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Q&A with Keith Hefner and Eric Gurna, creators of the Real Stories Program


1. Why did you develop the Real Stories program?
2. How does it address the developmental needs of adolescents?
3. Why do you use stories written by teens?
4. Why do you also include young adult novels?
5. Do the stories address sensitive topics?
6. Do you have to use the stories in order, like a curriculum?
7. How did you develop the lessons?
8. What are the biggest challenges in implementing the program?
9. What about writing? Many of my students and staff are insecure about their writing skills.
10. How do organizations use the program? What training do you need?
11. What feedback are you getting from the users?
12. What age group is the Real Stories Program aimed at?
13. What's the reading level?
14. What does the Real Stories program cost?
15. Who do I contact?


PDF DOCUMENTS
Benefits of the Real Stories Program [pdf]
What Real Stories Is (and What It Isn’t) [pdf]

1. Why did you develop the Real Stories program?
There is abundant evidence for the importance of reading, and especially reading for pleasure during out-of-school time. Kids who read more and read for pleasure do better in all kinds of ways. But reading proficiency among adolescents is flat, at best. In a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts on the decline in reading among adolescents, chairman Dana Gioia said that data were "alarming." This program is designed to hook teens on reading. [back to top]

2. How does it address the developmental needs of adolescents?
The stories we've chosen aim right at the heart of adolescent developmental needs, especially the need to establish their own identities in the context of family expectations, peer culture, media pressure, and other influences. We also acknowledge the importance of making choices at this age. The Real Stories program gives teens (and staff) the chance to explore many different themes, and to match the stories and activities they use to the interests of their group. [back to top]

3. Why do you use stories written by teens?
We're tapping into the power of peers, who are often the most credible source of information for each other. Teens who read these stories will see peers facing tough situations and making good choices. Plus, Youth Communication's teen-written stories are exceptionally good. They win top prizes every year (in competition with adult publications) from the Association of Educational Publishers, for example. [back to top]

4. Why do you also include young adult novels in the Real Stories Program?
Our goal is to get teens reading. The more the better. We've included excerpts from three young adult novels in the anthology. The novels are part of the Bluford High School series. They're set at an urban school in Los Angeles and address many of the same powerful themes as the true stories by teens. In our early tests, we've seen that once teens read the first chapter of a Bluford book, they want to know what happens next. In the Real Stories program, we provide enough novels (at a very reasonable cost) that staff can just give them to teens who want to read more. Before you know it, a teen who wouldn't read anything is going to be asking to take a book home. [back to top]

5. Do the stories address sensitive topics?
Yes. They look at love, loss, family secrets, self-cutting, and other tough issues-the kinds of issues that teens are really wrestling with. However, the stories and activities are carefully designed to show positive models for how to cope with tough issues. The Leader's Guide also has a special section on how to deal with sensitive topics. [back to top]

6. Do you have to use the stories in order, like a curriculum?
No. Each story and activity is entirely self-contained. Leaders can pick and choose stories so that the themes match the interest of your group at any given time. Also, there is no prior knowledge assumed for any lesson. Intermittent attendance is one of the biggest challenges of after school programs for teens, but that doesn't matter. Teens can jump right in, whether it's their first experience with the lessons or they've been doing it all year. [back to top]

7. How did you develop the lessons?
Youth Communication staff tested many of the stories and lessons with teens in after school programs (and advisory-like classes in schools) for several years. They were tested with kids ages 12-17, in mixed groups and in same sex groups, in 40-minute sessions and 80-minute sessions. Staff at Development Without Limits, who have many years of experience creating active learning programs, adapted the lessons and wrote new ones. In all the lessons, our goal is to provide clear direction for the facilitator while also allowing room to improvise and adapt, based on the interests of teens and staff. [back to top]

8. What are the biggest challenges in implementing the program?
At first, teens are often resistant to reading in the out-of-school hours because they think it's going to be like school. But shortly after you start the Real Stories program you are going to have another problem: books will start to disappear. Even the most resistant readers are captivated by the stories in these books and novels. We've purposely included very inexpensive novels (about $2 each) so you can choose to let teens keep them. But you'll want to keep track of the anthologies because they're more expensive. [back to top]

9. What about writing. Many of my students and staff are insecure about their writing skills.
There is writing in the Real Stories program, but none of it is collected or graded. For example, activities often open with a free write. But as we describe in the Leader's Guide, grammar, spelling, and punctuation don't matter. It's just writing to get your creative juices flowing. Teens quickly get used to it. Teens are also asked to write in some of the activities, but again, it's just to organize their thoughts or a presentation. They are the only ones who see it. We've structured the activities so that writing becomes a tool, but not something that the teens (or staff) are evaluated on. (We leave that to their English teachers.) [back to top]

10. How do organizations use the program? What training do you need?
A typical use of the program would be to set aside one day a week for Real Stories (or perhaps an hour each day during a summer program). In each session, you'd read one story with the group and run the activities. Development Without Limits can provide training tailored to the needs of your group. We can jump right in and train staff to use the lessons. We can also provide training in the larger context, such basic youth development and group work skills. [back to top]

11. What feedback are you getting from the users?
We're getting some of the best responses to any program we've ever implemented. Staff tell us that teens who initially said they didn't want to participate in a reading program are now asking to start a book club! They tell us that the stories are helping teens talk about important issues that they didn't feel comfortable raising before. Staff also report that the stories and discussions are spurring new "extension" ideas, like keeping journals. [back to top]

12. What age group is the Real Stories Program aimed at?
Adolescents, ages 12-18. They are ideal for middle school youth in after school programs, advisories, or anywhere else you want to help teens explore the feelings and issues they are struggling with-while also strengthening their reading skills. [back to top]

13. What's the reading level?
The stories vary, but the average reading level is 6.5. One of the best things about the Real Stories Program is that the stories are so compelling that even youth who read poorly are motivated to get through the stories. At the same time, better readers are so engrossed in the stories that the fact that they are "easy" to read never occurs to them. [back to top]

14. What does the Real Stories program cost?
There are several ways to buy Real Stories. For maximum impact, we encourage organizations to order training and materials. That will help staff make the most effective use of the stories and the activities to promote literacy and youth development goals. Please contact Erica Wong at 212-279-0708 x108 or ewong@youthcomm.org for information on the complete Real Stories program, including training.

You can also just buy the materials. You can purchase the Real Stories, Real Jobs or Real Men kits or individual books at the Youth Communication store. Or contact us for details. [back to top]

15. Who do I contact?
Erica Wong at Youth Communication, 212-279-0708 x108, ewong@youthcomm.org. [back to top]

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