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MEMBER CORNER: Robin Hartzman

"What remained magical about this program is that the seeds of early literacy were subtly planted within its schedule of activities."

Editor’s Note: Last month, someone wisely used the online message board for members, Member Connect, to pick the brains of other members as she was designing a literacy program moms and their infants and toddlers who live in a high-risk area of her community. One response especially caught our eye because of the wealth of suggestions based on experience that the author, Robin Hartzman, was willing to share. We reached out to Robin and asked if she would be willing to tell us more about her work supporting inexperienced parents of infants and toddlers through an early literacy program. Robin graciously obliged. We hope you find it helpful in your work as well.

What follows are some reflections on my opportunities to assist with an established early literacy program during my 15-year career working with families of teen and young adult moms. This literacy-based program was created by my supervisor at the time in collaboration with our local library. To date my approach to working with teen moms and families in general, as a HealthySteps Specialist, remains heavily influenced by colleagues and supervisors who, thankfully, have served and continue to serve as friends and professional mentors who freely share in their passion and expertise within the spheres of program development and implementation. It is in great appreciation of “the village” that supported me along the way that I offer what I know to have worked for us!

     What stood out to me most about this early literacy program is it allowed for moms to “begin where they are,” in that is was flexible, accepting, supportive, and empowering in moms’ role as teacher. What remained magical about this program is that the seeds of early literacy were subtly planted within its schedule of activities. I distinctly remember how for instance, as a matter of routine each week, the group would begin with a circle and song welcome activity.  The song incorporated clapping and was personalized with each child’s name. It went like this: ”Who came to the (insert name of place) today, (insert child’s name) came to the (place) today, (name) came to the (place), (name) came to the (place).” I believe this activity was important on several levels. First, it allowed for an outlet of wiggles and squiggles that may have accumulated during travel to program. Secondly, built in as predictable routine, over time it also reinforced the benefits and importance of daily routines in literacy. This repetition and predictability also afforded an opportunity in the progression of comfort level to mom’s participation in the activities, helping to fuel confidence and competence over the 10 weeks. Often there were some moms who would initially refrain from joining in due to fears related to a self-imposed pressure to sing like an American Idol contestant. However, in time, the joyful reaction of their child, whether mom could carry a tune or not, was undeniable. Moms seemed motivated to continue their own sort of routine practices with similar activities once they witnessed the reaction of excitement and pride in their and other’s children upon hearing their names sung aloud!

    Each week the families also received a board book to use during circle time. Receipt of this weekly book helped to build their in-home library, gave Moms a voluntary opportunity to practice reading aloud, and offered a variety of visuals of what literacy can look like. During the circle time read-aloud, for instance, a child might wander away yet still be listening while another might be holding a book upside down, chewing on the book, or curled up and asleep in his mom’s lap. Moms got to see a variety of attention spans being acceptable and developmentally appropriate, hear a display of vocal intonations, all the while reinforcing an important aspect of early literacy: flexibility keeps reading fun, friendly, and positive. Each family grew in confidence and understanding of literacy as important to bonding and early development by either practicing the skills or observation the skills of others. There were also weekly book related craft projects (water-based paint handprints, for example) that encouraged on-going parent-child communication within everyday experiences. A weekly craft offered an additional shared experience and cherished keepsake that could be hung with pride on the refrigerator at home.

Moms were matched with volunteer adult female mentors for added support and shared a certificate of completion and celebration at the close of each 10-week session, which was offered twice a year. I must say though that, in our case, transportation was an ongoing challenge, as was providing a snack and/or meal that we knew they appreciated.

Good luck and hope to hear how it goes for you!

Editor’s Note: Read the original inquiry, post your own helpful tips, or connect with Robin and other members to discuss other ways to support moms and babies within your local community by visiting Member Connect.

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