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Posts Tagged ‘reading

African-American series character is a role model for black girls her age

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by Lisa Gutierrez
Kansas City Star

In his mind, Derrick Barnes is already casting the film version of his new children’s books.

Will Smith’s daughter, Willow, currently appearing in “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” would play the lead, Ruby Marigold Booker. (But only if she can sing.)

“Hancock” himself could play Ruby’s father. And, of course, Jada Pinkett-Smith could play Ruby’s mother.

You have to forgive the Kansas City author for getting a little ahead of himself.

It’s just that he sees the faces of black mothers when he introduces Ruby to them, and he knows that this is a little girl many of them are eager to meet.

Ruby stars in the first two books of Barnes’ Ruby and the Booker Boys series: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby and Trivia Queen, 3rd Grade Supreme.

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Written by Symphony

July 9, 2008 at 8:55 am

Educator inspires students with vision of cap and gown

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by Dani McClain
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At 27, Deanna Singh is determined to change the dismal statistic that only 5% of African-American adults in Milwaukee have a four-year college degree.

So determined that she has launched her own charter school, where her inaugural sixth-grade students already identify their class by the year they will graduate from college.

She aims to build a culture that refuses to accept what she witnessed years ago as a volunteer in Washington, D.C., schools – 11th- and 12th-graders who could barely read or write.

Both students and staff at her Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, 2212 N. 12th St., follow the succinct dictum of a mural in the school’s stairwell: “No excuses!”

High expectations propelled Singh from her father’s north side gas station – where she spent much of the first five years of her life – through Elmbrook Schools and on to the top-notch East Coast universities where she received her college and law degrees.

That same passion has landed her a block away from her father’s Shell station, in a former YMCA building that houses the school, which Singh started planning after completing a fellowship in 2005 with the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools.

On an evening in February, Singh was six months into her new gig as school administrator and surrounded by sixth-graders in the school’s gym. As part of an interactive program called the living history museum, students were dressed as prominent African-Americans throughout history: Maya Angelou, Arthur Ashe, members of the Black Panther Party, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both of 1968 Olympics fame. They stayed in character, speaking as the figures might have, as family members walked around and snapped photographs.

“Too many times, black history programs are something you do to the kids,” Singh said between chatting with parents and helping students through costume crises. “We wanted to do something they could actually live.”

In her role as the museum’s curator, 12-year-old Cheyenne Chin-Mook wore Singh’s blazer to dress up her school uniform – the maroon polo shirt, black pants and black shoes all students must wear.

Jeannie Berry-Matos, Cheyenne’s grandmother, said the school is giving the girl firm academic footing and credits Singh’s vision.

“She’s clearly thinking about higher education,” Berry-Matos said of Singh. “We have to provide our children an opportunity to be transformed.”

Milwaukee Renaissance Academy’s student body is 98% African-American and 2% Asian, and Singh’s own background in thoroughly multicultural.

She learned Spanish from the Dominican and Puerto Rican families she worked with as a tutor and mentor in the Bronx neighborhoods surrounding Fordham University, where she earned a degree in urban studies.

Her senior thesis was titled “African-American Men: Raising Men, Not Prisoners,” and she wrote it while juggling jobs at a community court and Red Bull (yes, the beverage company) with the presidency of the Black Student Union.

Singh’s father immigrated to Milwaukee from India in 1978 and met her mother, who is African-American, soon after.

Bachan Singh first worked a gas station on N. 17th St. and W. North Ave., and eventually saved enough money to buy the Shell station he still runs near his daughter’s school.

“I was doing her baby-sitting and running the gas station,” he said. “When she was 6, 7, 8 years old, she would see people there in pretty bad shape. Nobody was being responsible for some of these kids. She felt like a lucky kid.”

The elder Singh said he and his wife instilled in Deanna and her two younger sisters the belief that no calling was as high as public service. A career as an attorney seemed to Deanna a good way to serve, so she got a law degree from Georgetown University and spent her years in D.C. teaching a street law and civics class to area high school students.

A job offer from the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin brought her home, but after about a year as a public defender, she began to have doubts.

One case, involving a police officer suspected of using inappropriate force against a child, raised the question that eventually changed Singh’s life.

“My role as a public defender is to get to the bottom of it,” she remembers. “But in my heart I’m thinking, ‘Why do I have a 12-year-old in a detention center with a sling on his arm? Why am I not sitting across this table in a mentoring role?’ ”

After finding a way to fast-track the transition to charter school administrator, she made the leap. A fellowship at the nonprofit Building Excellent Schools taught her the nuts and bolts: how to write a charter application, how to build a board, how to implement curriculum that had worked at charter schools around the country.

