Tuesday, October 9, 2018

10,000 New Readers Plus

Recently a report came out by the American Psychological Association about young people not reading the way past generations used to do. Many high schoolers are texting, scrolling and using social media instead of reading books and magazines. The article goes on to say that the reason for concern ‘is that the skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are quite different from glancing at a text message or status update.’

This fact interests me not only because I recently published my first Young Adult novel (Chasing Ophelia) but because Sharon and I have always pushed our own children and our five grandchildren to become readers and not just your average reader, but prodigious carnivores of the printed word.

Unfortunately, there are still kids in the world who don’t have access to books and other reading material. For them, a book in hand is a gift of wonderment and discovery, just as it should be. For the last several years, Sharon and the Apple Valley Rotary Club have answered that need with their own special Literacy Project.

Aside from this assault on reading by electronic devices, overall declining literacy rates continue to challenge educators, and frankly, anyone who cares about an educated society. I can attest to that fact. Growing up in a single parent household that never had a book in the house I find that fact sad and troubling.

Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t too surprised this summer when thousands of books made their way through our house on the way to better bookshelves. Sharon had initiated this book drive three years ago as part of the Apple Valley Rotary Literacy Project. The first year it was four thousand books collected and distributed. Last year, it was over six thousand books distributed. This year Sharon and the club will top out well over eighteen thousand books and still counting.

The book drive followed a three-R’s model: read, recycle, and reach. Sharon explained “We want families to read and enjoy the books that they have, and then when they are done with them or have moved on to a new reading level we want them to recycle the books by donating them to this project. By giving away their used books, these readers are reaching out to students who might not have any books at home.”

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep. Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in newspaper articles about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started my paper route in seventh grade. Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library. The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life. There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us. This is most certainly one of the reasons for my second career as a writer and playwright.

Ever the educator, Sharon said the ability to read, and to read critically, is one of the most important factors to a student’s success. Access to information is becoming easier (screen time) BUT the skills needed to critically evaluate it comes from reading.

In Dakota County alone, there are over 1600 ELL students who will use the books.  Jenny Leroux, E.L. Lead Teacher, spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

Jenny explained “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards. Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

She went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content. The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

Last year, the district initiated a new program that provided certain school buses with boxes of books. The idea is that a student can borrow a book on their way to or from school and return it as they exit the bus. The district will also hold on to thousands of books to distribute next summer at various district-sponsored camps and events.  This past summer they gave away over two thousand books at ‘Adventures in Learning’, a weeklong summer program for elementary-aged English Language Learners.

To bring the world of reading to these children and open up a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramped quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house. I’ve been there before. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus, and the young boys down the block.

I return to those worlds every chance I get. And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

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