Empowering Students to Help Grow Readers

By Beth Parmer, Guest Blogger

A box of books. A classroom of eighth grade students. A teacher and a librarian with the same goal: empower students to make a difference in the lives of others. We called it the Share Kindness project. As one student explains, “The Share Kindness project is where my fellow peers and I choose books to read to the younger members in our family. It’s called Share Kindness because we give to others, make their days better.” The project was  inspired and made possible by an act of kindness--a donation of books from the librarian we all know as Mr. Schu.
As ideas for using these donated books swirled inside my head, I strived to reach for a project that was meaningful.  I’ll admit that I worried about what students would say. Afterall, they’re eighth graders, veterans in the school, and I’m the new librarian asking them to read picture books aloud to small children. Indeed, at first, a few called it “lame.” Another student said, “When we were introduced to this project I thought it would be very boring and my crazy little godson wouldn't like the book I would choose for him.” But then, the magic that always comes with reading to a child was felt by our students. “As I kept reading the book he was pointing at all the things on every page and copied some of the words I read. I asked him how he liked the book he yelled ‘I love it!’ and while reading the book he had a big smile on his face.” This happened again. “At first I thought it wasn’t important, however when I read a book to my little sister she learned a whole new word and started repeating the words I read which surprised me.” And again. “While I was reading to them they kept asking questions and pointing at the pictures. They enjoyed the book so much that they took the book from my hands and pretended to read.” Students began discovering the joy of connecting readers with books. ”My sister was very excited and said, ‘Are you gonna read the book tomorrow as well?’ I told her I would try to read it every day for her.”
The young minds that walk into our rooms and libraries every day have a bounty of insight to offer. As educators, we must embrace that. Our single perspective can never match the vast richness of an entire classroom of experiences. “Reading allows me to not worry about real life problems for a few hours and I want to teach my siblings how to enjoy books like that. Being able to disappear into a good book is an amazing experience I want them to enjoy.” “With the Share Kindness program I can read books to the little kids and help then learn how to read and write books and they can be ready for school. This means that I get to help someone be something in life and not on the streets doing drugs.” “I read to my cousins, my baby sister, and my baby brother. When I said I’m gonna read them a book they smiled and got so excited. It’s important that they smile and that they are happy because they have a rough life.”
When we empower students to take the lead, they experience those moments of euphoria we teachers crave, “My little cousin responded with joy and she said, ‘Read more! Read more!’” “Just seeing them ask questions and responding to the character made me happy that they can understand what they are hearing and reading. I learned that they enjoy me reading to them and they want me to read to them again.” “I personally love the way I can be a good influence.” “I felt like this was one of the best projects  I have done in a long time. It made me happy when my little brother smiled at me.”
By empowering students, they develop an understanding of their importance in the world. “I really believe that I can influence somebody to enjoy reading and use it to their advantage.” “I showed my family that I’m a good role model, and showed that I can be a awesome big sister.” “This project means a lot to me because I get to give back to my community by helping kids who don't know how to read learn how.”
Initially afraid this idea would flop, I was encouraged by all of the brave professionals in the education world who are constantly attempting new projects, ones that do not have guaranteed outcomes, nor are they designed with the specific purpose of raising test scores. This project could have easily been one students rejected, but for most, it was one where they saw what it meant to devote time to someone else.  “This is important because the kids are the future of this world. That is why we must help them learn so they can start helping other children to be successful.” “This is very important to me because as a young child you should be able to learn new words out of school and see the importance of reading.” “I  guess nobody read to her out of school. She was like, ‘Where did you get this book?’ I said the school gave it to me to read to you and she was just happy.”
A box of books. A classroom of eighth grade students. A teacher and a librarian. Mr. Schu, my students say it best,“You do not understand how much I thank you for donating books for the Share Kindness project.” “This is very important to me because we usually don't get nice things like this.” “To me this meant a lot. It meant that you had hope in us to get younger people reading, too.”

Beth Parmer is a K-8 Librarian in Columbus City Schools. She is completing her 16th year in public education. You can follow her on Twitter at @Beth_Parmer.