In the shift from theory to practice, Singh hit some snags.

Finding the right building took longer than expected, she said. She finally got it just two months before school was scheduled to start, and Singh and her team spent July and August of last year on deep-clean duty.

Just over 100 students had applied and been accepted, but only 50 showed up on the first day of school. That meant state dollars that follow Milwaukee students hadn’t made it into the budget as Singh had anticipated.

Her commitment to having a school that will put students on the college path means a longer school day, and classes such as gym and art are essential, Singh said. So rather than cut into the academic program, she went into fund-raising overdrive.

Bamidele Ali, the school’s board chairman, said his confidence in Singh’s ability to direct the business side trumped any concerns about her lack of formal training as an educator.

“There are certain skill sets that come along with the training of becoming a lawyer that I knew would be needed,” said Ali, a local entrepreneur.

Singh’s lead administrative partner is Annemarie Ketterhagen, a Teach for America alumna with extensive classroom experience in New York City schools.

The two connected through Milwaukee College Preparatory School, where Singh worked as an apprentice to Principal Robb Rauh. Ketterhagen’s mother is a special education teacher at Rauh’s north side K-8 charter school, where last school year, 81% of fourth-graders were proficient or advanced on the state reading test and 71% hit the mark on the math test. Today, Rauh’s and Singh’s schools are among 11 with charters granted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Using the kind of forward-looking language one hears around Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, Rauh refers to students in his 4-year-old kindergarten as “the Class of 2021.”

He said Singh has the drive to get her students to the gates of some of the most competitive colleges in the country, but that her task can be more difficult than his given her determination to build a middle and high school that accepts only incoming sixth-graders.

“When you start with sixth-graders, the challenges are a lot bigger and a lot more difficult to overcome,” he said.

Linda Brown, the founder of Building Excellent Schools, agrees. She calls Singh “a rock star” and an ideal person to take on those challenges, which she said are rooted in behaviors that for some low-income children have become ingrained by the time they’re preteens.

Brown said her organization teaches people how to create schools that give students discipline and a reverence for education, regardless of what they might encounter in their off-campus hours.

“Whatever you have on the street, you leave all of that on the outside,” Brown said, explaining the philosophy she passed along to Singh. “You cross the threshold and are a Milwaukee Renaissance scholar. We can’t fix your mother’s life and we can’t get your father out of jail, but we can teach you how to hold the key to your future.”

Club’s name is its goal for 110 years

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by Desiree Cooper
Detroit Free Press

I still remember the rainy days and winter nights I used to spend as a teen, cuddled up with a book. Some of those characters became my friends, my advisers, my confidantes.

If I could live that again with my daughter, I thought, we’d always have some common ground to begin a conversation. So when she started high school, I vowed to read every book she had to read for her literature classes.

I haven’t always kept up with her assigned reading, but we have now developed the habit of trading books. I hope we’ll do that for years to come. It’s a way of sharing a love for learning, a love for literature and, at its core, our love for each other.

In Detroit, there’s a group of African-American women — friends, mothers and daughters — who have been doing something similar for more than a century.

This month, the Detroit Study Club celebrates its 110th birthday.

‘They weren’t domestics’

It started back in 1898. Gabrielle Lewis Pelham invited five of her female friends to her Detroit home to discuss the poetry of Robert Browning. Such circles were fashionable in those days, and Pelham, the wife of an attorney, had the time to pursue literary interests.

The group did so well that within months it had widened its scope and adopted the name Detroit Study Club.

By the late 1800s, Detroit had a significant number of prominent black families headed by men who were attorneys, doctors, engineers, druggists, and teachers. Their wives were often fulltime homemakers.

“Few would believe that there was a group of affluent black women after the Civil War who did what other affluent women did in those days. They studied issues, literature and music. They weren’t domestics,” said Jane Thomas, 73, Pelham’s great-niece and president-elect of the club.

Thomas, the retired assistant dean of student affairs at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, was invited to join the group in the late 1950s. By then her mother had been a member for years. “I didn’t question joining,” said Thomas. “It’s a part of who I am.”

The Detroit Study Club is limited to 45 members. Women join by invitation only.

One reason for the limit was for convenience because they met in each other’s homes, said Catherine Blackwell, who has been a member for 20 years. “They’d have a speaker, then dinner.”

