Storytent - Wrapping Up Year 7

Note: this post threatens to be a bit of a jumble because I was working at the library, where wireless service is hit-or-miss. The signal is particularly missful because there are three cruise ships in today - thousands of people who decided to leave home and go shopping. At such times, our population nearly doubles, and our services bend and falter beneath the unexpected load. Now... this post is coming to you via Cora's lunch & breakfast place.

The Quality Storytent program is over again for another year - it's 7th. Now's the season for sorting pictures, taping up handmade spreadsheets, re-reading notes, filling out surveys and evaluations, talking, reflecting, refining.

I always find Storytent work rewarding. It matches my personal quality world pictures of good, solid literacy work. Many people appreciate what we do, and the project does what it was meant to do, without doing any significant harm.

In general terms, this year's successes included: promoting and facilitating reading and book-borrowing; providing a safe and successful summer learning space for children and families; modeling a learner-centered community literacy program.

The objectives we mostly met (in support of our goal of making literacy services and support accessible to families) are;

a. Provide reading opportunities through storytents, twice per week. (Which we did in CV, but not in the O.N.E., on Anglin, or on Crown: as the program spread, it also became more shallow; a deliberate choice on our part, and necessary, but next summer we need to go back to twice-weekly locations.)

b. Provide access to books once per week through the Bookwagon.

c. Evaluate the level and nature of neighbourhood participation
(An ongoing process.)

d. Administer Summer Reading Club Outreach.

e. Promote library services
(Which we did with regard to the library's summer reading Club, as well as in terms of promoting the ideals of libraries and a borrowing culture; but not much beyond that.)

Yet, once again, I am feeling how physically and intellectually demanding it is.

The small scale of the project, and the tentative nature of everything from partnerships to funding to space, makes it hard to think only about the immediate work in the tent. I choose to worry about the whole process all the time, because there is no larger, more stable organization or agency that has offered long-range funding or management security - and a few large institutions have presented threats to the program's success and continuance. Insecurity seems to be the flip-side of independence, flexibility and responsiveness to truly marginalized classes of people.

Among the specific challenges or limitations were: weather; over-extension of workers (we took on an unplanned-for site, late); inability to purchase appropriate program materials; delayed funding (we ran on 75% of our promised funds).

Also - and this is especially perceptual - the neighbourhood seems to be going downhill.

Being an outdoor, backyard sort of program, we are exposed to weather; but also to violence, injustice, poverty, sickness and the abuse of children - most of which we are unable to relieve. We've witnessed families who wanted to improve their neighbourhood being run out by smashed windows and spray-painted doors and just general hounding. Some courts are turning into the special preserves of bullies, their family and friends. As well, the provincial government has overseen a steady erosion of services and reduction in the number of civil servants tasked with supporting our poorer families. Apart from a renewed focus on welfare-to-work promotions (I can't call them "programs" because they're little more than pep rallies for the poor) there seems to be less and less support for families each year.

This darkening in climate has lead us to rethink the kind of training our program needs provide. Certainly, our 'how to" document needs to be edited; and maybe a training-specific version created (paper and/or PowerPoint) added. As well, there were some situations I encountered this summer that left me feeling completely under-trained. My winter reading needs to include some community literacy / community development materials.

On the plus side, this summer we worked with someone who shares both our passion for basic literacy work and our commitment to supporting whole families. Having a "literacy person" join us in the tent added to the over-all value of the program in ways that are hard to spell out. I can only say that it helped us reach one of our 2009 goals - get back to basics.

We began 2009 talking about our dissatisfaction with some aspects of past years; our sense of having strayed from where we'd meant to be. Reviving the direct literacy-support aspect of the tent was one of our goals.

Another was a desire to "stay small" so that we weren't distracted by funding and management issues. In fact, we expanded beyond our capacity (leading to no small amount of 6th week grumpiness and exhaustion). Still, I believe this was one of the two best summers we've ever had (Year 5 being the other). Though we stepped out a lot, with all the attendant insecurity and risks, I think the project needs to grow and change. It's especially exciting to work in the old North End.

I still worry about indirect interference from business goups and their pseudo-nonprofits. And I don't think we'll secure significant gov't support until there is a significant shift in both Fredericton's philosophy and the economy.

But I'm looking forward to the winter: to writing about Bookwagon, about this years research, and about using children's books (effective books and techniques). I'm also looking forward to Summer 2010.

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