Facing the Page, For Teachers
Why We Celebrate: Learning Celebrations at the Centers for Reading and Writing
Twice a year, each of The New York Public Library's eight Centers for Reading and Writing hosts a Learning Celebration for adult literacy students and volunteer tutors. Students read their work aloud, family and friends join in the festivities, and everyone receives a copy of a new journal of student writing. After the reading program, there is a potluck meal and often music or other demonstrations, such as salsa, tai chi, or singing.
As one of the more lively and visible events at the Centers, at first glance, the Celebrations may seem incongruous in a learning environment. So why do we celebrate? For this post, I’ve compiled a list of six reasons.
1. Strengthening Our Community
The New York Public Library’s Mission statement includes “strengthening our communities.” Holding a celebration brings people together who might not have the chance to otherwise meet. Just seeing a friendly crowd, knowing that everyone there is working toward the same goal of learning to read and write, is invigorating. “I thought I was the only one with this problem,” students sometimes say. But at a Celebration, everyone gains strength by feeling they are a part of a movement and a community of learners.
2. Promoting Fluency
When students practice to read in front of an audience, they practice over and over (and over) again. They work on reading at a conversational pace, with expression, and of course, accuracy. Students who choose to read their work aloud at a Celebration receive individual attention, practicing phrasing, pronunciation of difficult words, and making eye contact.
One student several years ago was asked to read her piece in front of a large crowd at the NYU Literacy Review Celebration. Beforehand, she received individual coaching on pronunciation, intonation, and expression. Afterward, she said she could tell the difference when she was speaking on the phone. She felt more confident about her ability to make herself understood.
3. Inspiring Lifelong Learning
Learning Celebrations happen regularly, twice a year. They provide an opportunity for students to reflect on where they started in their learning process, where they are now, and where they want to be. After his first Learning Celebration, one student, who had declined to read his story aloud, turned to his tutor and asked, “When is the next Celebration?” When he was told it would be in the winter, he replied, “I think I could read next time.”
At some Learning Celebrations, instead of students reading their own stories, a professional actress reads a selection of student writing. At one such Celebration, after hearing his story performed by an actress, one student exclaimed, “I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was that good!” What could be more motivating, especially to someone struggling with literacy, than to receive such encouragement?
4. Public Speaking is an Art
Public speaking, as many of us might guess, is one of the most commonly reported social fears. It’s also an indispensable life skill.
Even for students who don’t choose to read, a celebration can be an opportunity for conversation practice. Two Chinese students at Seward Park Library's CRW decided that they needed more practice making small talk. Quick and on-the-spot, making small talk is an essential skill for interviews and work environments. At the Celebration, they both made it a point to speak to as many people as possible.
5. Thank You to My Tutor!
When people receive a service for free, such as an English class, they are grateful and often look for ways to thank tutors. At the Celebration, students who feel so inclined can cook food to share. “You have to try my jerk chicken! Here, I saved this piece for you.”
Volunteer tutors, as well as students, receive certificates of achievement. When tutors stand to receive theirs, the students cheer. Often, when students stand to read, they begin with words of thanks. The Centers depend on volunteer tutors to provide small group instruction. At the Celebrations, students and staff can ensure tutors know how much they are appreciated.
6. Completing the Writing Process
At the Centers, we believe writing is a process, from talking to first drafts to revising and editing. The final step in this process is sharing completed work with others. At the Learning Celebration, this step can be accomplished by reading work aloud. In addition, the Celebration is a release party for the printed CRW journal of student writing. Knowing others will read the work motivates students to complete revisions, and seeing their work in print and receiving applause builds confidence.