Despite its Victorian tenor, the club has been nimble. Since the membership is now largely made up of professional women — many who are also philanthropists and volunteers — and not women of comfortable leisure, they often meet in restaurants instead of homes. At first, the group met weekly. Members now convene monthly between September and May. And even though they still have sessions dedicated to Robert or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the issues they discuss are as divergent as race relations, parliamentary procedure and the state of Detroit’s children.

Several years ago, I was asked to address the group. I remember being charmed by their elegant attire and Sunday-afternoon manners. But the prim air disappeared as soon as the women began to raise questions and debate among themselves.

Over the years I have been a part of book clubs and writing groups. The intellectual stimulation opened new worlds for me, helped me make new friends and offered interesting insights into current issues. But too often, my participation fizzled. Like many busy parents, I didn’t have time for strictly intellectual pursuits.

Still, what is more satisfying than civilized conversation on a Sunday afternoon?

Tradition for generations

When Thomas was about 7, she remembers attending Detroit Study Club meetings with her mother, Gladys Pelham Roscoe.

“Back then they met in the Blue Room at the old Lucy Thurman YWCA,” said Thomas. “I sat in the elegant lobby with my school books. When the meeting was over, I got to go to the cafeteria and have dinner with the members.”

Thomas’ mother, who died in 1993 at the age of 99, was a life member. “This is a part of the history of our community,” said Thomas. “We can’t let it die.”

Dana Rice agrees. At 32, she is the youngest member of the Detroit Study Club. She is also the fifth generation of women in her family to belong.

“It’s a rare opportunity to get educated black women for generations and generations to discuss things that are relevent in society,” said Rice, of Southfield, a doctoral student in public health at Boston University. “Sometimes it’s been eye-opening to see that they feel similar to the way I feel about issues.”

When Rice joined two years ago, she was filled with pride.

“My great-great-grandmother was a part of something I’m now a part of,” she said. “This is something special that a lot of people can’t share.”

At 110 years old, the Detroit Study Club is important not because it has transformed history or impacted a corner of the city. It’s important because it was formed at a time when few women, let alone black women, went to college. So they gathered in each other’s homes and educated themselves. As Thomas said, “The notion of lifelong learning, the cultivation of a wide range of interests and a connection to the community was the water in which I swam.”

Those are values that will serve us another 100 years.

Creating readers, one child at a time

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Barbara Swaby, Ph.D., says her life has been a series of “unexplained miracles.” Local students might say she is their miracle.

For 31 years the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor has been rescuing the futures of children doing poorly in school because they can’t read well. As director of the UCCS Graduate Reading Program and the Graduate Reading Clinic, she teaches graduate students how to teach reading. Using their newfound skills, her students provide one-on-one help to children in free reading clinics, and most of them go on to teach reading in their communities.

“She has been changing lives one child at a time,” says Jaime McMullen Garcia, associate director of development at the University of Colorado Foundation.

This year, the UCCS College of Education is establishing the Dr. Barbara Swaby Endowed Professorship. It is one of the highest honors a college professor can receive. A $500,000 community fundraising effort is under way to create the endowed chair that will ensure that Swaby’s invaluable work will continue after she retires, Garcia explains. This is the first endowed professorship for the College of Education.

Swaby provides 400 to 500 free reading evaluations for children each year. Unlike a typical professor’s office, hers is filled with children’s books, a child-size table and chairs. On the walls are colorfully drawn thank-you notes sent by children over the years.

“Everywhere I go, when people know I’m from UCCS, they say ‘Oh, do you know Dr. Swaby?’ And then they talk about how she helped them read, or helped their child or grandchildren to go to college,” Garcia says. “I can’t believe how many people whose lives have been touched by her.”

Step by step – sometimes by sheer energy and will – she built at UCCS one of the finest reading programs in the country, educators say. Because of her scholarship, she holds the university’s highest title of President’s Teaching Scholar, Garcia says.

But Swaby does not promote her accomplishments. Instead, she says simply, “I’ve had good fortune.”

Against all odds

Swaby was almost killed before she was even born. Her mother, Gwendolyn Swaby, and her father, the Rev. Herbert Swaby, a Presbyterian minister, were missionaries in their native Jamaica when Gwendolyn, nine months pregnant, was accosted in their home by thieves, kicked and beaten. She was taken to the hospital where a week later, Barbara was born. Gwendolyn went in and out of a coma for months.

