Illustration of Ewa McGrail and Gertrude Tinker Sachs next to the title, "The Dream Team"

The Dream Team

by Claire Miller 

What happens to the dreams we dream as children?

Do we put them in a safe place and keep them in mind as we grow up, like the protagonist in Tererai Trent’s children’s book The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can?”

On a Wednesday afternoon at Seven Courts Apartments, an affordable housing community on the western edge of Atlanta, Ewa McGrail reads aloud from her copy of Trent’s book and urges the small group of elementary and middle school children seated before her to share their reactions to the story set in the former Republic of Rhodesia.

“How do the pictures on the cover connect to the story?” she asks next.

McGrail points to the illustration of the young Rhodesian woman on the front of the book — who’s tightly gripping a piece of paper with both hands as three boys walk toward a school building in the background — and leads a discussion about how this picture reflects the woman’s dream of one day attending college in her village.

It’s important for the group to make this connection because, in a few minutes, they’ll be exploring their own dreams and creating the covers for their dream journals.

Neighborhood researchers address a need

McGrail, an associate professor in the College of Education & Human Development, and Gertrude Tinker Sachs, chair of the college’s Department of Middle & Secondary Education, live a few blocks away from Seven Courts Apartments and have been working on a research project with the children there for more than three years.

They were interested in how children in this community expressed themselves when discussing books they’ve read and stories they’ve created and illustrated. So instead of establishing a more traditional book club where attendees simply talk about the books they’ve read, McGrail and Tinker Sachs started a “comic book club” that invites students to create comic strips, drawings and digital stories in response to what they’re reading and discussing.

Students at Seven Courts quickly embraced and expanded on the club’s premise, eagerly sharing their thoughts and stories through art, digital creations, and song and dance. It was then that McGrail and Tinker Sachs realized that the comic book club was much more than the name suggested.

“Research shows that youth appreciate comic books because they offer a rich reading experience through visuals, drawings and other art along with words and dialogue, often presenting information from different angles and viewpoints,” McGrail explains. “The creative products they develop during our reading sessions are performed, commented on and celebrated.”

How does this research make an impact?

CiCi Lampkin, resident services coordinator at Seven Courts, coordinates classes on job readiness, budgeting, crisis prevention and other topics relevant to those living in this affordable housing complex.

You can find her working in a four-bedroom apartment on the property that’s been transformed into a positive learning environment for McGrail, Tinker Sachs and the children at Seven Courts to work on their journals and create digital stories.

Lampkin’s energy and passion for the children shines through right away as she shows off the dining and living room and two bedrooms she has equipped with tables, chairs and art supplies for the comic book club participants to use. She’s also designated one bedroom for parents and families who regularly volunteer their time with the club and turned the last bedroom into her office.

Lampkin can tell the difference this space — and the comic book club as a whole — has made for the children and families she works with every day.

“Through this club, our kids have grown socially and academically, and created a family bond,” she says. “To see these ladies come every week and teach our children with so much passion, you know that there’s good in this world.”

After reading and discussing “The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can,” Cynthia Prince’s son and daughter are quick to get started on their dream journal covers. They want to be a football player and a choreographer, respectively, and Prince is excited to see how their covers turn out.

She volunteers her time with the club every week and has already noticed a change in her children since they began attending sessions with McGrail and Tinker Sachs.

“They were always A and B students, but this has enhanced their vocabulary and helps them with public speaking,” Prince says. “It shows them that they’re important and they have a purpose right now.”

Michelle Anderson’s daughter has been a participating club member since the beginning and has seen similar gains in her literacy skills. Anderson also loves knowing her daughter is taking part in a safe after-school activity that encourages her creativity.

“I think we should have more programs like this because they work for the kids — it keeps them out of trouble,” she says. “You know where your kids are, and you know they’re taken care of and they’re learning. I don’t have to worry. I know that she’s safe and she’s getting something out of it.”

The club’s attendees, who use a club name of their own choosing while they’re in session, dream of becoming professional athletes, entrepreneurs, explorers and performers when they grow up.

“I want to be a chef and a singer,” says a fifth grader who goes by Keke. “I like to cook because I like to help my mom out when she cooks. And my sister and I can sing. I’ve sung here before!”

But they’re also very conscious of how they can use their dreams to help others.

“My first dream is to become a professional football player, and my second dream is to create a business where I help the homeless have homes,” said YMV, another fifth grader in the group. “I would pay their rent and everything so they could live in a house and stay there. They’ll have everything they need. I don’t want to see anyone homeless without water or food.”

A sense of community

The comic book club has not only benefited the participating parents and kids, but it’s also brought the Seven Courts community together, as resident and volunteer Rikkilah Christian can attest.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed everything they’ve brought to the community,” she says. “The club allows these children, parents and the community as a whole to succeed. It teaches academics, social skills and how to be a family unit. It’s so important.”

McGrail and Tinker Sachs take turns teaching, filming their sessions, and interviewing children and parents about their experiences. They’ve presented information about the comic book club at five education-focused conferences. Moving forward, they’re applying for additional grant funding and expanding their research with the hope of applying what they’ve learned thus far to more classrooms in the area.

They’re welcomed warmly by Seven Courts residents when they arrive each week and have even been invited to social gatherings in the complex — meaningful reminders of the ripple effect the comic book club has made in this community.

“Bringing change to the lives of our students, children and youth begins within the communities we work and live, McGrail says. “And on many occasions, we’ve had the opportunity to share stories with this community about their children’s successes in the comic book club and have invited their ideas for growth and support.”