Elementary school principal Sherry Knight will do almost anything to encourage her young students to read.
For months, Knight has been reading to students from the Capt. James Lawrence School in Burlington City from the comfort of her home via Facebook Live. She has attracted a growing following, and wants to expand her social media presence to reach more beginner readers.
On Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. sharp, Knight sets up a makeshift studio in her Burlington County living room, her laptop on a small table in front of her and a light stand nearby to illuminate her against a cranberry-painted wall. With hip music playing, she logs on a few minutes before story time, which she has christened Knight Tales.
Knight, 53, the longtime principal at the 256-student K-2 school, got the story time idea from a Dallas teacher who started a similar reading program. Two sisters in Dover, Del., Zaria Hathorn, 13, and Hailey Williard, 8, also share their love of reading with younger students on Facebook.
“I love doing it,” said Knight, an educator for nearly three decades. “It’s rewarding for me.”
On a recent Wednesday before Halloween, Knight scoured her impressive collection of books for one with a Halloween theme. She tries to pick books that will resonate with both boys and girls. To help captivate their attention, she typically dons a colorful headband and funky reading glasses.
“I try to mix it up,” Knight said.
On this night, she chose A Halloween Scare in New Jersey by Eric James. The book mentions towns across the state, which will provide her a chance to sneak in a geography lesson by asking the students about places they’ve visited. She welcomed each student to the live session (parents log their children into Facebook, as the children are too young to have their own accounts).
Knight, who began her career as a second-grade teacher, uses different voices as she reads. She occasionally poses questions to her captive listeners. While most of her regular followers are local, she attracts some from the South, where she grew up.
“That’s so cool. I think it’s fabulous that she takes time to do that,” said Janet Isles, the reading clinic coordinator at Rowan University and an instructor in language, literacy, and socio-cultural education.
First grader Savannah Stout, 6, already at a third-grade reading level, looks forward to story time with her principal and gives her parents a gentle reminder when it’s time to join in, said her father, Philip. A 911 police dispatcher, he works at nights and said Knight’s story time fills a gap when his busy wife may not have time to read to their daughter.
“It’s a great idea,” Stout said. “She doesn’t miss a night.”
Exposing children to literacy at an early age can have a tremendous impact on their academic performance in later years, experts say. Research has found that reading aloud to children builds a strong vocabulary and reading skills and a connection to reading.
Knight wants her students reading by the end of kindergarten. Each week, she randomly selects a student to receive a copy of the book she features on that Wednesday’s Facebook reading. Target has given her a $250 gift card to purchase books, and a parent donated 50 books, published by Simon & Schuster, that were signed by their authors. Some students in the economically depressed district don’t have books at home, she said.
Knight grew up in West Point, Miss., and decided at an early age that she wanted to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of her aunt Jannie Davis. As a child, she enjoyed playing school with her friends.
“I always insisted on being the teacher,” she said with a laugh.
When students arrive at the Lawrence School in the morning, Knight greets them by name. Located in the heart of a residential neighborhood, the school is named for a native son who died in 1813 in a clash against the British while commanding the frigate the Chesapeake. Mortally wounded, he ordered his men: “Don’t give up the ship.”
There are nautical themes scattered around the two-story building, and a sign on a classroom bulletin board reads “Winners never quit!” As she strolled the hallway, Knight commended students who demonstrated good behavior, such as showing respect, good listening skills, and following the rules. She then visited several classrooms during a special reading period: For a half-hour in the morning, the entire school has targeted reading instruction, which allows students to read at their grade level.
Muna Okoli, 6, smiled keenly when Knight presented him with a copy of the Halloween book she read the night before.
“I’m so happy. It was so much fun,” the first grader said.