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Family Literacy- Cuenta Cuentos  Storytelling

Family Literacy- Cuenta Cuentos Storytelling

Written by Hilaria Barajas
July 02, 2021

At first, I felt somewhat frozen when thinking about how to create a literacy event with students online. It was daunting, to be honest. I loved the idea of having a community come together over something literacy related, but I was nervous thinking about the time it would take, the extra time I would ask of families and students, and how to provide something meaningful and worthwhile. 

While brainstorming, I thought about the conversations we had in the Bay Area Writing Project group. I thought about how we worship the written word, how students come in with so much knowledge and are experts of many kinds of literacies, and of how valuable an asset families and the larger school community are to the education of students.

The family focus seemed most important to me. The project had to have a meaningful connection with students AND families. This year was my very first year teaching and I was lucky to be placed in 3rd grade with an established and creative grade level partner teacher. I learned so much from her throughout the year and one of the biggest lessons she taught me was the value of home/community-school connection. She went above and beyond in this realm. Often, she would drive to students’ homes to drop off materials, she would go to families when they needed support with online bills, she would pick students up on the weekends and take them to the park if the family needed a babysitter. She really went above and beyond. 

I understand that much of that work is outside of the realm of our salary (as is MUCH of our work) and I would never shame or look down upon any teacher that did NOT do this. I myself could not do much of what she did, partly because I did not have a car/licence, but also because I was EXHAUSTED by Zoom, by the state of the world, and by personal issues going on at home. Still, I learned lessons from her and it pushed me past my comfort zone. 

Organizing a large literacy event seemed beyond my comfort zone. It’s hard to ask families and students to engage in something extra. At first, I thought about doing a COVID time capsule. I thought it could be an opportunity to reflect honestly on the year, making space to grieve and process the hard parts while also making space to celebrate the small (or big!) exciting things in between. I still really like this idea and perhaps I can do it with my students at the start of next year. However, my plans changed (in a great way!) after meeting with my colleague, Cristina. We talked together about our plans and she spoke about a literacy event where families would share stories about their youth and hopefully, children would share their own stories back. It sounded amazing! 

This student wrote and drew their mother. It says: “when my mom was 9 years, she did her first communion.”

From that conversation, we talked about a few questions/prompts that students could ask families. The ones that I ended up using for my literacy event were (kid asking adult)

  • “What’s something memorable from when you were my age?” 

  • “What’s an important lesson you learned as a child that you still remember today?” 

  •  “What was your favorite game to play as a kid?”

  • “What is your favorite book or story as a kid?” 

  • “Is there anything else you want to share?” 


I announced the project during class, during our monthly family-teacher meeting, and in our parent whatsapp group chat. I found that families had easier access to paper materials, so I printed out a packet with the questions and left space for caretakers/students to draw and/or write. I ended up getting a small amount of participation from families (about 10). I would still like to continue this project next year with families, and something I would do differently (if possible with COVID) is have the event in person, with food and drinks. I would love to have families come into the classroom and talk about their experiences. Still, I found the responses I did receive to be heartwarming, vulnerable, honest, and detailed. 

This student talked with both their father and mother.

Something that we talked about in the BAWP group was the worship of the written word. I recognize that often, we devalue oral storytelling and traditions because they are not seen as “complex” as writing. However, oral storytelling has historically been used as a means of passing down knowledge and creating friendship and family. Personally, both of my parents stopped formal schooling before the 3rd grade. They relied on verbal communication and word of mouth recommendations/warnings (among other things) to exist and thrive in their community. Knowing that many of my students and their families come from similar backgrounds, I gave students and families the option to draw and/or write about their stories. Recognizing that some students did not have a close relationship with a parent, I told students that they may do this project with any older person that they feel comfortable with. 

These are the instructions I gave: 

“Some of the most lasting lessons and most interesting stories are the ones passed down from family members and friends. Oral storytelling is an essential component of literacy and has been used for centuries asa way of keeping traditions alive and passing along ancestral knowledge. 

We hope that you will talk with your student/child about the following prompts so that they may learn from you, and maybe, you also learn from them 🙂 Write or draw (or both) in the appropriate boxes. Thank you for your participation!” 

This student carried out the project with their dad. The final message says “It is a pleasure to participate in things with my son.”

Looking at the responses, I was blown away, humbled, and honored to read the stories families shared. They shared some hard lessons from their youth, as well as some joyful memories of playing their favorite games. Some shared about their favorite books or their favorite subjects to study. Others shared about religious events or traditions they learned from their own parents. Lineage!! Many families wrapped up by emphasizing how much they value time with their child and how badly they want their child to succeed.  It was beyond an honor to read stories from families, and it made me realize how important it is for me to bring in families’ knowledge and expertise into the “formal” classroom so that their knowledge is publicly and openly seen as valuable within the k-12 public school. 

This student asked their mom questions and Mom responded with detailed stories and beautiful works of art. The last box says” I did not finish studying and for that reason I support my son so that he can study. I want my son to go very far when he is older.”

This project was humbling, difficult at times, and very much worthwhile. I hope to do this project in person next school year and I hope to continue to reflect and plan with Writing Project colleagues. 

This student interviewed their mom. He wrote about his mom’s experience in school in Guatemala, how her favorite games were soccer and hide and seek. Her favorite book was “Barbuchin” and her favorite subjects were Spanish and the natural sciences.