Has there ever been a better time to get lost in a good book? The events of the past year have pushed us all to our limits and left us with few means of escape. Normal socialization still isn’t possible, and all the Zooming and streaming and texting and FaceTiming has made our screens seem less like the mindless retreats they once were and more like another exhausting obligation.
It’s enough to make diving into a good old-fashioned story printed on actual paper (or at least simulated on your e-reader) seem downright exotic. Reading remains the last, best vestige for our weary imaginations and frazzled attention spans. It’s also the one shared escape no world-shaking crisis can disrupt.
March is National Reading Month, which is always a great excuse to reinforce the joys and virtues of reading while encouraging our students, friends, families, and communities to read more. This year, that message might resonate like never before.
Bellefonte Reads binds a community
Back in January 2020 (aka “the before times”), we visited Bellefonte Area High School to check out “One Book, One Bellefonte,” a community book giveaway-slash-literary festival that has become a beloved fixture for this small town north of State College. It is one of two marquee events hosted each school year by Bellefonte Reads, a literacy outreach committee cofounded in 2014 by Bellefonte Area School District secondary literacy coaches Jacqueline Wynkoop and Nicole Kohlhepp.
“The whole mission of Bellefonte Reads is to foster love of literacy in the community, and also put quality books in the hands of children and families,” said Wynkoop. “We felt it was our duty to go out and to start something that could really rally the community and just make reading cool again.”
“As literacy coaches, our focus is really trying to improve literacy instruction and building literacy in the classroom,” added Kohlhepp. “But I think we realized that also needs to be connected to what happens at home as well. If you look at key research, it shows that success or achievement is really built on book ownership, and also time spent independently reading. So by having these events we feel like we build that strong connection from the classroom to the community.”
Last January’s event drew nearly 700 guests of all ages and featured multiple breakout rooms with literary-themed activities, craft tables, and a book giveaway where Bellefonte Reads distributed 1,000 copies of a middle grade level book, as well as a picture book for younger readers. The committee donated the leftover books to the local library and various district classrooms.
The second event Bellefonte Reads hosts each year is a Community Literacy Night in the spring. Last year, the committee managed to squeak that in just a week before COVID school closures began. The event featured a variety of literacy stations, guest speakers, a selfie station where guests could take a photo in a photo booth and turn it into a keepsake bookmark, author signings, even a free community dinner.
“It actually is a full year-round process,” Kohlhepp said of these events. “Each month we have a certain task. We need to make sure that we either are raising the funds that we need for the books that we want or even working on the planning stages. We’ll have a wrap-up meeting at the very end of the school year. But then in September we’re already starting to talk about what ideas we have for next year’s books and events.”
This year, with in-person events still uncertain, Wynkoop and Kohlhepp had to think outside the box.
A pandemic-proof plan
What they settled on is a drive-up book giveaway at the middle school. Instead of an open event, this year’s guests were asked to pre-register so committee members would be able to greet them at their cars – masked up of course – with pre-stuffed bags full of free books, snacks, bookmarks, supplemental activities, and discussion questions.
This year’s response was by far their most robust yet, with 403 families consisting of 1,541 people (over 20 percent of Bellefonte’s total population) reserving 1,302 books. This year for the first time the committee also asked the community to vote on a theme. After hundreds of votes were cast, the winning theme was “Find Your Brave.”
“It’s all about finding the superhero within you,” Wynkoop said. “We’re looking for high school students to volunteer their time to dress up as superheroes. And then our idea is that they would hold a cardboard sign that looks like a book, and
At Community Literacy Night held in March 2020, community members browse free books from the gently used book table.
on the sign will be some inspirational phrases like ‘find the superhero within you’ or ‘find your brave,’ just to add that extra element and have them outside waving to people and getting especially the little kids excited about the superhero theme.”
The committee was also able to coordinate virtual visits with all the books’ authors, with one notable exception.
“Kamala Harris hasn’t gotten back to us yet,” Wynkoop said with a laugh, referring to Harris’ “Superheroes Are Everywhere” book, geared to a K-4 audience. “I think she might be just a tad busy these days.”
One benefit of holding this event virtually, though, is that it’s saved a lot of money they would have spent bringing in authors for physical appearances. That’s more money that can go toward books.
All are welcome
It’s a testament to Bellefonte Reads’ success that it can get so much community involvement for these events, even during a pandemic. In normal times, help will come in from all over the community, like the local pizza shop that puts flyers on their pizza boxes to advertise Bellefonte Reads events. From the local children’s librarian, to the Bellefonte Women’s Club, to a variety of other Bellefonte residents and businesses too numerous to name – all are excited to con¬tribute to this unique and wholesome program that spreads the gift of reading to an entire community.
“We also run Jared Box [Project] book drives to try to put books in the hands of kids who may be in the hospital or in the emergency room,” said Wynkoop. “At different events throughout the year like children’s fairs, we go and we give away books. So our whole goal is just to put books in our community’s hands.”
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
How to celebrate National Reading Month virtually
If your classroom is still virtual this March, that shouldn’t stop you from celebrating National Reading Month and Read Across America with your students. Here are a few ideas courtesy of NEA* on how to spread the joy of reading to your students, school, and community remotely.
