Student scholars embrace reading, critical thinking this summer at Francis Burns
By Jessica Connor
COLUMBIA—As South Carolina continues in the aftermath of the Million Book Effort, one United Methodist Church is strengthening literacy in a different way: hosting a summertime Freedom School.
Francis Burns United Methodist Church opened its doors to 50 self-described scholars for six weeks this summer, all to help the 9- to 14-year-olds hone their reading comprehension skills, engage in dialogue about key social justice issues—and ultimately become the kind of critical thinkers needed in today’s world.
From June 16-July 25, the rising fourth through ninth graders wrestled with issues such as Jim Crow laws, addiction, homelessness, grief and other tragedies, all in relation to self, family, community, country and world. Leaders said the scholars are leaving with a new degree of self-awareness and self-empowerment along with a love of reading. As Carol Singletary, executive director of the Freedom School at Francis Burns, said, the scholars know “they’re not citizens in waiting but agents of change.”
“Reading is the key to everything—if you can read better, you can do math better; you can do music better,” said Site Coordinator John Dixon, who serves much like a principal of the school. “(Freedom School) gets them to think outside the box, not just in the traditional way, where you absorb information and spit it back, but critically.”
Something more for new global reality
Freedom School was held weekdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Most of the day is spent reading and discussing books and their themes in-depth. The classes are restricted to 50 young scholars divided into five groups of 10. Two groups are rising fourth through sixth graders, and three are for rising seventh through ninth graders.
The books they read are designed to provoke deep thought about relevant social issues: for example, “Bang!” by Sharon G. Flake, which addresses gun violence; “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” by Phillip Hoose, which addresses racial justice; and “Marvelous Martin, Neighborhood P.I.: The Freckle-Faced Bully,” by Vincent Alexander, which addresses bullying.
Class discussion often goes very deep, said Project Director Connie Glenn—not just what happened to the character and what did he or she do, but how it applies to the reader’s life.
“We try to give kids something else, something more,” said Glenn, a retired social studies teacher. “They need to be able to have critical thinking skills in order to live in this world today.”
In addition, Freedom School brings in guest speakers, who read texts aloud during the morning high-energy Harambee gathering; the speakers range from schoolteachers, lawyers and pastors to a former homeless man who turned his life around.
“It all just shows them that reading is the key,” Dixon said. “The world is smaller now, and we live in a global society, and that society calls for critical thinking.”
Mississippi roots and a Gospel impact
Freedom School was started 20 years ago by the Children’s Defense Fund. It is based on Mississippi Freedom Summer, which itself grew out of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Movement, which encouraged black voter registration. Freedom School at Francis Burns is only the second to be held in the Columbia area since the program started. This summer, more than 125 Freedom Schools were held in more than 25 states across the nation.
Singletary said the primary goal is to help scholars acquire a desire to read, which ultimately reduces the achievement gap during the summer.
“The first quarter in the school year is often remediation, especially in low-income or rural homes with no books or computers in the home,” Singletary said, noting there is a great need for summer literacy programs.
Freedom School is conducted by servant leader interns: students aged 19 or older who have completed their first year in college and have a 3.0 GPA and a voter registration card. Parents are also required to participate through volunteering and a weekly meeting. The school operates through grants and contributions from church members. A $10/week cost to families covers books, meals, staff training and several field trips.
Singletary said most of the scholars are not members of Francis Burns. Many are members of other churches, and some do not attend church at all. As a member of Francis Burns, she appreciates that her church is opening its arms.
“I think church is about more than Sunday—it should be open seven days a week, 24/7. We cannot talk about saving people and having a wonderful life in the by and by and they’re struggling now,” Singletary said. “We need to help people where they are now.”
Francis Burns pastor the Rev. Ernest Etheredge said Freedom School speaks to the core of the Gospel, and he hopes it will continue at Francis Burns for years to come.
“We are called to serve and minister to persons at all stations in life, and youth are at a very critical time in their life,” he said, noting the ministry reaches far beyond church walls.
Frequently, as he walks the hallways at Francis Burns, scholars will approach him with deep curiosity about their world and how to navigate it—particularly when it comes to the spiritual.
“I’ve had several conversations where a scholar will just walk up to me and say, ‘Are you the pastor here? How do you become a pastor? Did God call you to do that? How did you know?’” Etheredge said. “There’s just a spiritual searching, a yearning, to know God, even in the ‘unchurched.’”
‘Doesn’t feel like regular school’
The student scholars said they get much out of Freedom School.
Carmen White, 14, a rising high school freshman, said she didn’t want to come to Freedom School when she first learned she had been signed up, mostly because she’d hoped to sleep in all summer. To her surprise, it was fun—she was reading a lot more, and reading different kinds of books, the kind about making a real difference in the world.
“It really helps you think better,” Carmen said. “It helps you express your ideas and open up more.”
Timothy Outing, 12, a rising eighth grader, also didn’t want to come at first; he, too, wanted to lie around in bed and just relax. Soon enough, he found himself pulled in to the books and discussions, and he already knows his experience will have a positive impact on his final year in middle school.
“The book ‘Joseph’ really got to me,” Timothy said, rattling off the plot and central themes in the novel by Shelia P. Moses that addresses parental drug and alcohol addiction from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy living in a shelter in a North Carolina ghetto. “That book kept me in suspense! I used to be more closed, but now I’m going to be more interactive with others in discussion, more open.”
D’Andre Abraham, 11, a rising sixth grader, said he, too, knows he is a better scholar for the experience at Freedom School, and he looks forward to returning next year.
“It’s the reading,” he said, his brown eyes gleaming. “At my school, we read a lot of textbooks, but not other books, like these. These are good! We learn other things that can help us when we start middle school. It really goes deeper, and it doesn’t feel like regular school.”
‘Instilling a love for reading’
Singletary said that’s the crux: the books.
“It’s about instilling a love for reading in them,” she said, noting each scholar gets to keep the books they read in Freedom School, which helps to build a strong at-home library for each of them.
She and the other Freedom School leaders hope other UMCs across South Carolina will prayerfully consider hosting a school in their facility next summer.
To learn more about Freedom School and the Children’s Defense Fund, visit www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/freedom-schools/.