Young Faces Smiling—What Is It?

Young Faces Smiling (YFS) is an in-class literacy-based program that meets once a week for 10 to 25 weeks with an entire class during English (Language Arts) or Social Studies periods. Using pop culture as a hook, working with the class over the course of the program on their reading, writing, math skills and various academic subjects. Unlike traditional enrichment programs that either address academic support absent engagement or student interests without attending to academic needs, YFS addresses both, support and interest, through an on-going reading and letter-writing program that results in a response in the form of a letter, an interview, video-taped message, or classroom/business visit from a recipient of the student letters.

Building Tenacity and Persistence

Informed by the current research on college entry and completion, YFS addresses two of the soft skills, tenacity and persistence, often overlooked when schools create interventions programs to address student academic performance. Students identify celebrities, entrepreneurs, and public figures that they would like to meet; they read articles about the subjects, which highlight biographical information, secrets to their success, and pitfalls to avoid; finally, they write letters grounded in one or two facts culled from the article read. Then the letters are mailed by YFS who guarantees a response through one of the forms mentioned above. From the first week of the program, students grab onto the idea that they will hear from someone they’re interested in hearing from, and they persist through reading and writing  and other subjects during the entire program to see whether reading and writing when situated inside a program such as this can deliver on their promises.

A Significant Step in the Development of Readers and Writers

A number of students who participate in Young Faces Smiling are not avid readers or fluent writers. In fact, some are alliterate: They simply refuse to read and write, and having engaged this refusal over the years; their literacy skills have regressed. Pre- and post-writing samples from students involved in the program reveal that those who struggle with composing a sentence or two at the beginning of the program are able to double and triple that output when it ends, and fluent readers and writers become more so. The areas of mechanics, grammar, and usage are addressed through mini-lessons delivered to the entire class, and glaring issues around writing are shared with the teacher(s) of record who may choose to address those issues during the remainder of the week. Overall, YFS employs a unique approach to reading and writing workshop. Students read and write constantly in the program, and letters are finished when students say they are, generally at the end of class. YFS’s approach to the reading and writing processes is that the recursive acts of reading and re-reading and writing and rewriting must still happen, but they occur with increased frequency through fresh articles and new letters composed by students who are motivated to meet or hear directly from someone who interests them.

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Engagement: An Entry into Academic Challenge

The work of Banks, Alvermann, Lee, Guthrie, and Mahiri on engagement and the use of home language and resources to facilitate learning coupled with Morrell’s work in media literacy ground YFS. A number of students must be engaged in the subject matter and task in order to participate fully in learning. Having engaged them, education must hold them long enough to produce success on the assigned tasks. This has not been the case for African Americans and Latinos, particularly those living in urban areas. Therefore, YFS engages these students, the nation’s most vulnerable, through choice: they get to choose the subjects to whom they write letters, and YFS holds their interest by including space for their experiences outside of school to shape the content of their writing.

If interested in Young Faces Smiling, you can contact Ms. McClarty.