I love reading - always have. Since volunteering at the Vare-Washington Elementary School library, I have again realized how important reading is to me and how much it has enriched my life.
To be able to share this passion with these young students is energizing. For some of them, especially those for whom English is not their first language, reading can be challenging. That's why library time is vital.
Listening to an enthusiastic reader transport them through the rhyming silliness of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat; the heartfelt concern for William Steig's Doctor De Soto, the mouse who outfoxed the fox; and the relatable tale of Angela Johnson's The Leaving Morning, which chronicles a family's moving day, can be inspiring, and even life-changing. Beyond just reading a book, conversation follows, encouraging the children to think about and discuss what happened in the story and how they feel about it.
And the conversation flows enthusiastically! After hearing The Leaving Morning, it was apparent that many of the first graders had moved at some point in their young lives. Some had changed schools, neighborhoods, and friends. "I was sad," admitted one young girl. "But now I like my new school and new friends."
When volunteers read Everyone Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley to fourth graders, they first displayed a world map, asking the kids if any of them had parents from another country. About three-quarters of the class did, prompting an important discussion. They located the countries on the map and talked about their languages and foods, similarities and differences.
These experiences may not have happened without the kindness and largesse of ex-Phillies great Ryan Howard, the library's benefactor. He donated $75,000 to create a cozy baseball-themed room with cushy oversized baseball mitt seats, locker cubbies, and benches. The room alone transports visitors to another place. The kids bound into the room excitedly, finding a comfortable spot to settle in.
When Howard made the donation, he was quoted as saying, "Education has always been first and foremost in my family and with [wife] Krystle being a teacher, it is the biggest thing. Kids won't get to the next level without being educated."
Once funded, the library needed to be staffed, and that meant volunteers. It is through the efforts of our fearless leader, Flora Wolf, and her band of volunteers from the Society Hill Synagogue, that every class can escape to the library for one glorious hour every two weeks. The volunteers work hard to find appropriate stories to read and find suitable conversation points on the children's level. Students also sign out a book of their very own - books they have so far been diligent in returning.
Principal Zachary Duberstein has seen a transformation among his students and their families. "This has become something that students really enjoy and look forward to each week," he said. "Parents are asking their students about what book they chose for the week and are having their students read with them at home."
For many parents for whom English is not their first language, I can only imagine the pride and joy they must feel hearing their child's enthusiastic telling of the story they have chosen.
But the value is far greater. "This is helping us to combat the word gap - a statistic often cited - which is a 30-million-word exposure deficit that our students experience compared to their affluent peers," Duberstein said. "This simple act is immersing our students in a culture of reading and fueling a love of literature. Since the inception of the program, students reading on grade-level is up five percent over last year!"
How fortunate our community is to have such a unified effort to share our love for reading with these children from cultures all over the world. And how lucky I am to share their journey.