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The Shared World: Storylines Project Celebrates Writing of Adult Literacy Students and Author Naomi Shihab Nye

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 Naomi Shihab Nye, Neela Vaswani and Storylines Honorable Mention. Photo courtesy NCV FoundationRight to left: Naomi Shihab Nye, Neela Vaswani and Storylines Honorable Mention. Photo courtesy NCV FoundationOn October 26, 2010, adult literacy students and their volunteer tutors from the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island gathered at the Bronx Library Center for the second annual Storylines Project celebration. The Storylines Project brings together adult literacy students from the New York Public Library's Centers for Reading and Writing, a free program for adults to learn to read and write, with a published author, for a night that recognizes and celebrates the writing of both, and the unifying power of story. 

The event was conceived and organized by Neela Vaswani, a former volunteer tutor at the Seward Park Center for Reading and Writing (CRW) on the Lower East Side, who was so moved by her experience there that she created the Storylines Project, sponsored by the NCV Foundation, to honor its student writers. 

This year, Naomi Shihab Nye, author of over 20 books of poetry and fiction including  19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, a National Book Award Finalist, was the Storylines Award recipient and student submission judge.  From submissions of student writing from all eight Centers for Reading and Writing, Ms. Nye selected five winners and 23 honorable mentions to be honored that night.   

The Event Begins

Anticipation filled the air of the packed Bronx Library Center auditorium.  Each guest received a complimentary copy of Honeybee, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Students and tutors greeted each other warmly—"Hello Pablo! Welcome!” “Hi, Ndiaga!" "Frankie, how are you? Diaw! Mariam! Ji Hyun!"  

After brief welcomes from Ken English, Literacy Project Director at the library, and Storylines creator and organizer Neela Vaswani, Ms. Nye took the podium. She smiled across the roomful of faces and exclaimed, "What a beautiful room full of beautiful names.  We are here to celebrate all of you."  

During the evening, all the student honorees were invited to the stage to shake her hand and receive a certificate. The five winning stories were read aloud by actress Sydia Cedeno. 

The Winning Stories

The voice in each of the winning stories was raw and powerful, a glimpse into a life: 

"Becoming sober made me able to get help for my reading and writing at the Tompkins Square Library," concluded one, "Now, if I don’t know how to spell a word I’ll leave the space blank and continue–I know there is no need to stay stuck in one place."  Before the actress could finish, the audience burst into cheers and applause. She had to wait for everyone to quiet down before reading the last line: "I think that is true in life as well."  On the stage, the writer, Pedro, clasped Ms. Nye's hand in a warm, two-hand shake.       
   Actress Sydia Cedeno reads winning storiesActress Sydia Cedeno reads winning stories
The next winning story was from Ji-Xing, 77, in a suit, tennis shoes and a Yankees cap.  He couldn't resist waving again to the crowd before sitting down, beaming.  His quiet story about sparrows ended: "When I first came to the United States I was very homesick.  Then I saw the sparrows, the same birds as in my homeland.  It was like running into old friends in a distant land.  It alleviated my longing for my hometown."    
  
Adjowa, a student at the Aguilar Library CRW, wrote of her struggles after a hysterectomy: "As an African woman, your family wants you to have kids.  Because of my surgery, I can’t.  So I have to keep it secret from them. Whenever I call home, my mommy asks me 'Please, can you have a baby?' And I say 'Mama, there are so many kids out there who need help, and I will devote my life to them.' ”    

Meeting the Author

After the program, participants filtered out to the lobby for refreshments.  A long book-signing line formed immediately for Naomi Shihab Nye.  She dedicated each book to the participant by name, signing off, "In Friendship," and "In hope."   
  
Everywhere people posed together, smiling, mugging for photographs.  The scene recalled a line from the story Ms. Nye had read earlier: "This is the world I want to live in.  The shared world."    

To read the complete winning stories, please visit the NCV Foundation website.

Comments

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A Great Night!