A timeless activity that can be done live or asynchronously with prerecorded video. Maximize technology by, for instance, sharing an ebook on Zoom that students can follow while they see you read to them in the thumbnail video. You can also make it more interesting with fun backdrops, props, or costumes.
Having virtual guest readers expands opportunities for who can join in as it doesn’t require more money in the budget. Reach out to authors, or have parents and community members sign up to read aloud with your students. Consider partnering with a local senior citizen organization for potential readers, or see if your school or public librarian will read.
Mystery Readers can be parents, grandparents, older siblings, school staff, or other members of the community and can appear live or in prerecorded videos.
Build up suspense by asking Mystery Readers for clues about themselves and share these with students throughout the week so they can unravel who will be reading with them next. Try using polling or forms to share clues and get students engaged in the guesswork.
Have your students prepare a slide presentation on a book of their choice and share it with others via a videochat platform. Host a Read Across America Slide Party focused on sharing favorite books or sharing Mirror, Window, or Sliding Glass Door titles, based on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor that literature can offer a reflection of one’s self (mirror), provides a view of someone or something else (window), and/or is means for a reader to imaginatively walk into another world (sliding glass door).
Invite families to a physically distanced evening out of reading fun! As members of your community read aloud a variety of diverse books, livestream their read alouds on a large screen set up in the school or community center parking lot for families to enjoy from their vehicles. Have readers use props, costumes, music, or interesting virtual backdrops to make the stories come alive for your audience.
StoryWalk is a fun, physically distanced activity that places a children’s story — a deconstructed book, page by page — along a walking route in your community. Developed by Anne Ferguson in Montpelier, Vermont, a StoryWalk combines reading a children’s book aloud while taking a walk.
Mount each page of the book on cardstock and laminate it. Include a “Welcome” page that explains how the StoryWalk works and includes the front cover of the book. Then create your StoryWalk anywhere – library, school grounds, park, trails, storefront windows along Main Street, etc.
Reading Obstacle Course
Take advantage of empty parking lots or sidewalks and chalk up (or paint or duct tape) a path that gets kids hopping, jumping, spinning, balancing, marching, dancing, and zigzagging. Your chalk walk could include a variety of steps and directions based on literary references from fairy tales or folk tales, like “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”; be focused around books that really move, such as “Barnyard Dance” or “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”; or be an inspired interpretation of a title like “Firebird” or “Jabari Jumps.”
*This information is edited and condensed from “9 Ideas for (Virtually) Celebrating NEA’s Read Across America” at www.nea.org/resource-library/9-ideas-virtually-celebrating-neas-read-across-america
Free Little Libraries
When Maeve Yanes was in sixth grade, she read about a lack of quality reading material for underserved children in her Allentown community and decided to do something about it. Leveraging her membership on the Lehigh Valley United Way AFL-CIO TeenWorks Board and using grants she secured through the PSEA Education Foundation, she created a network of Free Little Libraries located in parks throughout Allentown and Bethlehem.
Now a 10th-grader at Emmaus High School in the East Penn School District, as well as a 2020 PSEA Celebrating Excellence Award winner, Yanes is thrilled to have contributed something of lasting value to the young readers in her community. And best of all, she insists it was a lot easier to accomplish than you might think.
PSEA: Tell us about how you started Free Little Libraries.
Maeve Yanes: You know the free library boxes you see once in a while when you’re driving down the street? Some people have that inside of their houses or businesses. I wanted to do something bigger than that, and so we contacted the Allentown Department of Parks and Recreation to see if I could do something with them. They brought up how they have their Summer Playground Programs and how I could do something along with that.
We came up with the idea that I would fill weatherproof trunks full of books for the campers to pick books out once a week and be able to read them that week. Then, just like a library, they brought the book back and got a new book. Then I ended up doing the same thing for the Bethlehem Parks and Recreation program.
PSEA: What made you think to go to Parks and Rec?
Yanes: I didn’t want to just make one library where most people might not know where it is, or not have access to it. Because lots of kids in Allentown participate in the Summer Playground Program, this was a way for all of them to have access to it somewhere they were already going, and it wasn’t out of their way to get to.
PSEA: How did you go about finding partners for this?
Yanes: I’m part of TeenWorks, which is a community service organization where we grant money to teens doing projects in their community. I had been on the board since fourth grade, so I went to them for funding. I submitted a grant application and did a presentation for them, and I was granted $1,000 for the weatherproof trunks. Then I also went to Partisan Education for $1,000 for new books.
PSEA: Are the libraries all still operating in the places you set them up?
Yanes: Yes. We have replenished the boxes with new books, taking out books that might’ve gotten water damaged. We’ve replenished them and made sure that there are still a lot of books in there and that they’re all in good condition.
PSEA: What has the response been to this project?
Yanes: Most of the people who’ve heard about my project just think it’s so amazing that I came up with this idea, and that I went through with it. Because anyone could have had this idea, but not gone through with it.
I got a bunch of nice comments from the kids who were there [in the beginning] because I was invited to the end-of-summer celebration called Romper Day. I was awarded a little plaque. Just seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they found out I was the one who gave them the boxes was just really rewarding because they were so happy with all the books.