Different kinds of literacy: Teen moms learn skills through Athena program


Athena 2016 Cover

In everyday life, we talk about many different kinds of literacy. We sprinkle our language with terms like “emotional literacy” or “cultural literacy.” Educational innovators tout “digital literacy” as something that elementary schools must start teaching if students are to function in the 21st century. In short, these uses of “literacy” seem to reflect a definition of the term that is more than just reading and writing.

But what do these new notions of literacy even have in common with traditional notions of literacy?

Both new and traditional forms of literacy are skills of processing information to discern its meaning – whether it comes on a page, a web browser, or the smile on someone’s face. We then use that information to get to the website we want or to react appropriately to someone’s facial expression, for example. The different uses of the word “literacy” reflect the different formats in which the information comes, but they share a focus on being able to decode that information and use it to achieve some goal.

At Reader to Reader, our annual family literacy program for teen moms – the Athena Interactive Literacy Program – serves young women from Holyoke working on their high school equivalency certificate at a creative local educational resource called The Care Center. Now in its seventh year, Athena convenes every June for a five-day program of literacy in all its many varieties. Nearly one hundred young mothers have been part of the on-site program, and dozens more have been served by an outreach component in Springfield’s Central High School.

At the Athena program, the moms leave their children in care provide by The Care Center and travel to Reader to Reader to engage not only in traditional literacy activities – such as making handmade board books that they can use to engage with their children – but also in nutritional and financial literacy activities. A professional chef introduces them to some of the basics for how to cook healthy, inexpensive food, and a representative of Florence Bank leads a workshop on understanding credit, financial planning, and budgeting.

The first part of the program focuses on personal and family literacy. The moms work with our teacher in a poetry workshop, then write their own poems expressing their own voices – their fears, desires, and dreams for their little ones – which they record as spoken word performances at a recording studio. As their children’s very first teachers, these moms also work on family literacy skills – writing and illustrating personalized board books for their kids, meeting master storyteller Norton Juster for a demonstration of engaging out-loud reading, and choosing free, age-appropriate books to build an at-home library. By the end of the week, they have gained nutritional and financial literacy skills, an at-home read-aloud library, and confidence in their goals for themselves and their child.

The next two posts will share a bit about our experiences including nutritional and financial literacy in the Athena program. Not only are these skills important unto themselves, but they are also vital to promoting traditional, reading and writing-centered literacy within each home.

Dennis Quinn is a 2016 Mass Literacy Champion and is the Director of Mentoring Programs at Reader to Reader in Amherst, Massachusetts.