An award-winning curriculum, Real Stories, Real Teens takes the written word of teenagers and uses it as a springboard for meaningful discussions. Focusing on relevant topics, such as love, fears, friendship, independence and responsibility, the program engages teens in discussion and self-reflection while motivating them to read.
Geared for students between the ages of 12 and 18, Real Stories, Real Teens provides an outstanding opportunity for engaging poor readers in an after-school or summer program. With a dual focus on youth development, the program is also accessible and engaging for at-risk youth who are motivated to achieve at a higher academic level.
Goal of Program
Capitalizing on the power of positive peer influence, the program uses real stories written by real teenagers to engage participants in discussions of values. Aimed at poor readers, the pre- and post- reading activities support comprehension skills with an underlying youth development objective.
Length of Program
With 28 stories, the curriculum provides a youth worker with programming for virtually an entire academic year. Developed so that lessons can be used as stand-alones, the program supports involvement of students who might not attend every meeting.
While the leader’s guide suggests that a lesson can be run in a minimum of 40 minutes, this seems a bit ambitious. Allowing five minutes, as suggested, for an Opening Activity might not be adequate. For example, before reading The Fantastic Four, students brainstorm about group affiliations. They then have a short discussion about group membership before an open-ended writing assignment called free writing and sharing on a topic.
Aiming for 60 to 90 minutes per session would allow for a more relaxed atmosphere to encourage open and meaningful discussion.
Resources and Materials
In addition to copies of the anthology for each student, a leader will need a whiteboard or flip chart and markers. General classroom supplies, like paper and pencil, are also needed for each lesson.
The leader’s guide provides good background information for implementing the Real Stories program. Be sure to check out the additional resources at the end of the book for excellent facilitator strategies and team-building activities. The guide also addresses the concern of when and how to make a professional referral based on individual disclosures. Program directors can easily design a half-day training session using the leader’s guide and include role-plays among staff members.
Real Stories also offers professional half-, full-, and two-day on-site training. In addition, to help with implementation, training packages offer observation and coaching sessions and the opportunity to learn how to extend Real Stories, with such additional activities as art projects and multimedia production.
Group leaders should plan at least 20 minutes to read the story in advance and familiarize themselves with the lesson. Some lessons require time for photocopying.
Anthology stories are broken into six broad areas: making connections, being yourself, the meaning of friendship, meeting the people in your world, dealing with difficult situations, and taking control of your future. Because stories are intended to be presented as individual lessons, program leaders are encouraged to select stories that best speak to the needs of the group.
Each story is identified by a core issue and theme. Certain issues, such as trust, are explored in a variety of settings. For example, Learning to Forgive examines trust between a mother and her son, who winds up in a group home. Summer of Secrets links trust with a death in the family and the loss of a boyfriend.
Taken as a whole, the anthology addresses both external and internal needs of youth. The power of the program lies in the fact that the stories are written by teenagers. Combining the stories with well-structured group activities, the resulting discussions tap into personal experiences and personally held beliefs. The ensuing positive peer pressure encourages self-reflection and a model for changing attitudes and behaviors.
Watch Out for …
The program is touted as an after-school literacy curriculum, and users need to be aware of how this claim is qualified. Buried deep in supporting online, downloadable documents, the publishers acknowledge that Real Stories is neither a “formal reading instruction program” nor a “remedial” program.
To its credit, Real Stories embeds a number of best practices used in literacy programs. Each lesson’s Opening Activities attempt to activate prior knowledge and tap into a student’s personal understanding of the story’s theme, as it relates to the lesson’s purpose and core issues. The Leader’s Guide identifies key places throughout each story to interject literal comprehension questions. Explore the Ideas extends the post-story discussion with deeper questions that tap into applied and affective comprehension.
Readability of the collection of stories appears to vary widely. A review of three random stories reveals a grade-level range of 1.3 to 5.8 for the reading level. The publishers, however, say that the average reading level is 6.5. A list of vocabulary words to review prior to reading would be helpful in supporting comprehension.
The curriculum recommends having students read the stories aloud. Oral presentation of the stories is critical to making sure that everyone understands the text. If, however, most participants are poor readers, program leaders should carefully evaluate who, if anyone, should be called upon to read. Rather than alienate poorly achieving students with fear of embarrassment, program leaders may find it best to read the story aloud themselves.
Similar issues may involve the use of free writing. Free writing focuses on the process of making connections, not a final written product. Poor readers, however, are often reluctant writers. Care should be taken to train program leaders in appropriate expectations when using this technique. It might also be useful to keep a list of alternative means for accomplishing the various free writing goals.
While Real Stories was tested in a pilot program on 1,000 New York City teenagers, no published study addresses its efficacy in meeting its goals as a literacy curriculum, a writing program or a youth development program.
Nonetheless, the power and appeal of Real Stories lie in its use of a confrontational approach in therapeutic positive peer pressure. Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, referred to this effective method of working with adolescents as “no-crap therapy.” Anyone working with at-risk youth knows the value of compassionate, yet straightforward, honesty that cuts through protective barriers and gets to the core of distorted thinking. The anthology stories do just that. They lay an honest reflection of personal experience on the table for other teens to talk about.
Research in the value of positive peer pressure points out that participants in this process get as much out of helping their peers as the person who is being helped. The beauty of Real Stories lies in its use of program leaders as facilitators of discussions, not disseminators of information. Leaders set up activities for students to explore. For example, in A Sad Silence, students explore different constructive and destructive means for revealing secrets. Debriefing after the activity allows students to evaluate their ideas.
Real Stories was not necessarily designed as a specific therapeutic program. Its implicit use of the confrontation model, however, adds credibility to its capacity to achieve certain desired outcomes. It seems doubtful that Real Stories can truly claim to improve literacy skills in poor readers. Nonetheless, one can hope that Real Stories can motivate reluctant readers to begin to read for pleasure and self-improvement.