Project Literacy Communities

How a Tiny Publishing House is Solving D.C.’s Education Problem

by Mythili Sampathkumar

September 2, 2015
A Reach Incorporated writing group.

According to a new WalletHub study, Washington, D.C. currently lays claim to the second-worst public school system in the country; the lowest math, reading, and SAT scores; the highest dropout rate; and the most unsafe classrooms. Plus, the most recent findings from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 83 percent of eighth grade students in the District of Columbia simply aren’t proficient at reading. 

Despite this seemingly dreary outlook, Kathy Crutcher—the founder of D.C.-based, teen-focused writing and reading program Shout Mouse Press—has hope, because she knows these students have important stories to tell. She’s even publishing their books. 

A writer who has long overseen storytelling workshops for both adults and teens in the D.C. area, Crutcher couldn’t help but fixate on the fact that these students didn’t have access to any age- or culturally-appropriate reading material. After all, says Crutcher, “If high school students are reading at an elementary school level, you can’t give them Dr. Seuss. They’re going to feel like they’re being remediated and they’re going to be embarrassed.”

A lot of these kids grew up in homeless shelters, or have parents that are incarcerated, says Crutcher. Children’s books just weren’t going to speak to them. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about the efforts of her friend, Mark Hecker of Reach Incorporated. “What Reach does is give the teens a Dr. Seuss book, but pairs them with an elementary school child so that both can learn together,” she says.

After throwing around a few ideas with Crutcher, she took Reach’s approach and ran with it, asking, “What if we coached the teenagers to write books for the kids they were tutoring?”  

And thus, Shout Mouse Press was born, publishing books by and for “unheard voices.” (The press’s logo is a mouse with a megaphone.) When Shout Mouse first started out, Crutcher and Hecker identified a few teen tutors they felt would benefit from the Reach summer program, then tasked them with writing four children’s books that touched on topics they really cared about. The teens then read their own books aloud to younger D.C. kids.

This pilot program was a resounding success, and Shout Mouse has since gone on to celebrate its first anniversary as an independent operation that collaborates with a wide variety of organizations tackling similar issues. Crutcher says that for teenagers who struggle to read and write, the biggest hurdle they must overcome has nothing to do with lack of talent or knowledge. Instead, it’s all about building up some confidence—along some authentic passion for telling and reading stories. 

In school, Crutcher says, these teens learned to associate writing not with curiosity or creativity, but with good penmanship, efficient typing skills, and an understanding of spelling and grammar. (Crutcher places these things under one umbrella: the “red pen method.”) So she tries to encourage her students to forget about this kind of literacy. 

Instead, at Shout Mouse, Crutcher tells kids that, “We are reimagining, ‘What is writing?’” Story coaches at the press start by having a simple conversation with students about their lives. Crutcher says the teens “have beautiful things to say and often in direct, powerful ways.” So, she says, story coaches must respect their power. “We start with positive affirmations. ‘Look at what you said! Look at all you’ve already done!’”

She notes that after a student has overcome his or her internal fears of reading and writing, the hardest part then becomes “how to organize and connect [the narrative].” So, to build up the students’ literacy, Shout Mouse often focuses on helping them learn how to “do complex narrative problem solving,” rather than zeroing in on grammar or phonics. As students take the lead and actually write down the powerful stories they have to tell, Crutcher says their schoolwork improves along the way, as do their attitudes about reading for fun.

Sixteen-year-old Litzi Valdivia-Cazzol, a sophomore at Ballou High School, says that working with Shout Mouse “made me feel like I have a voice,” helping increase her comfort level with seeking out opinions from teachers and peers on her writing. That kind of openness is critical to the lifelong learning process, not just to reading and writing, says Crutcher.

Valdivia-Cazzol adds that she now loves to read in her spare time, something she never really thought about before. For her, learning to write has “changed how I looked at reading, because it taught me that different people from different backgrounds may tell different stories, although some stories are similar.” She and other students also benefit from being taken seriously as writers, earning “credibility and legitimacy in the written word,” according to Crutcher.

In underserved school systems like D.C.’s, these kinds of narratives “fill a gap,” which might be why D.C. Public Schools have ordered copies of every book published by Shout Mouse Press, to be stocked in libraries across the school district. At last, public schools in our nation’s capital are able to offer texts written for lower vocabulary levels that are still interesting and relatable to teenage readers, which—Crutcher believes—is a major step in rebuilding an older student’s literacy. 

Our Lives Matter. Image courtesy Shout Mouse Press.

Such books include one written by students at Valdivia-Cazzol’s school. There, the teens have embarked on a particularly timely and important project: a book called Our Lives Matter, reflecting the perceptions of teens on the social movement Black Lives Matter. There is also The Hoodie Hero, from authors at Reach, about how the “hoodie is the new cape”—disassociating it from the fear and intimidation that came with the now infamous shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. 

Shout Mouse Press and its partners have released 14 books to date by young authors, all sold through their website, on Amazon, and in some bookstores in the D.C. area. Profits are split between the partner organization and Shout Mouse, so all proceeds help students in some way. Crutcher says five more books in the pipeline as well.

It is clear that these authors—who not too long ago, struggled to read and write after spending many years in D.C. public schools—have meaningful stories to tell. And their growing love for reading and writing is benefiting them, their communities, and—as Shout Mouse Press finds more and more ways to “amplify” their voices—young people around the world.

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How a Tiny Publishing House is Solving D.C.’s Education Problem