Nashville Public Library Runs Early Literacy Program for Incarcerated Teen Fathers

Elizabeth Atack and Klem-Mari Cajigas reworked their Bringing Books to Life! family literacy workshops for incarcerated teen dads, who recorded themselves reading books for their children.

When colleagues at the Nashville Public Library (NPL) asked Elizabeth Atack and Klem-Mari Cajigas if they could adapt their Bringing Books to Life! family literacy workshops for incarcerated teen dads at a local youth detention facility, the two women didn’t hesitate to say yes. But they knew right away their current program wasn’t going to work.

Elizabeth Atack, left, and Klem-Mari Cajigas of Nashville Public Library

No parent at their previous workshops—held at schools and day care centers—had identified themselves as a teen parent, nor had any facility said they had teen parents, according to Atack. The two women had also never created a workshop for incarcerated parents. Lastly, they weren't sure the over-the-top silliness they modeled when reading for kids was going to work for teen boys around their peers.

“While having the same needs—everyone wants to be a good parent, everybody wants to know how to have positive interactions with their child—we felt our approach would probably need to be different,” she says. “We started with that hunch.”

Atack and Cajigas had also only done one-offs, go into a school or day care center, to run one workshop and leave. This would be a program with multiple sessions. There was a lot to learn and to get started, Atack and Cajigas joined the NPL teen center staff on a book delivery day to get to know the young men and staff at the facility.

Quickly, Atack and Cajigas saw the young men were enthusiastic about books. They were also clearly excited to see the NPL. The NPL teen center and makerspace staff have worked at the youth detention facility for years, forming relationships with them. Once the young men learned these two new women were with the library, as well, they immediately felt comfortable around them, according to Atack and Cajigas. As the two discussed the possibility of a new parenting program about reading aloud to kids, and openly asked for assistance creating it, those who were dads began to offer that information and express interest in the opportunity.

“Because that trust had been built [with NPL staff], they were already very keen on volunteering the information,” says Cajigas

Having seen their colleagues work in the facility, Cajigas and Atack knew the young men also loved to record, lay tracks, and work hands-on in media creation and production.

“When we saw that enthusiasm for books and reading, we knew that was a great spark right there,” says Atack. “Also their enthusiasm for media and knowledge for media creation was an opportunity for us to do something completely different. We really took those components—their interest in their children and how they could support their children, their enthusiasm for books and that background knowledge for media creation and came back—and brainstormed.”

Despite having all of those pieces in place, the two weren’t getting anywhere.

“We were really kind of spinning our wheels and couldn’t come up with the right idea,” says Atack.

Then Cajigas remembered seeing a video of Ludacris rapping Anna Dewdney’s picture book Llama Llama Red Pajama.

“What I really liked about Ludacris is, first of all, he’s a great MC, but also he’s having so much fun with it that his smile is so big,” she says. “There are little bits he repeats some of the words to better fit the backing beat. He’s having a lot of fun with this children’s book. He’s making it his own. It’s really engaging.”

She showed Atack, who calls it the moment that pulled everything together for her.

“That was really something we could build on,” says Atack. “We could capture that enthusiasm and media creation, maybe we could give them an opportunity to record a book for their child and, in that process, show them what they already know about children’s literacy and home in and give them concrete tips and techniques for when they do see their children.”

With Ludacris as the big hook, the women sought other examples of different ways of approaching readalouds in nontraditional ways using different media production.

“What if we find other ways that can grab these young and say, ‘Hey it’s more than just reading a book,’” says Cajigas.

They found video of books set to song, and one of LeVar Burton reading Goodnight Moon to Neil DeGrasse Tyson .

The workshop's first group included four fathers. They showed them the different ways of approaching readalouds, leaving Ludacris and Llama Llama to the end.

“They had all been sitting back in their chairs then you hear four sets of feet hit the floor,” Cajigas says of when they played the Ludacris video. The young fathers were suddenly leaning forward and really engaged.

“’We can do that?’” they asked.

“‘Yes, you can do that.’” Cajigas and Atack told them.

“It was giving them permission to be more relaxed with books and how to approach them,” Cajigas says.

The plan was for three sessions: One to talk about reading aloud and have them look through the books and pick one; in the second session they would decide how they wanted to record; and, in the third, they would make the recording. Atack and Cajigas quickly surmised that they would need to add a session, because the teens were spending so much time looking through the books and asking to see more.

“Klem Mari poured through the collection and found a nice mix of classics, books about fathers and their children, we tried to find books about families who were experiencing separation either through incarceration or other types of separation and just making sure that our books represent all the diversity in the community,” says Atack.

Good rhyme, rhythm, and repetition were the key. The teens in the workshop especially liked books by author/illustrator Kadir Nelson, the printed version of Will Smith’s Just the Two of Us, classics including Goodnight MoonCorduroy, Llama Llama Red PajamaWhere the Wild Things Are, and newer titles such as Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, and books with poetry in them. One young man asked for a book from the “Biscuit” series to record for his soon-to-be-born daughter. One wanted something in Spanish because his daughter’s mother spoke Spanish and the child was being raised bilingual. Cajigas and Atack worked to find the perfect titles for each father’s situation.

As the young men searched through the collection and read the books looking for just the right one to record, the women spoke informally about early literacy and helped the teens see what “assets” they already had to help their children. They also discussed more than literacy. The young fathers asked questions about early childhood behavior and development. By the end of the four weeks, they had literacy information plus their recording burned onto a CD which was placed into a new copy of the book with a bookplate that had an inscription for their child. It was put with their personal belongings to be given to the child on a visitation day or upon their release.

Atack only participated in that first workshop in November 2017, but Cajigas and NPL have run four more since then with enthusiastic participation that has gone beyond fathers—uncles and older brothers have asked to join and NPL has welcomed them, teaching each young man about early literacy along their way to recording their traditional or nontraditional readaloud.

Creating a brand new program for a new group of people was rewarding for Atack and Cajigas. But for the two women who normally taught one-time workshops then handed out a survey, building relationships week after week with a group of young parents and seeing the effect of their work in person was the best part.

“I got to see the impact of the library, in particular this project, and the impact of somebody who was interested in their children,” says Cajigas

“Honestly,” says Atack, “it was one of the most rewarding things I have done professionally.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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