My Volunteer Journal: Episode 13 – Reading and A Little Improv for BookPALS

where_the_wild_things_are To be nervous on your first day of school is normal. I keep messing with my shirt and hair trying to look cool, which unfortunately only makes me look like I have a twitch.  For someone who spent the majority of their life training to perform in front of an audience it is ridiculous that reading a book to first graders makes me so nervous.  I keep thinking, “What if I screw up the story?”  Luckily, that question was answered in my first classroom so I didn’t have to wonder for long.

In honor of Read Across America (which is held on Dr. Seuss’s birthday March 2nd) I am reading stories at a local inner city elementary school with the literacy non-profit BookPALS.  When I entered my first classroom the wiggly first graders quickly assembled onto their reading mat, became perfectly still, and then looked up me with big round eyes.  The teacher introduced me and I began “Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  The children laughed when Max danced with the monsters and sighed when he got home and a warm dinner was waiting for him. The story went so well that I quickly launched into my second book “The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and that’s when I screwed up.

For the record there is nothing wrong with “The Velveteen Rabbit”, it is a perfectly lovely book.  However, it was nine o’clock, I had a sleepless night and the book is considerably more difficult for young ones to understand than “Where the Wild Things Are.”  The children had several vocabulary questions, which I tried to answer as I went through the book. I stopped briefly to explain what the word “dew” meant and I lost my place.  Instead of calmly finding where I was and resuming I panicked and improvised the rest of the page. In my version of the story the Velveteen Rabbit spends more time outdoors playing, talking and romping with the real rabbits until nanny find him.  I don’t think my improvisation will damage the children’s future literacy skills, but we will see.

After surviving my improv debacle I decided nothing else could or would phase me so I charged into my next class full of fourth and fifth grader with confidence. Realistically, I should have been more intimidated by the older kids. Nine and ten were the ages when cynicism became my go to emotional choice. They had the potential to be really hostile, but nothing of the kind happened. They even seemed more enthusiastic than the younger kids. I read “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting, which is the story of a man and his son who live in an airport terminal because they are homeless. When I finished one little fifth grade girl with beautiful braids raised her hand, “Do they ever find a home?”

“I hope so,” I said.  “They probably will since the father is trying to find an apartment. It’s like the bird in the story, sometimes you get stuck, but you have to keep trying to get out.” With the current economic conditions homelessness might be a reality or a worry for a few kids in the room. Hopefully the story assured them that they are not alone.

My next class was a room of high-energy first graders. When I walked in the teacher let out an audible sigh and thanked me profusely for helping her. Seeing that she needed a break to work on some papers for 30 minutes I read two books including, "There’s a Wocket in My Pocket" by Dr. Seuss. “Wocket” is about the difficulty of sharing your home with many different kinds of creatures. Every time I introduced a new creature the class would explode in a frenzy of giggles.

In my final class I read “Singing Down The Rain” by Joy Cowley.  “Singing Down The Rain” has a nice sing along section so by the end the children where singing with me.  As I packed up my books to leave a pretty little boy with neat cornrows ran up and tapped my arm lightly. “You have a nice singing voice,” he said blushing. Singing in public always puts the fear in me so his compliment was wonderful.  “Thank you. I’ll see you in a few weeks.” I walked out of the room with a skip in my step thinking of the books I would bring next month.

By reading to a child you increase the likelihood that they will succeed in school and go on to be productive members of society. If you volunteer for a local school you are bettering your community by helping to raise smarter and happier kids. To learn how you can increase a child's love of reading go to:  5 things every family can do to raise a reader.