By Peggy Wuenstel – Our district is in the thick of planning a community literacy event to support and encourage reading in the home. It joins the forces of our school district, the public library, and a group of community and university personnel who have formed a committee to study and advance the literacy of our city. I am by nature a doer rather than a discusser and the pace at which larger groups move often frustrates me. It is incredibly difficult to create a shared vision of what good community literacy would look like. It is even more daunting to determine, and then fulfill, the needs required to get to that goal.
In a community-wide forum in September, the group generated a list of needs as perceived by the attendees. I took that list and selected three action items that I could make happen with the support of my principal, coworkers, parents’ organization, our student council, and some community volunteers.
- Grandreaders – Soon after the community meeting, a fellow attendee contacted me about reading with students weekly. One of the needs our teachers identified is that some students do not have a parent or caregiver that is available to consistently read and discuss books with our early readers. Two amazing retired women come each week to read with kids in 20 minute blocks, not to instruct, but to provide reading practice and share their love of books.
- Many of our students participate in free and reduced lunch programs during the week. There has been an uptick in the number of comments from students about not having enough to eat on the weekend. This is often paired with a limited access to books in the home. We have organized an In-Out pantry to provide an anonymous way for families to receive breakfast and lunch items and age appropriate books to take home each Friday through a backpack program, supported by the generosity of our students. Kids who cannot make food or financial donations are able to earn items to donate through academic and behavioral excellence. It is tough to make literacy a family priority when physical needs are not being met.
- We have changed the focus of our annual Family Literacy Night to reaching out to families who have not traditionally participated in the past. Changing the venue from our individual elementary schools to the public library and educating the community about the resources that are available after school hours, facilitating library card sign-ups, support for home language enrichment and book-sharing and various giveaways, including a “Milk and Bookies” wrap up from the Walworth County Dairy Council, may reach readers in new ways than in the past.
Whitewater’s business community has made offers of funding to purchase and distribute books. University drives have collected books and cash that have been placed in bins on school buses to provide the opportunity to read and take home books. While these generous offers of financial backing are greatly appreciated, it also misses the mark. Just putting books in the hands of kids won’t spark the positive change we are seeking. We have to find a way to help make literacy a priority at home and help families feel competent in providing support.
The evidence is clear, families of all races and economic standing care deeply for their children and about their education. They vary greatly in their confidence in providing what kids need. As educators we have to make it our mission to change that, to make families feel valued in their efforts and capable in the attempt. The best books ever written are of limited use if no one shares the joy between their covers.
These are some of the tools we’d like to provide for kids and families at our upcoming literacy event:
- How to use conversation and vocabulary with our children to maximize their success in school.
- Why reading with a child is even more valuable than reading to a child or having a child read to you.
- The places we read matter — lap sit, snuggled up, knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder –and this contact helps to create lifelong skills and bonds around books.
- Making life-to-text connections makes books come alive. People want to read about things they know and places they have been, and we dream of exploring the places and activities that we have read about in books.
- Decoding words is not everything. Parents benefit from knowing what emerging reading looks and sounds like and what to expect as grade level expectations rise.
- Harnessing the power of pause and understanding that strategy use, interruptions and re-reading can be very good things, helps everyone relax and enjoy the ride.
- There are things we can do to build stamina and perseverance. When we help kids revise and reward and prompt their use of strategies we build resilience, self-reliance and self-esteem.
- There are many ways to take advantage of the reading and writing we do every day to build literacy minutes. We read signs, on-line, manuals and recipes. We write lists, directions and love notes. Parents inspire and model success when kids see them reading and writing, especially when they are enjoying it.
- There are fun and efficient ways to read together, write together and practice basic skills.
- Community literacy should be important to everyone and there are no more important voices than those of parents who love their children and are building successful, literate futures.