Community literacy and Christmas parties

We've done a dozen neighbourhood Christmas parties over the past decade, been guests at another dozen, and rode on one Christmas parade float. In that time, we've also spent many hours of conversation figuring out a "Christmas Party" strategy.

You might not think a clutch of university educated and/or manual labour type do-gooders like us would need to spend hours talking about neighbourhood Christmas parties. If so, you would be wrong.

Part of it has to do with budgets. We sometimes receive more invitations to help than we can afford. In our line, helping means either showing up and and being helping hands (an admittedly cheap option), running a craft table or being the floor entertainment (a slightly more expensive venture), providing a door-prize of a basket of six to eight books for a whole family (cost $120-$150), or providing a gift book for each child (at an average cost of $10 to $12 per). The last option is our favourite, but to meet all the invitations, we would need to find a couple of thousand extra dollars to spend. Which is... you know.

But that's all pretty straight-forward: we either have the money or we don't, and if we have only some money we try to make smart choices about how to divide it up.

Our lasting conversations were and are about what to do at the party. Providing books is fine, but it doesn't help us meet people. It doesn't lead to new or strengthened relationships. It doesn't provide the party planners with extra volunteers. And it doesn't create opportunities for us to support functional learning.

Early on, we tried to provide entertainment. But, despite having created a kick-ass, stick-puppet production of Stephanie's Ponytail and The Paperbag Princess, this was a poor idea. Why? Because we are poor entertainers.

(This is, by the way, a common misconception: that people effective at scaffolding children's literacy development are therefore effective at entertaining a roomful of children. But we aren't clowns or acrobats, jugglers or magicians, actors or singers or comedians. We're literacy workers. We have lots of skills and insights, but not the skills and insights needed to wow a roomful of children excitedly awaiting Santa.)

We tried puppet shows, sing-alongs, book readings, dramatic re-enactments and other things too dreadful to recall. Typically, the children were set in rows of hard chairs before us, scarce able to see and hear, beset by shushing adults, and awash in waves of boredom.

Eventually, we developed a different approach - one that drew upon our natural literacy-worker strengths.

For example, we know the kind of things that, spread out on a table, help children entertain themselves. We know that a functional craft table will have plain white and coloured construction paper. We know that crayons work better on most paper than markers, and pencil crayons work most poorly of all. We know that white glue takes a long time to dry, that glitter glue is popular but also a time bomb if children come dressed up to the party in their very best clothes, and that clear tape is a reasonable accommodation. We know that feathers and pipe-cleaners are fun, but they fall off frequently. We know that old Christmas cards are fun to cut up and copy, and easier to paste or tape down. (In fact, everything is fun to cut up and tape down when you're five years old.) We know that stickers are endlessly popular, that stencils can prove frustrating, and that paint is completely too complicated and messy for most settings. We know that you have to keep finger food off the table if you don't want someone eating the crayons, and that we may need to give-up a table if families need places to eat. We know that things go better if we leave child-minding to the caregivers, and instead limit our concern to refreshing the materials, modeling creative behaviours, and enjoying the artists around us. And we know that the joy is often in the creating and re-creating, and we needn't fuss too much about projects getting finished or displayed.

We also, of course, know how to share a book - it's how we spend our storytent summers. We know how to read and how to listen and how to help and how to not help too much. We know which books are popular read-alouds and which ones are better enjoyed individually. And we know how to create a safe, inviting, effective reading space.

Knowing all this, we've realized one effective way for us to help out at neighbourhood Christmas parties is to organize two tables, one for Christmas colouring (we separate the pages of half a dozen colouring books) and the other for card-and-decoration making (construction paper, crayons and markers, etc.). In between, we put down six or seven layers of thick blankets to create a cozy reading corner where we share reading much as we would in a storytent.

This trio of offerings allows children to come and go as they please, be as active or passive as they please, change activities often, and chatter happily to their friends without ever being shushed.

The only remaining thing for us to learn was how to present this idea early enough that the Christmas party planners could accommodate it into their larger scheme for the day.

The colouring-craft-reading-corner plan is our most intensive involvement. A less intensive one - and my favourite - is simply offering a Christmas storytent at some appropriate, public location.

On these occasions, we set a tent up indoors and string it with Christmas lights. Then, we read Christmas books with and to families as they wander in and out over the course of two or three hours.

Parents sometimes mistake this for the sort of "storytime" where the role of the children is to sit quietly as the books are read one by one. But we can usually overcome this with the simple tactic of reading two books simultaneously to different children. This seems to be enough to signal permission to other children and adults to also read aloud or to themselves.

As I say, this is my favourite community Christmas pastime, but I know it has drawbacks. Siblings are likely to tire of it at different rates and, if it is the only activity provided, there can be a bit of unpleasantness as the family negotiates the right time to leave. As well, there are a limited number of really good Christmas read-alouds - and an apparent endless supply of gooey, wordy, listless books.

Finally, there's the option of just showing up and asking, "How can I help?" Party planners can always use another set of skilled hands behind the scenes, and this at least gives us a chance to talk with and build relationship with the adults. Getting involved at the planning stages can also be helpful. We might offer to take minutes, and to help with tasks like sending out emails or creating flyers - and here I mean really help, not instruct or do-for, as the goal is to be useful even while nurturing independence and new capacity.

Where there's already a strong relationship, there may be opportunity to help a chairperson run a more successful meeting, or draft letters of solicitation or invitation. (Personally, I think this is pretty dull stuff, but my colleagues enjoy it, and I can only imagine how facilitators of Workplace Essential Skills would jump this kind of informal learning opportunity.)

In any case, you can see why, as community literacy workers, we talk about each year's Christmas party strategy. We start talking among ourselves in September - remembering the previous year, looking at the skills within our own volunteer base, and trying to figure out the financial prospects. We talk about prioritizing our time and resources, and how best to respond if we get requests we can't meet. We explore options for finding money for books (soliciting book donations is an option, but a poor one given the likelihood of receiving didactic, age-inappropriate, or just generally unpopular books). We talk about a lot of things, thinking about the families and our resources, the venue and how we've been asked to help.

I don't know if anything in the Foundations in Family Literacy training or, say, somebody's Literacy Studies program speaks to this. Probably not, as it all happens outside the classroom, in public or neighbourhood spaces. Authentic Community Literacy work is probably too informal and unorganized to fit into the academy's notion of prescriptive education - one more example of the difference between literacy work and schooling.

But there should be a course on how to join a Christmas party. Comm Lit 204: Integrating Literacy Support Within Neighbourhood Events and Celebrations. Or, better, Comm Lit 205: Providing Non-judgemental Support of Informal Learning While a Guest at Community Events. Or, maybe just, Comm Lit 206: Strategies to Avoid Singing Silent Night in Front of Forty Bored Children and Their Parents.

I'm thinking you wouldn't even need to make 206 a requirement.

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