Each Story Is Worth Hearing

Community Impact of the Reader/Writer Program

By Judge Bill Koch

LeVar Burton knows it. Barbara Bush promoted it. Others champion it. Everyone realizes literacy is essential. Literacy forms the basis for all communication. It connects each of us to the world around us. And reading about personal experiences, far-away places, and made-up worlds allows our imaginations to soar. In many ways, literacy allows us to imagine a better tomorrow. Reading—and its necessary counterpart, writing—is bedrock needed for an engaged, thoughtful, and creative country. As First Lady Jill Biden has more recently observed, “[literacy] affects every aspect of our society.” Yet, for too many students in the Twin Cities, there are barriers to literacy.

There is a program in the Twin Cities allowing attorneys to join teachers and students to encourage and strengthen the literacy (and resilience) of middle school students: Reader/Writer. This program is the brainchild of former English teacher Lia Venchi, and it has actively engaged hundreds of attorneys in the Twin Cities. 

Years ago, as an English teacher at Northeast Middle School, Venchi was asked to prepare her seventh- and eighth-grade students for transition to an International Baccalaureate Program. Since many of the 125 students were at least two years behind grade level for both reading and writing, Venchi endeavored to provide them endless writing opportunities. But it was overwhelming for a single teacher to read and provide meaningful feedback on the flood of writing. Working with her school’s community partners at the time (among them three local law firms and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office), Lia created a program where each “reader” would be teamed with one or two students for the year to review their writing. Students blossomed knowing they would be writing for “their” reader, someone outside their family and their school, someone “important” in the community who was taking time to read what the students wrote. The results of this connection were dramatic. 

Despite the early success of the program, changes in state and federal education priorities and testing led to the future Reader/Writer program laying nascent for several years. Venchi moved to teach at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. Through her experiences as an educator, Venchi came to understand that for far too many of her students and their families—particularly students and families of color—school could be a hostile place. School could not shield them from racism and the daily struggles they encountered in their personal lives, and sometimes, it exacerbated those issues. Venchi could not guarantee that the vulnerable would find safe refuge in school. But her experience also gave Venchi the motivation to create a more contemporary Reader/Writer program.  

Students blossomed knowing they would be writing for “their” reader, someone outside their family and their school, someone important in the community who was taking time to read what the students wrote. The results of this connection were dramatic.

In 2016, Venchi launched Reader/Writer as a nonprofit to facilitate youth becoming fluent, confident, expressive writers. The program aims to develop the stamina that young writers need to see them through upper-level high school classes and college. The program is a complement to a teacher’s or school’s writing curriculum but is not intended to replace that instruction.  

Since its creation, Reader/Writer has engaged more than 1,200 students and 600 volunteers. Last year, 180 students and 112 volunteers participated. This year has a slightly higher number of volunteers.  

Growth is objectively measured by comparing students’ writing samples at the start of the program to those at the end. Students maintain portfolios with their writing samples and the comments from their Readers. At one school employing Reader/Writer, students who were enrolled in Special Ed or English Language Learner (ELL) programs—who must take a state writing test to move into regular classes—were 10 times more successful than their classmates who did not participate in Reader/Writer. 

Anecdotally, those on the front lines see significant growth. Angel Dwyer, a Special Education Resource Teacher at Franklin Middle School, notes that the biggest changes she sees through a student’s participation in Reader/Writer is “kids’ views toward writing, and helping them approach other issues in their lives.”  The social and emotional growth of the students is “noteworthy,” and “the amount of progression is intense.” The personal connection between the Reader and the Writer “bridges the gap between affluency and non-affluency, allowing both [individuals] to grow.” Through this personal connection with their Reader, a student comes to value writing. Through Reader/Writer, both the professional and the student experience this growth.  

Reader/Writer can provide much-needed stability and a connection with the outside world. Tragically, within just a few blocks of Franklin Middle School (currently participating in the program), there have been six murders this school year. Chaos from COVID, fights, and other community disruptions continue. The school walls cannot protect the students from this reality. But the consistent and meaningful participation of the Readers allows the students in the program to know their stories are being heard. 

As Venchi notes, “Writing well is as important as reading well, and perhaps attorneys and those in the justice system know this more than others, which is why they are among Reader/Writer’s most dedicated, thoughtful, and compassionate Readers. Students recognize their attorney Reader is a privileged person—an important person in the community—and they are impressed that an important person takes the time to read their ‘mess,’ as one student recently described their efforts at writing.”  

The exchanges—light editing, asking questions, and sharing insights—lead to trust. Through the consistent engagement of the Readers, “The students will come to honor them and be inspired to change their attitude to education and their own possibilities,” adds Venchi. 

Three-quarters of the current Readers identify as female, most as white. While students greatly value whomever they are paired with, Lia notes Black and Brown young males do benefit from having a male Reader, and benefit even more if the Reader looks like them. “Readers are very important people.”  

If you would like to be a VIP, it is easy to get more information and to volunteer. Visit Get involved. Spread the word to your friends and organizations. Your participation can impact a life and a community. 

If you need more inspiration, go to the website and read the “If you could walk in my shoes…” page or “The Wall.” You will not be the same after being introduced to these students.

Judge Bill Koch 


Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter