To enjoy reading, it helps to read a good book.
If you’re a kid, reading becomes even more fun if you can sing the words or dance to them.
It’s even better if reading answers questions about life, makes you feel proud to be who you are and reflects and celebrates your African-American culture.
“We read and we learn a lot of stuff,” said seven-year old Aissaade one afternoon at the Freedom School underway in West Oakland at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Her classmate Adon adds, “We read, we do science, we talk about Trayvon.”
Adon’s favorite part of the day is first thing in the morning, when all the students and teachers, and even some parents, gather in a circle for the “Harambee” time of singing, chanting, reflection and community that starts each day at Freedom School.
Harambee means “Let’s pull together” in Swahili. At CDF Freedom Schools around the country, the Harambee circle time is the first part of a well-planned day that includes reading, music, poetry, science and social action.
“The way we approach this program is more engaging and energizing for African-American children,” said La’Cole Martin, site director for the West Oakland campus. “Children get all their energy out, and then in the classroom, they are ready to focus,” she said.
“This is one of most effective structures I’ve ever seen,” continued Martin, a former public school teacher here in Oakland. She said that many of the Freedom School instructors live in the same neighborhoods as the kids and come from similar backgrounds, both of which help with bonding. “Understanding who the kids are culturally makes a huge difference,” she said.
The reading selections are classics in African-American literature. The youngest students were reading poets of the Harlem Renaissance last week and then practicing “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” a song by Duke Ellington, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance era.
Down the hall, a class of young teenagers were reading the poetry and songs of Lupe Fiasco and writing reflections. Those reflections included what obstacles the teens might face in their communities, their schools, their families and the world, and what solutions they can apply to overcome these obstacles. Christopher Roberts, their instructor, said Freedom School helps them learn that they can be change agents if they choose to be.
During a summer in which 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted of murder charges, despite having stalked the unarmed teenager, and the nation is reeling in disbelief, the teens had lots of reflections about fear, justice and the weight of living in a world awash in guns, their instructors at Oakland’s Freedom School say.
“A lot of these kids have expressed fears of being followed — some said they’ve had nightmares about being followed,” Martin said. “It was the older kids who talked about having nightmares. I was surprised because sometimes the older kids are too cool to talk about emotions. This is how I know it is really affecting them.”
Roberts asked them to write and illustrate their thoughts on posters and in essays. As he led a meditative part of Harambee one morning, he chanted, “breathe in positivity, breathe out hesitation.”
This summer, Freedom School children in Oakland and around the country took part in a “Protect Kids, Not Guns” day of action, marching from the campus to downtown against the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the Freedom Schools were rooted in the Civil Rights Movement and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. Marian Wright Edelman, CDF President, relaunched the schools in 1992 on the tenet that education and literacy are civil rights issues and the best tools that people have to work for freedom. By focusing on reading and literacy skills in children, the Freedom Schools aim to build self-confident citizens, scholars and community leaders. The schools also aim specifically to prevent a “summer slide” in academic achievement among inner-city school children in African-American communities.
Aissaade’s mother, Zakiya Harris (Ed note: who works for Oakland Local part-time) said, “We’ve been a huge fan of Freedom Schools and of Leadership Excellence,” which is the Oakland organization helping to run the Freedom Schools here. They are “explicit in their mission to work on the task of lifting up black children” and effective in building academic and leadership skills, she said. Although her daughter was already a strong reader, so didn’t gain significantly on the academic side, “The level of self-esteem and cultural awareness building: words don’t describe the benefits of that.”
Across the country, CDF partners with nonprofits and religious organizations in various cities to host the schools. In Oakland, Leadership Excellence and the Lincoln Child Center are running the two Freedom Schools: one at MLK Middle School and the other at Frick Middle School in East Oakland.
Martin said she can tell from watching and listening to the kids that Freedom Schools work in boosting academic achievement. “Even within six weeks, by week three, we see they are getting it.”
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, several studies have been done that quantify the academic gains the Freedom School children experience. In 2012, the results of a four-year University of Carolina study of the Freedom Schools in Charlotte showed that 63 percent of the students showed gains in reading, while 90 percent showed no summer reading loss. In 2011, the Harvard Family Research Project named the CDF Freedom Schools as one of 14 programs of summer, year-round and linked learning programs that demonstrated success.
Titles that Freedom School scholars read this summer include Just Because I Am: A Child’s Book of Affirmation and Destiny’s Gift for the youngest children; Good Enough to Eat and Sudoku and the Thousand Paper Cranes for new independent readers; and dozens of books for older kids.