“Neither one of us should have survived. My mother wasn’t able to get to know me until I was a year old,” Swaby says. Yet her parents’ influence on her life is profound. As a tot, they took her with them to the church schools they founded in Tower Isle, Jamaica.

“I could not have avoided learning, even if I wanted to,” Swaby says. She graduated from high school at age 14, and began helping her mother at school.

Forty-five years later, she still talks with wonderment about how the right people appeared at the right time to support and guide her.

One Sunday, while playing piano at church, a visitor complimented her on her music. Weeks later, her parents got a letter from that visitor – Raymond Rankin, president of Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn. – offering a four-year music scholarship to the Presbyterian-founded school.

She arrived on campus in 1964. “I still had girlish ribbons in my hair,” she recalls. Being so much younger than the other students, she had few friends. But professor Arnold Thomas and his wife, Ruth, who had three children, took her in. “They became my family and still are.”

When she and the Thomas kids, who were white, attended movies, they sat in the balcony where blacks were relegated, and on trips to Knoxville they stayed with her in segregated hotels. “They are my heroes,” she says.

After graduating, Swaby went back to Jamaica to teach. She had been there three years when a motorist knocked on the family’s door asking for help with a flat tire. “My father went out to help, and I held the flashlight,” she recalls.

Her father had much in common with the motorist, the Rev. Calvin Didier, a pastor at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minn. Soon after, the House of Hope women’s association offered Swaby a scholarship for graduate school. House of Hope congregants Charles and Mary Field became another of her surrogate families.

At the University of Minnesota she studied reading education. “Being from a Third World country, I saw that illiteracy was killing us there, like it is here in this country, too.”

The church also helped Swaby get her doctorate in reading. When she graduated in 1977, UCCS was looking to hire.

Swaby’s resume stood out to professor emeritus Jack Sherman, then associate dean of the College of Education, and professor Tom Giblin. They knew the University of Minnesota was a reading-education powerhouse and she was a top-notch student.

Swaby decided to take the UCCS job because the graduate reading program was new and she felt she could “create something.”

Sherman says, “When I look back over my career, I would consider hiring her as one of my best successes. She has had such an impact on this region in reading, and has set such a high standard for the faculty.”

It was not an easy time for Swaby. “I had taught reading classes, and had directed a peeradvisory program, so had an idea how the reading program should be done. But I was also the first black woman teaching at the university and I didn’t have a mentor, and was thrown in to create this program. It was challenging.”

She insisted on starting the free reading clinic. Sherman says, “It amazed me how she was able to establish a free reading clinic with essentially no help from the university. She said it needed to be done and she did it.”

Swaby is a top reading diagnostician. “Without a huge battery of tests, within minutes she knows exactly where a child belongs and how to help them,” says UCCS interim provost Peg Bacon.

She does it without first checking test results or quizzing a child’s parents. “I prefer not to know. I want to make decisions based on what I find when they read for me,” Swaby explains.

Children in the clinic are guaranteed six months’ reading improvement during the three-week individualized clinics held in summer and fall.

Jan Ewing called for an appointment because she “felt like a failure because my son wasn’t catching on to reading.”

Three of her five mostly homeschooled children have been through the clinic.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing how she helps the kids help themselves,” Ewing says. “They can read out loud publicly, which is huge, comprehension went up, spelling. Their self-esteem went through the ceiling. They adore Dr. Swaby.”

Ewing’s son Cody, 13, says, “She’s like a friend. She believed I could do it. My reading level had been third level, and now it is ninth level.”

Inspiration to all

Swaby’s love of children and ability to inspire others holds true in her personal life, too.

Ten years after she came to UCCS, she decided to adopt a child. She believed raising a girl would be easier, but couldn’t say no when she met a 2-year-old boy. It was a difficult transition. “I was a single mom and he had had a hard start in life. And we were new to each other. But he is the biggest miracle in my life.”

David Swaby, now 25, is an instructor in the UCCS forensic sciences department, and working on his doctorate. “I have two heroes. One is my grandfather (Herbert Swaby), and the other is my mother,” he says.

Teachers recall David as a tot, sitting quietly in the back of Swaby’s classroom with his purple blanket and books, just as years ago she had attended her parents’ classes.

Barbara Swaby is just as zealous in taking care of others. B.J. Campbell, assistant principal at Frontier Elementary School, recalls how Swaby changed her life. She was a secretary at Helen Hunt Elementary, where Swaby often gave workshops.

“One day she told me, ‘You know, if you were a teacher I’d let you teach my (reading class) kids.'”

