How are the children doing?

The morning starts joyfully with twenty-five volunteers sipping coffee and eating snacks in a cheery room. Each one has been serving as a Reading Buddy to a second grader in one of six different elementary schools. These people are not teachers or tutors; instead they see themselves as friends with books. They show up regularly at school once or twice a week to read one on one with a child who struggles with reading. Reading Buddies are a mixed group of women and men, retired from a variety of work environments, a few former teachers, college students, some are grandparents but others have never spent much time with children before this. The volunteers are getting together as a group for the first time to share experiences with each other. Most of the Buddies have never met. They discover that although their challenges and successes may be different, the overall power of their experiences is largely the same.  What these strangers have in common is a personal commitment to helping children learn to read.

As they talk, it becomes apparent that they have had to get creative with their strategies for engaging their little buddies. For two little boys disinterested in their books, listening to an adult read with exuberance and expression was enough to change their attitudes and encourage them to use their own voices to make the text come alive. A child who reads beautifully in Spanish and quite fluently in English had no idea what he was reading until his Buddy introduced him to some engaging bi-lingual books. For another one, a passion for snow leopards was the key to getting him to move from looking at pictures to actually reading about them. One Buddy gets his little guy’s attention by showing him his name on a map, while another showed his buddy the constellation of stars that shared his name.  There are frustrations. For many of the children, it’s the sitting still that is hard, others have vivid imaginations for their own storytelling that they would rather tap into.

A few Buddies witness spectacular changes. A quiet little girl started the school year so shy she didn’t participate in class at all. Her teacher was worried that she would fail second grade. With consistent encouragement from her Buddy, her classroom behavior completely changed; now she loves to read aloud to the class and has become a class leader. Another child discovered the joy of reading through a love of astronomy. On the last reading test of the year, his was the high score of the class. Although not all of the children make great gains, all of the Buddies feel that their time and attention has been well-spent.

As the party breaks up one volunteer still has a story to tell. Her experience is touching her so profoundly that she hesitates to share it.  She and her rambunctious little buddy have formed an especially close bond and really enjoy their time together. The child is easily distracted and one day the volunteer moved her hand to help direct the child’s attention. Quite suddenly the little girl’s face contorted in terror and she shrank visibly in her seat.  Startled and confused, the volunteer asked what was wrong. The child answered, “I thought you were going to hit me.”

When people ask me, “How’s the reading going?” they sometimes want to know if test scores have improved or they might be inquiring about how we can create a more literate workforce to support the economy. Volunteers never ask this question. Volunteers take a risk to find out, “How are our children doing?”