Dental Students Read Their Way Through Kids’ Stories in 10 Languages

Volunteer effort creates a video library to boost children’s literacy

Nickeisha Louis-Elias, D23, Arika Neal-Branch, D24, Ashley Makala, D23, and Amber Courtney, D23, in dental scrubs, look at children's books while gathered around a dental chair.
Nickeisha Louis-Elias, D23, Arika Neal-Branch, D24, Ashley Makala, D23, and Amber Courtney, D23, from the Tufts chapter of the Student National Dental Association, created a video library of children’s stories. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Watching a video on the StoryTime! website feels a lot like a trip to an elementary school library: Someone greets you warmly, picture book in hand, then turns the pages softly as their voice weaves the story out loud.

Unlike a school library, though, StoryTime! is portable, available to kids wherever they have internet access. Some of the readers are wearing scrubs. And as they say before each reading begins, they’re all studying dentistry at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM). 

Ashley Makala, D23, first envisioned and created the project at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and today StoryTime! offers videos of 40 TUSDM students reading a myriad of children’s books in a variety of languages. Born as a community service project of the Student National Dental Association(SNDA), the site aims to bolster childhood literacy while showing young students of color that they, too, can study dentistry.

When the Covid-19 pandemic shifted Tufts University classes online in March 2020, Makala returned to her parents’ home in Augusta, Georgia. Her parents watch the news a lot, so Makala heard many reports about the decline in children’s literacy skills amid school closures.

As SNDA’s then-community service chair, Makala was keen for the organization to somehow foster literacy amid the pandemic, especially within underrepresented populations. “That was definitely top of mind, because something SNDA strives for is to reach marginalized communities,” says Makala, who was one of two TUSDM students to receive the Tufts 2023 Presidential Award for Civic Life.

Makala reached out to Tisch College/TUSDM Community Service Program Coordinator Nancy Marks, who supports community engagement efforts, particularly ones that address the social determinants of health. Makala approached Marks wondering: “Is there a way we could read virtually? I know kids are at home. What’s the best way we can reach kids?”

Expanding the Vision

It turned out that Tufts dental students were keen to participate in a virtual reading program. When Makala put out a call for volunteers via the SNDA listserv in November 2020, 18 students offered to read. That robust response surprised her. “I think people were excited to do something because we were at home instead of at dental school,” she says. 

Makala assembled the read-aloud recordings and included links to them in a PDF document that she uploaded and shared with Tufts Medical Center, hoping the videos would reach a wider audience from there.

It seemed that Makala had accomplished her mission, but she realized she wanted to continue the project with an expanded vision. So she invited SNDA members Nickeisha Louis-Elias, D23, Amber Courtney, D23, and Arika Neal-Branch, D24 to co-lead StoryTime! with her. They soon decided to include books in more languages.

“Our school is in Chinatown. There’s a lot of Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking patients and students, and there’s a lot of international students or students who speak multiple languages,” says Makala. 

To support the upgrade, Neal-Branch wrote a grant proposal for the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement in February 2021 and with the approved funds, StoryTime! organizers ordered new books and had money for other expenses. They updated reading and recording instructions for their volunteers and screened existing videos to ensure quality and consistency.

Eager to Read

When they appealed for volunteers beyond SNDA via the dental school listserv, 15 of the original 18 said they would read again, while 25 more students volunteered for the first time. In all, the cohort of 40 readers spoke a total of 10 languages, allowing the project to expand well beyond its initial offering of Spanish and English-language book readings. By the end of 2021, StoryTime!’s expanded multilingual video collection had been carefully reviewed and edited with Marks’ support. 

“Some of the books are dental in theme, but some are your classic children’s books, or books addressing themes of growing up or fitting in,” Makala says. The students read books ranging from Love You Forever by Robert Munsch (translated into French), to Arthur Tricks the Tooth Fairy by Marc Brown, to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. 

Makala, Louis-Elias, Courtney, and Neal-Branch knew that to reach more children and to make uploading videos easier, StoryTime! needed its own website. Since launching last August, the site has mostly attracted visitors from Massachusetts, but it’s also gotten hits from around the United States and about a dozen other countries. All the while, Courtney has worked with the project’s advisor, assistant professor Martha Forero, director of school-based student outreach programs, on reaching new community partners. Those include Boys and Girls’ Clubs, Head Start programs, and dental offices, in a process that continues. 

As three of the StoryTime! co-organizers prepare to hand off leadership as they graduate, Makala is optimistic about the project’s future and excited by how much enthusiasm and support StoryTime! has earned from the TUSDM community. “We got so much positive feedback from volunteers and people wanting to be a part of it,” she says. “Even after we finished the second phase, more people were like, ‘Oh, are you going to do this again?’” 

That same positivity came Marks, Forero, and other faculty and staff who’ve supported Makala from the beginning, including SNDA faculty advisor, Jeanette Sabir-Holloway, who is the school’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, and the entire department of public health, Makala says. 

For her part, Marks appreciates the StoryTime! leaders’ perseverance–they’ve nurtured a project begun amid strict Covid-19 restrictions into something relevant, organized, and beloved enough to outlast the pandemic. “I am not surprised at Storytime!’s success; the leaders all stayed committed and worked really hard. They just never stopped until it was done, until it matched their vision. And that tenacity, while they’re in school and going through clinic, was remarkable.”

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