Sunday, December 26, 2010
The Gift of Reading
It's two days before Christmas break, and Shamrock's media center buzzes with excitement. Piles of books spill across the counters: hardcover novels that weigh heavy in the hand, bright-covered picture stories, paperbacks with brittle, browning leaves. Kids cluster eagerly around them, thumbing through the pages, examining the illustrations, looking for just the right one.
I love our media center. Like most of our school, it isn't much to look at – beige cinderblock walls festooned with a scattering of posters, and the usual collection of chairs, tables and plants. But it's where the school's books reside, presided over by media specialist Margaret Hollar, reading evangelist extraordinaire.
This may be the age of the Internet, of Smart Boards and of Angry Birds, but books still lie at the heart of our school. At the start of every day, before the first bell rings, a steady stream of students pours through the media center doors, bringing in completed books to exchange for new ones. Transactions continue at a brisk pace all day long.
As students scour the shelves for new material, Ms. Hollar is always ready to consult. She doesn't believe in telling kids what they should read, or in limiting them to the narrow range of titles that lie within the boundaries of their "official" reading level, but she's happy to offer advice, and to prod gently when someone keeps picking books that seem a bit too easy.
She loves stories and characters and humor and has little patience for the books that seem designed simply to pound a few new words into a struggling reader's head (an approach that unfortunately infuses many of the works the federal government provides to schools like ours). She talks about books like they're people – they can be friends or enemies, she tells the kids, depending on what lies inside.
Every year, when she makes out the lists of books the PTA has agreed to buy, the total always comes to several dollars more than the amount that we've agreed on. The kids have asked for all the books on the list, she explains, and she just can't decide which ones to cut. She'd rather we do it. Of course we can never decide either, so we always buy them all.
Thanks to Ms. Hollar and the rest of our staff, Shamrock students see reading not as a chore, but as the journey and adventure that it's supposed to be. Two of the school's most exciting events are our fall and spring book fairs, when the media center fills with brand-new titles, and kids come through the door clutching bags of change, or a few precious bills.
Parents join in as well, such as the mother of a fifth grader who snuck into this fall's fair to buy her son's Christmas presents, glowing with anticipation as she imagined how delighted he would be to find the books he wanted underneath the tree.
A week ago, we held a drawing for the students who participated in our cookie dough sale (in which our kids astonished us by selling $7,000 worth of double chocolate brownie, white macadamia nut and other exotic concoctions). When I announced that first prize would be a bicycle, the gathered students smiled politely.
When I held up the second group of prizes – book fair certificates – every face lit up.
But now, two days before Christmas break, the book fair books are being packed away, and the kids have turned to the new ones on the counters. They are one of Ms. Hollar's pet projects, which she calls "Give the Gift of Reading." She doesn't just want kids to read for themselves. She wants them to talk about books, share their experiences, pass the fire. So each year, she collects several hundred books – enough for every Shamrock student to give one to a classmate.
This hasn't been a simple task. As we've learned over and over, doing something for every student at a school, even a small one, is never cheap, at least not by our standards. But Shamrock's staff is a determined bunch, and each year, they've made it work, hunting for sales, collecting donations, paying for a lot of books themselves.
This year, though, that changed. When Bobbie, one of our new Plaza-Midwood moms, heard about the program, she thought we should ask the community for books. She and a P-M friend, Patty, put in the legwork we'd never been able to muster, contacting local businesses, placing collection boxes, spreading the word. And the books flooded in, filling box after box after box, enough for this year and probably next as well. A glorious abundance. The more books, the more choices, the more opportunities for each student to find a perfect match.
Later in the day, I stop by Parker's classroom for a gingerbread house extravaganza. At the back of the room sits a stack of books, each neatly wrapped and decorated, with a message from one child to another. The gift of reading, and much more.
Thanks to the local businesses who put out boxes: Book Buyers, The Common Market, Georgetown Day Spa, Foskoskies, No Grease, Pike's Pharmacy, Shamrock Gardens and Zada Jane's. Thanks also to the members of charlottemommies, and everyone else who gave.