worked for various educational organizations.  The author of a novel, Au Pair Report, she blogs about reading, writing, and parenting in Washington, DC.