It’s been said that the shortest distance between two people is a story (Gargiulo, 2007). I believe this to be true because everyone has a story based on experiences, cultures, places, and dreams. These are aspects of our lives that are shared, and all of us are writing our own stories every day—our children included. Stories have tremendous value. It is imperative that we honor, celebrate, and preserve them so that they can be shared abundantly, bridging gaps of understanding and bringing more people together. How people support one another is of central importance to fostering the resilience needed to thrive. Since storytelling, which is the earliest form of literacy, brings people together, it presents an opportunity for discovery and for building stronger, supportive relationships among people and their communities. The Yale Child Study Center–Scholastic Collaborative for Child & Family Resilience was formed to answer the question: Can literacy be used to foster resilience?
Long before kids enter school, they may endure adverse childhood experiences that have long-term effects on their lifelong health, well-being, and productivity. Providing children and their families with access to resources and supports helps build the social-emotional skills they need to navigate stressful situations and overcome barriers. Research shows that learning to successfully manage stress is essential for healthy living and serves as the foundation for building resilience (Masten & Gewirtz, 2006). Stories, especially the difficult ones, are a source of strength. And, through social interactions and exposure to literacy-rich environments, children learn to interpret who they are, gain an understanding of their social world and their experiences in that world, and develop social competence (Vygotsky, 1978). Helping kids and their families embrace their stories and harness that strength to become resilient is at the heart of our work.
Our journey began with the implementation of Discover Together in Grundy County, Tennessee, a once proud and thriving Appalachian community that has experienced an increasing lack of access to healthcare, a diminishing number of jobs, and persistent poverty, creating a need for additional support from extended family and putting a severe strain on families’ resources. Opportunities for growth, the deep connection families once felt with one another, and the stories of their community, have been dissipating. To address these challenges and support young children and families in this community, the Yale Child Study Center and Scholastic worked with local organizations to develop Discover Together, a multi-generational approach to literacy grounded in storytelling.
Claiming ownership of our stories gives us the agency to frame exactly how they will be told, from start to finish. Every aspect of Discover Together is designed to connect kids and their families to the place that they call home and learn to tell the stories about it, all while strengthening their adaptive skills. Programs and initiatives that work towards improving children’s lives are often piloted in cities, and while urban and rural communities are vastly different, they may share common concerns such as social isolation or a lack of places for families to spend time with their children.
We worked with Sewanee: The University of the South, Tracy City Elementary School, and other local partners to promote literacy among children, caregivers, and community members in Grundy County with a focus on fostering social connectedness and community pride through stories. Starting with a summer camp that matched books with celebrated community locations, kids were provided with tangible opportunities to learn about the stories of their community, meet their neighbors, and visit places they may not have ever seen otherwise. One of the most beloved trips is visiting the Dutch Maid Bakery & Café in Tracy City, TN. Initially having opened in 1902, it’s the state’s oldest family owned-bakery, but it’s a place that community members did not know much about until they had the opportunity to explore it through Camp Discover. Before heading over to the bakery, students listen to a topical story, such as Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, or Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris. During the field trip, students take a tour, learn about the bakery’s history and the responsibilities that come with owning a business, see how food is made, and even get a free cookie to sample! Students also listen to a relevant story after the visit, such as The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Now, with a beautiful mural and the town’s historical society located directly across the street, the bakery has become a source of pride, providing families a place to gather year-round, right in the center of town.
Camp Discover’s multiple field trips to local places of significance show community members how the embrace the stories of their home, and contribute to a growing sense of local pride. But families expressed the need for more support year-round. Discover Together now incorporates three additional offerings: a family co-op for children from birth through the time they go to school, a learning lab in the form of field trips, and Story Place, which helps children tell stories from pictures that they capture. For example, a child learned the history of the railroad that brought people to his community and created many jobs. As he said, “If it weren’t for the railroad, I wouldn’t be here.”
Grundy families participating in Discover Together have reported personal and social growth, and an increased interest and pride in their community and nature. Children and families also showed increased social connectedness with each other and with community partners, along with boosted self-confidence and curiosity.
The Discover Together approach is now being implemented in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. In partnership with United for Brownsville, the Collaborative is tailoring the Discover Together model to the needs of this urban community, with a maintained focus on storytelling, social connectedness, and celebrating place. Similar to the work in Grundy County, Discover Together Brownsville is offering a Family Co-Op for young children and their caregivers which will be accessible outside of hours normally sponsored by community programs. While there, participants will read, sing, play games, and go on field trips, learning how to tell the stories of their place, and redefine their personal narratives. You can read more about this directly from the source, here.
The capacity to have a past, present, and future, and to tell, think about, and listen to others’ stories, builds social connectedness and helps people see a way forward. Stories make relationships, and we ground those relationships in place. We want children to be proud of where they come from and learn to tell the stories of their communities and their own lives. When this happens, a child’s world expands. And it is that which we are actually beginning to see with Discover Together.
Gargiulo, T. L. (2007). Once Upon a Time: Using Story-Based Activities to Develop Breakthrough Communication Skills. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Masten, A. S., & Gewirtz, A. H. (2006). Vulnerability and Resilience in Early Child Development. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of early childhood development. (pp. 22–43). Malden, MA, US: Blackwell Publishing.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Header image courtesy of Discover Together Grundy Staff. Second image courtesy of Ivey B. Dahlstrom.