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‘A Story Grows in Uganda’ combines storytelling traditions, shows that literacy research flourishes at Emory
children in Uganda around a table reading a book

“A Story Grows in Uganda,” a research project led by Valeda Dent and Geoff Goodman of Emory University, highlights library-based community engagement and accessibility as powerful tools for learning. The project uses the psychoanalytically informed storytelling/story-acting intervention to study school readiness.

She is a library administrator whose research focuses on the impact of libraries. He is a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on attachment and the psychological well-being of children and their caregivers.

They are Valeda F. Dent, vice provost of libraries and museum, and Geoff Goodman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in Emory University School of Medicine and associate professor of psychology and spiritual care in Candler School of Theology. The powerhouse duo, who joined Emory in 2022, are finding a fertile environment for expanding their long-term research collaboration of nearly 15 years.

This year, the International Psychoanalytic Association recognized their early literacy intervention project, “A Story Grows in Uganda,” with the World Community Award in Education. In June, they shared this Fulbright Commission-funded research at the annual conference of the Society for Psychotherapy Research in Dublin, Ireland.

“A Story Grows in Uganda” highlights library-based community engagement and accessibility as powerful tools for learning. It also holds the potential for collaboration with Emory’s deep bench of peers, other interdisciplinary researchers, emerging scholars and students.

“A Story Grows in Uganda” draws on the country’s storytelling tradition in combination with Dent’s research on library impact in Uganda and Goodman’s interest in psychoanalytic theory coupled with his background working with parents and children. The project uses the psychoanalytically informed storytelling/story-acting (STSA) intervention to study school readiness, including emergent literacy, oral language and emotional literacy in preschool children. 

As part of a six-month STSA intervention conducted with preschool-age children and their caregivers at two rural community libraries, children generate stories during playtime at their local library. They report their stories to librarians, who then record and read the stories back to the children. After the creation of several stories, each young author chooses a few of their peers who will serve as actors. As librarians read the stories aloud, the children perform them.

Because the intervention takes place in an extremely rural area with few modern resources, any interventions must be high impact and low cost. The libraries and schools have no indoor plumbing and no electricity, and access to health care and other social services is scarce.

Dent and Goodman’s data suggest the combination of narrative and play helps most children in Uganda’s rural villages — especially those who are the most vulnerable — develop oral language skills that support literacy and school readiness. More broadly, it suggests early literacy interventions have the potential to improve Uganda’s literacy rate, student success and future economic outlook in turn.

Research roots in the past and future

Valeda Dent and Geoff Goodman in Uganda.

Research and scholarship are strong components of Dent’s professional life. A former university librarian and faculty member at St. John’s University, Long Island University and Rutgers University, Dent studies the impact of libraries in relation to chronic poverty and development. This interest developed out of personal experience.

“My mother was a librarian for more than 50 years. She and her colleagues were substantial influences on my life,” Dent says. “Our neighborhood library was many things to many people. It was a community center.”

Goodman, the author of seven books and more than 80 scholarly publications, has spent his academic life conducting attachment and psychotherapy process research with children and adults in treatment.

Emory’s deeply engaged research community and resources appealed to Dent and Goodman when they joined the university. Remembering an early conversation with Provost Ravi V. Bellamkonda and the hiring committee, Dent recalls the university’s enthusiasm for their research and valuing her continued academic inquiries alongside her leadership as vice provost.   

Dent and Goodman also study library impact as it relates to gender, familial and social roles, learning readiness, children’s artwork and self-representation, and caregiver mental health. It represents more than interdisciplinary scholarship — it’s also the type of project Emory envisions as part of its AI.Humanity initiative.

“We've been thinking quite a bit about AI.Humanity and how to leverage new artificial intelligence technologies to advance our research,” Dent says. “Being in this space where there are a lot of different kinds of research happening has impacted how we’re thinking about the next stages of our work.”

In particular, Dent and Goodman are interested in how artificial intelligence may help them analyze large quantities of raw data that may not otherwise be explored. Dent and Goodman have thousands of children’s drawings from their study to analyze. To examine this vast repository of original artwork, they will need collaborators to design and train the AI technology.

This is a potential project for the Center for AI Learning, which Dent and Goodman have discussed with Lance Waller, a biostatistician and member of the AI.Humanity Advisory Board, and Joe Sutherland, the center’s inaugural director.

“The center’s role is to help facilitate these conversations about how faculty can use AI to advance their scientific explorations, and we’re excited about having it as a resource,” Dent says.

Dent and Goodman’s work to enhance literacy on a global scale easily falls within the mission of AI.Humanity at Emory, a place where students and faculty use artificial intelligence to benefit society.  

“We want to connect deep patterns in the children’s drawings with program outcomes, thus validating drawings as an assessment tool for this work,” Goodman says.

Dent and Goodman hope to expand their work to include undergraduate and graduate students. This inclusion will offer experiential learning, a key component of the Student Flourishing initiative. Students will engage in real-world problem-solving through their analytical contributions to literacy and school readiness in the developing world.

“Ideally, we would take students from Emory College of Arts and Sciences — including but not limited to African studies — Candler School of Theology and Emory School of Medicine and train them to conduct culturally sensitive research on the continent,” says Goodman.

A worldwide initiative 

As Dent and Goodman establish roots in Atlanta, their STSA coordinator continues to run the intervention in Kabubbu, Uganda, where a new cohort of Ugandan preschoolers enrolled in May.

With a recently-completed screenplay about his experiences in Uganda with the children, Goodman is confident that the next time they return, they will bring new perspectives, connections and partnerships they have gained as part of the Emory community.

“As soon as funding can be secured, we would like to return to continue our work,” says Goodman.

To learn more about “A Story Grows in Uganda,” visit the Rural Village Libraries Research Network.

To watch a short video about the origins of the project, visit Kitengesa Community Library Documentary.

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