“I’m a black woman and I had never known a black woman like that, the way she talked, the way she carried herself and dressed and the respect she received. Her light showed from the beginning, and she made me feel like I could conquer anything,” Campbell said. “I went to UCCS and got my graduate degree.”

When Campbell had a baby, Swaby gave a year’s supply of diapers and became his godmother. She is now godmother to 24 others.

“Of all the people in my life, she most closely emulates what Jesus wants us to do,” Campbell says. “I keep wondering what can I do for her, but she doesn’t want anything back.”

Winfield Pate, a retired math teacher and computer professional, met Swaby at church. Divorced, he had two girls, Rachel and Dominique, who “always wanted to sit with this nice lady at church because she had candy in her purse,” he recalls.

The two had much in common, including teaching and music. They married about 18 years ago.

“She lives to give,” Pate says, whether it’s feeding stray cats, babying her 80 rosebushes, keeping bird feeders full, or cooking stuffed Cornish game hens and Jamaican dishes for his football tailgate parties.

Undying passion

Swaby believes much of this country’s reading problems come from “other priorities at home and inappropriate instruction at school.”

She says, “Reading is often not a value in families where attention must be focused on survival. Do you choose books or food?” She believes reading is given short-shrift in other families, too. “It doesn’t get one-fiftieth the attention that sports does.”

Reading is not a natural, evolved process, she explains. Humans come hard-wired to listen and speak, but invented reading and writing. “It becomes more natural if the child, from an early age, is in an environment where they are exposed to words, and as they are read to it becomes a pattern.”

Middle-class children hear 31 million more words by age 5 than those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, she says. Because of that, at age 5 they have a vocabulary of 10,000 words, compared with 5,000 for kids in lower-income homes.

“Not even teachers are panicked. And we should be in stark panic about what is happening.”

It’s evening at the end of a long week when Swaby, 59, walks to her psycholinguistics class. She’s tired – too many early mornings and late nights. Yet she lights up in front of her students, energetically launching into a difficult lecture on how the brain organizes itself. She knows students like these will carry on her fight for literacy. The students hang on her every word.

How, in the twilight of her career, can Swaby remain so passionate?

Her work is payback, she says, for all the unexplained miracles of her life – from her survival at birth, to her son and husband, to the people who have helped her along the way.

“There’s a phrase that ‘service is the rent you pay to God for the space you occupy on Earth.’ I’m in debt to God. And based upon that, also to the individuals he put in my life to provide me with service – my parents, Dr. Rankin, the Thomases, Calvin Didier, the Fields, the others.”

Source: Colorado Springs Gazette

Written by Symphony

April 6, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Kid’s book on African-American heritage in Mass.

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JP CENTER—Rosalyn Elder, co-owner of Jamaicaway Books, an independent bookstore with a focus on multicultural children’s literature, has written a series of books that celebrate African American heritage of Massachusetts.

The first book in the series: “African American Heritage in Massachusetts: A Coloring Book,” will be launched at the store at 676 Centre St. on Sat., Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. The book was illustrated by local artist Laurence Pierce with graphic design by the youth art entrepreneurship group, Artists for Humanity.

Elder, a Jamaica Plain resident, said her goal is to “increase literacy in urban students by allowing them to read and be inspired by stories of heroism and determination relevant to their culture. The only way to raise the educational bar is to get students to read more. The only way to do that is to raise their self-esteem by inspiring them with books about their heritage.”

Read the article at Jamaica Plain Gazette

Written by Symphony

February 23, 2008 at 7:43 am

African-American Read In spotlights La Joyce Brookshire

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The Wakulla County Christian Coalition, The Wakulla County Public Library and the Black History Month Festival (BHM) are hosting this year’s African-American Read-In Chain at the Wakulla Public Library from 3-5 pm. Sunday afternoon, February 3, 2008.

La Joyce Brookshire, nationally known author of “Faith Under Fire, Betrayed By Love” a  chronicle of the author’s dilemma of having married a man who had AIDS yet kept it hidden from her until no longer able to do so, will sign copies of her book and make a presentation. 

The Read-In Chain had its genesis in November 1989 when the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) agreed to sponsor a nation-wide Read-In on the first Sunday of February.  The purpose was to make literacy a part of traditional Black History Month activities.  At the request of educators, it was hoped that  the African American Read-Ins would become a traditional part of Black History Month celebrations. 


Written by Symphony

January 24, 2008 at 8:26 pm