“Dear, Mama”—Remembering & Celebrating Early Family Literacy Practices by Dionna N. Roberts
My earliest memories of literacy take me back to the warm musty attic of my family’s small house, on Belvidere Street in Detroit, MI in the early 80’s. My mother transformed this unlikely space into a sanctuary for creativity, stories, and intentional learning. In that tiny intimate space on Saturday mornings, my mother and I would play school. She was the skilled teacher and I was her eager little learner. She had purchased a large green chalkboard from a neighborhood resale shop that she would write on in white or yellow chalk with purpose. She neatly constructed each letter (uppercase and lowercase)–for weeks upon weeks until I knew all of their names, the sounds that they made and how to write them in chalk just like she would. After a while, she began to string together letters to form words. Those words often rhymed creating patterns for songs and chants that prepared me to read. There were shelves of books that lined the walls of my attic classroom of one. Green handwriting paper, chunky eraser-less pencils, and caramel colored gum erasers were always available inside of my flip-top wooden desk for writing letters and words. My mother would read aloud stories with expression in such a way that made me want to read just like that. We would write stories together. I’d write stories on my own and would invite my dolls to be my audience to listen. I learned to read before ever stepping foot into my preschool classroom at age four because I had a mother who was willing to be explicit, engaging, intentional, and ambitious with her goals of teaching the importance and gift of literacy to her only daughter.
After our “Saturday School” lessons, we’d journey to the kitchen to make breakfast. Our special summer breakfasts consisted of fried green tomatoes and oatmeal on the back porch. Momma would do most of the cooking, but she’d let me help of course. I’d pay close-close attention to everything that she was doing so I could remember when I was old enough to make breakfast on my own. She’d either buy the green tomatoes from the store or have me to go out to the backyard to pick a few from our small garden’s vines. We’d wash them together. She’d do the slicing, and then the magic would happen.
She’d begin to tell me stories about how my great-grandmother and great aunts would cook, sing, and tell stories when she’d go down to visit them in Lamar, Mississippi when she was a little girl, just like me. I’d sit and listen wide-eyed and visualize her world of “way back when”. The soulfully seasoned slices, coated in yellow cornmeal, fried to a crispy golden brown would lay bordering the rim of my bowl filled with sweet buttery oatmeal. Using the sides of our forks, we would chunk off a crunchy piece of tomato and introduce it to the creamy consistency of the oatmeal. The salty twang would marry with the gentle sweetness as we chewed the two with one bite. Our glasses of milk would sweat a steady stream of summer condensation down its sides as the ice cubes momma added began to melt. “I can only drink milk when it’s really cold.” she would tell me every time as if I’d forgotten why from the last time we’d drank with together at summer breakfast. We would sit and plan out how we were to spend our day together. “Drink that milk girl before it gets thin.” Momma would caution. I’d wash the bites of twangy crunch and sweet mush down. I’d make sure that my top lip went way down deep into the glass so that a milky mustache would proudly grace my brown little girl face.
We’d sit, talk, and plan out the rest of our Saturday which almost always involved finding garage sales in the neighborhood or a trip to the “Goody House” for new books and toys! Well, they weren’t brand new exactly. The “Goody House” was actually the Goodwill or Salvation Army, but for three year old me, it was a wonderful place of treasures. Treasures that often smelled kind of stale like the basement after it rains, sometimes were adorned with other kids’ names, but I didn’t mind.
All of these memories cause me to question whether or not my mother knew exactly what she was doing by making my everyday literacy experiences so rich. She couldn’t have known that she was preparing the brain of a life-long learner and future teacher. My dear mama created an insatiable thirst for knowledge within my little girl heart with her simple idea of Saturday School and her ability to weave conversation and story into every minute of our days spent together. She is so appreciated for those priceless memories.
“Family literacy can describe the way parents, family and community members use literacy at home and in their communities. Literacy activity occurs naturally during the routines of daily living and helps adults and children get things done. The ethnic, racial, and cultural heritages of families are reflected in the literacy activities they in which they engage. Family literacy can apply to all families and all literacy activities that take place within the family, not just school like activities. Although family literacy traditionally takes place within the family, family literacy activities and programs can be initiated by organizations outside of families.”
(2015, November 4). Retrieved from http://literacy.kent.edu/familyliteracy/whatisit.html
Dionna N. Roberts is a district K-5 instructional literacy coach and a part-time instructor in the Literacy Studies department at Western Michigan University. She knew she wanted to be a writer ever since her second-grade teacher invited her entire class to memorize and recite a poem they had written for the school-wide holiday program. Even though she was pretty shy as a kid, she loved teaching young writers at the elementary level for 14 years prior to coaching. You will find Dionna in Kalamazoo, MI hoarding poems and stories in her journals and notebooks.