It will be no surprise to any of you that my favorite part of school was reading! It may have been one of your favorite parts, too, but it’s not that way for everyone. Part of what made it fun is that reading comes easy for me – but there were plenty of things in school that didn’t. Thinking back, I would have done just about ANYTHING to get rid of my math allergy. Maybe if I had met someone who was passionate and could help me make sense of it way back when … With a mentor, there may have been fewer tears, less frustration, and no life-long scars. Okay, the last one is a little dramatic. The point is that the frustration can be all-consuming when your five, six, or seven years old.
For them, it isn’t only first grade or just second grade. It is the set of experiences that are the foundation of their attitude toward learning for the next ten years. Aside from reading with our kids at home, school offers the greatest opportunity we have to connect kids with books and help them become successful readers. For kids who don’t read with Mom or Dad, it is likely to be the ONLY chance to engage them as readers. Reading mentors can help eliminate the gap that keeps kids from reaching their full potential.
For five years now, I’ve been a classroom volunteer. First as part of the Book Buddies program the Charlottesville City School System, and more recently at my daughter’s school. Spending time each week one-on-one with Kindergartners, first, and second graders ranks right up there with “mom” as one of my favorite jobs! So what have I learned? I am so glad you asked!
- I am better prepared to help my daughter. I started volunteering as a literacy tutor before Catherine started formally learning to read, so when the time came to start identifying books and looking for word patterns, I knew how to guide her choices.
- My Literacy Toolbox is filled with new ideas. There are lots of ways to make learning to read fun. I learned some new rhymes that can help kids remember letter-combination rules; I have some games and gestures that reinforce learning; and I added some new “tricks” to understanding how words work and how to help kids decode them.
- There is a method to the “madness.” In the Book Buddy program, we have a structured lesson plan for working with our student. Each lesson builds on the previous one, and over the course of a year you see how it all comes together. If I hadn’t had that experience, helping Catherine would feel like one step forward, two steps back. There is a reason why, as a first grader, she would bring home books that were “easy” for her. It’s about confidence.
- I have more realistic expectations about success. This is especially true of spelling. Just because kids can read a word, doesn’t mean they can spell it correctly. That has helped here at home when Dad frets that Catherine’s spelling is “awful.”
- I’m a rock star. Because I work one-on-one with students for a full year, you get to know them … and you’re sad when summer comes and you won’t see them next year. But whenever I am walking the halls and one of my reading buddies spots me, they yell for me, come give me a hug, and tell me all about how great they are doing.
On a broader scale, being “in the trenches” as it were has helped me in my role as literacy advocate. The road to helping kids become successful readers is not a simple, single path. School systems have different “methods”; students acquire skills at different paces; and students and teacher bring different attitudes to the process. I admit there were times when I wasn’t sure I was doing much good.
Each fall, when I met my new first grader Venable Elementary, I had a student who struggled with reading – and knew it. S/He would be pulled from class to work with me, so everyone knew they were getting “special help.” For a while, they would bring their I-don’t-like-reading attitude with them, but over time, the relationship would change. Several times throughout the year if they met a specific goal, they could pick out a free book. They got SO excited about having a book all their own! In the spring, each Book Buddy receives a picture dictionary to take home. My students may have tired of Henry and Mudge, but they LOVED exploring the dictionary and doing the searches that were set out for them.
Participating in my community as a reading tutor (I prefer mentor) has been a wonderful experience … just ask Susan Thomsen. She recently wrote about her volunteer tutoring at Chicken Spaghetti. Volunteering as a reading mentor is most definitely a two-way street! I have learned so much from the students and teachers I work with. There are no age restrictions on being a reading mentor, and you don’t have to have any specialized experience … just an interest in reading. You also don’t have to have a child at your local school. Tutors come from all walks of life. Our common bond is that we want to strengthen our communities and give children the best start possible.
Sometimes there are gaps that need a bridge – Mom and/or Dad aren’t available to help with reading; teachers have lots of students … lots of reasons. Even investing just a little bit of time, makes a BIG difference. If you are interested, there are programs like Book Buddies in communities all over the country. We have some of them listed on the Literacy Organizations Page of our Wiki. If you know of others, please feel free to list them below.
photo credits: Picasa Web Albums. Click on image to take you to the original link.