I thought it was a great night, beautifully done. I was very impressed with the author and the very warm way she interacted with the students. The reader of the essays was amazingly good; she brought so much humor and emotion to the written words. It was wonderful to spend time with Adjowa, my student after the presentations and to share in her excitement and happiness. We had our books signed by Naomi, traded impressions of the event, and were delighted to discover that the bookmarks listed all the names of the winners and honorables. It seems like a small thing, but having her name on a bookmark meant a lot to Adjowa. Luckily, we both needed the same subway line, so we were able to travel homeward together and have a very happy ending to the evening. Even the subway trip from Aguilar to the Bronx was an unexpected pleasure because it gave me a chance to meet some extremely nice weekday tutors and students. All in all, it was a very memorable and worthwhile evening. Judy Friedman, Aguilar Tutor

A Collaborative Effort!

It was very exciting to see students honored for work that was so personal and so beautifully expressed. The individuality of all the different voices was striking and reflected well on the collaborative effort with the tutors. I especially appreciated Naomi Shihab's expressive reading of her poems. I think students in the audience felt this too and maybe this will inspire them to write more -- and more fearlessly -- about their lives and their struggles. Judy Samuels Aguilar tutor

Without his cane....

I loved the stories. One of my students commented that it was nice to know the work of the students was recognized and appreciated. George, one of the Honorable Mentions was so uplifted he could walk down the aisle without his cane. Catherine Keating Aguilar tutor

Exciting! Rich! Enjoyable!

"Exciting, rich and enjoyable" are the words that I'd use to describe the ceremony. When I heard my students' names being called, and saw them walking on to the stage and being rewarded with a prize--one by one, I was very glad and excited, glad because during the brainstorming process it was not easy for the tutors to help the students identify the idea that they wanted to focus on and develop it further and excited because the students' struggle and effort to express their thoughts in writing ultimately paid off. It was just wonderful to see the staff whom I do not see every week at our branch but who participated in this project. They included Mr. Kenneth English, the Director of the Literacy Program, the Site Advisors and the tutors, the Literacy specialists and Ms. Naomi Shihab Nye (whose work was read and discussed when our class began to work on the piece last cycle). I think the sharing of their experience in this project, their different perspectives and their insights into adult literacy writing enriched the cultural aspect of the event. Merely sitting in the midst of the audience, listening to the staff who read each piece of the winner's work, her reading mingled with some music, Naomi's reading of her poetry and her encouraging feedback to the winners' work, I enjoyed the event so much. I think a piece of good writing demands, or even challenges, the writer's courage to open up his/her personal life, but when the piece is done with much effort, it signals that one phrase of writing journey has come to an end (because the writer has completed it!) and another one will soon begin. During this transition, I was glad that I was there to celebrate my students' accomplishment with them in the special evening. Phoebe Yuen Aguilar tutor

"Blown away!"

I was unable to attend last year, but WOW, was I glad I found a seat in the lovely, standing-room-only auditorium. It's "my bad" (but I'll never make this mistake again!) in that I thought that students with serious "literacy issues" would have a hard time fashioning compelling stories. I could not have been more wrong - the stories struck me as rich, diverse, nuanced, well-paced, etc. The tutors were - and ever so rightly! - recognized for their supportive work, but it was the students' night. The poet who had selected the winning 10 or 15 entries made a point of saying something personal (but audible) to each of the winners; that "touch" was inspired, because it shined a metaphorical spotlight on people who probably haven't had too many "star turns" previously. I know the phrase has fallen into disuse, but this was a night where there were "a thousand points of light!!"

What a Wonderful Night!!

It was a fantastic night. Each student really enjoyed the night and we got so much positive feedback in class! One student in our class commented that it was so nice to be recognized, because sometimes "i feel like no one knows we are here working hard". Now they know! Thanks for such a great night, NYPL! -Meg

Touched!

What a wonderful event! Diaw, one of my students, won an Honorable Mention Award and was so very happy to receive it. All the stduents in my class attended to support Diaw and to, simply, have a good time. And good time they had! The reading of the stories was superb, Naomi Shihab Nye was excellent. In short, everyone involved did an amazing job. I discussed the event the following class with my stuents and they all spoke highly of it. We will be reading from the book given out at the event, Honeybee. And, yes, that bookmark was a special added touch that meant alot to Diaw. Regards, Yolanda Rodriguez Seward Park Library Tutor

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