UMSL and Girls Inc. celebrate summer literacy program at EyeSeeMe bookstore

by | Jul 31, 2023

Middle school students at Girls Inc. read an inspirational book, participated in a spelling bee, played word games and created vision boards.
Four students, Black middle school aged girls, have their back turned as they inspect a display

Students from Girls Inc. of St. Louis admire a public display showcasing vision boards they constructed Thursday at the EyeSeeMe bookstore in University City, Missouri. The girls were part of a summer literacy initiative sponsored by the UMSL College of Education’s Literacy Clinic, with additional support from the E. Des Lee Tutorial Endowment. (Photos by Burk Krohe)

The EyeSeeMe bookstore was buzzing Thursday afternoon as a group of students from Girls Inc. of St. Louis perused the shelves and proudly admired a public display showcasing vision boards they constructed.

The girls made the vision boards, which represented themselves and their aspirations, as part of a community literacy initiative sponsored by the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education’s Literacy Clinic, with additional support from the E. Des Lee Tutorial Endowment.

The clinic leads a literacy initiative each summer, and this year, Scholar in Residence Kelly Byrd created a book club for 6-8th grade students at Girls Inc., a nonprofit that provides educational and cultural programs in safe environments for girls. Rebecca Rogers, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Tutorial Education and Curators’ Distinguished Research Professor, also collaborated with Byrd on the initiative.

“This is part of the E. Des Lee Tutorial Endowment’s vision to build learning ecologies that center culturally responsive literacy education, local children’s authors, K-12 students and teachers and families,” Rogers explained.

The cover of "It's Not Bragging if It's True," by Zaila Avant-Garde. The cover is in shades of green and yellow with Avant-Garde's smiling face.

As part of the book club, the students read and discussed “It’s Not Bragging If It’s True: How to Be Awesome at Life,” by Zaila Avant-Garde, the first African American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

In addition to the vision boards, students read “It’s Not Bragging If It’s True: How to Be Awesome at Life,” by Zaila Avant-Garde, the first African American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee; participated in a spelling bee at Girls Inc.; and played word games.

“Spelling is a process of integrating and using information about sounds, meaning, and alphabetic patterns. It develops over the lifespan and is an important component in reading and writing with fluency and criticality,” Rogers said.

Thursday’s gathering at EyeSeeMe, an African American children’s bookstore in University City, was a celebration of the girls’ work and a chance to view the new display, which will be showcased at the bookstore until the end of August.

Andrea Woolfolk, a facilitator with Girls Inc. who helped Byrd administer the program, said the students responded positively to the book club and were engaged throughout the summer.

“They enjoyed it,” she said. “I was surprised about the spelling bee. They all got into it. I think it’s kind of motivated them to want to read. Even coming to visit the bookstore, taking them from the center and making it more of a reality. They’ve all picked a book already that they want to read.”

Byrd first connected with Girls Inc. last fall when she led a family history project centering family stories and literacies that ran from September to January, which was also an initiative of UMSL’s literacy clinic partnership with Girls Inc. and the E. Des Lee Tutorial Endowment. As the end of the school approached, Byrd decided she wanted to organize a spelling-focused club for the UMSL Literacy Clinic’s summer initiative.

“I didn’t want it to be like a typical book club, where we would just come in, read a few chapters and discuss it,” she explained. “I wanted to engage the girls more than that. So, I tried to connect different literacy activities that I thought related to the book. It’s about coming into yourself and being proud of the things you succeed in, being more self-aware, setting goals and being able to reach those goals.” Byrd is uniquely poised to lead the students in this work as a children’s author, founder of a family literacy organization, and educator herself.

During June and the first half of July, the group met twice a week and participated in activities related to “It’s Not Bragging If It’s True: How to Be Awesome at Life.” The girls played games to learn new vocabulary words, watched “Akeelah and the Bee,” wrote reviews of the book, and studied for a group spelling bee.

The latter was one of the highlights of the summer.

“The girls were given a set of spelling words that were actually from the Scripps Spelling Bee,” Byrd said. “We had a break, of course, over the Fourth of July holiday, so they had some time to practice the words. Their desire to want to do the spelling bee and the words they were able to spell was just phenomenal.”

Byrd aimed to engage the girls in the joyful aspects of literacy.

“It doesn’t have to be boring,” she said. “Literacy can look a lot of different ways. It can be playing word games; it can even be doing something like a vision board or watching a movie and then having a discussion about that.”

Overall, that goal was successful. Byrd said the girls saw that literacy encompasses many activities. She added that the vision boards were evidence that they took to heart the message about having pride in themselves and setting and accomplishing goals.

“This collaborative initiative was a wonderful example of bringing together foundational aspects of literacy – spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and writing – in a joyful and culturally responsive manner,” Rogers said.

This summer was just a starting point, though.

“My plan is to do the book club again this fall,” Byrd said. “This was an abbreviated program, so I will have more time in the fall to maybe even discuss the book more and spend more time on the vision boards. It’s certainly something that I think could be replicated by another teacher in a school or other summer program.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe