February 15th, 2023
By Caty Franco, Project Manager
This January, I helped the RedRover Readers team take the next step in our partnership with the Sacramento Native American Health Center (SNAHC): Training Native teenagers at our workshop on how to implement the EAGLES Program (Early Ages Gathering to Learn Empathy through Stories). The EAGLES program is an expanded, Native-centric version of the RedRover Readers program, co-developed with the SNAHC team and American Indian Education partners.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we showed up, as we had only ever trained adult educators and volunteers to use the RedRover Readers program in the past. I chatted with Karly Noel, RedRover’s Vice President of Education and Operations, in the SNAHC lobby before the presentation. We knew we’d need to be flexible in how we teach the “why” behind the program – how to use stories about animals to build empathy and develop skills like self- and social awareness. We hoped the teens would find the workshop engaging and enlightening – but we had no idea just how much we would learn from the teens, too.
From the get-go, the teens introduced themselves and held an air of confidence and wisdom beyond their years. We asked questions like, “Why do you think we use stories to teach kids about animals and emotions?” and they just got it. They understood the connection between stories, animals, and empathy more readily than most adult groups we’ve worked with. Like pros, they jumped into the strategies we teach, like how we ask questions in a neutral, non-judgmental way so kids feel safe and empowered to respond from their own feelings and experiences.
One teen, a junior in high school, shared, “Native kids often have to grow up too fast. I want to lead these storytelling sessions so that they have a safe space to be a kid, use their imaginations, explore their feelings, and be themselves. They can use their Native-given names in my space. We can share stories about our families and communities, and they won’t have to worry about getting teased for having long hair.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised by these teens’ wisdom and enthusiasm, because time and time again, young people inspire me. After sharing the following quote in the workshop about the power of imagination, a remarkable discussion opened up with the high schoolers.
“We seem to have forgotten about the power of imagination. We’ve forgotten that children are motivated far more by what attracts the imagination than by what appeals to reason. We’ve forgotten that their behavior is shaped to a large extent by the dramas that play in the theaters of their minds.”
— Books That Build Character, A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories by W. Kilpatrick
These young people are at a critical point in their development, at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood. They read this quote and were able to connect with it in different ways than adults due to their proximity to childhood. They remember how powerful imagination is for children: they shared stories about how they always dreamed of being a doctor, but as they got older, they were taught to think more practically about the future. They remembered being completely captivated by stories their families taught them and related how their younger siblings often change their behavior after their parents tell them a ‘coyote trickster’ story. So again, they just got it. They understood why we use stories as a vessel for our discussions. They understood how hard it can be to talk about and put words to feelings as a child, but how relating to characters in stories can give them the vocabulary and confidence to share about difficult things in their lives.
Karly and I left this workshop feeling so energized, rejuvenated, and hopeful. We hope to train many more Native youth facilitators and that they will go on to read to many more children, but it only took one workshop to see how impactful this program can be. We hope this partnership can lay the groundwork for even more opportunities to connect with youth from underserved areas. We hope we can continue to find animal-themed books written by authors from underrepresented communities. And we hope we can continue to bring joy, connection, and safe spaces to kids from all around the country. The next generation of young people gives us so much hope for a kinder, more compassionate future