Every week, six times a week, student readers show up at my office door and they promptly take over my computer. It’s ok, they have permission. It’s not a hostage situation. We log into our local public library’s catalog and select 3-4 ebooks, navigate to WebEx, and enter our “virtual reading room.” We activate the video, activate the mic, share our screen, and we’re live! We’re then greeted with twenty smiling faces on the screen. Meet our virtual reading buddies. They are elementary school students in grades K-3 at a Title I school in Nashville, and my students and I have been reading to these students for almost 3 years.
A parent at my school brought the idea to me. He’d already been working to connect volunteer readers with schools throughout the country, and he hoped to help create a partnership with older students reading to younger students. The beauty of this is that we have the technology to allow volunteers to read from where they are. I would never be able to take my students on a field trip every week across town. And, it breaks down barriers of demographics. My students are getting to work with students in a Title I school, which is far from their experience of attending middle school in one of the wealthiest counties in the state. It was immediately important to me, to give my students this opportunity.
First, I had to lay all of the groundwork. I worked with my district’s instructional technology team to choose a video conferencing application. My district has a running list of technology that is approved and not approved for use in our district, so I am using WebEx because it is approved. Next, we are fortunate to have a wonderful partnership with our local public library. They give my school 5 library cards to use in any capacity, so I designate 1 of those cards just for Read2Me. This allows my students and I to access their vast ebook library. Having access to their digital library is a huge cost savings for my library budget, as I have lots of digital resources for middle school, just not so many for elementary students. With the technology and ebook resources in place, I moved on to the volunteers.
I promoted Read2Me with my lunch bunch book club because it’s a core group of readers at my school, whom I regularly see. The main criteria: students had to be able to read once a week, during their study hall, feel comfortable reading aloud, and they had to return a permission slip. A major consideration for participation, which is clearly listed on the permission slip is that students must have signed the district’s acceptable use policy. Next, we had a couple of training sessions, so that the students could take WebEx and the operation of the ebooks for a test drive. Then, we practiced reading aloud. Fortunately, I have some amazing students who are also forensics champs and thespians, who can rock a Read2Me session like they are natural born storytellers. So, the learning curve was really, well, non-existent.
Then, I reached out to the teachers at our partner school, and we worked together to set up a weekly reading schedule. I sent them a link to our virtual reading room in WebEx, and they followed my directions to click the link, start their camera, and their mic, and they’re in! With the involvement of technology, we naturally experience glitches from time to time. It could be network problems at one school, or a malfunctioning web cam or mic, but any issues we’ve experienced have been solved in a timely manner, and has impacted our reading sessions very minimally.
One of my favorite aspects of Read2Me is the collaborative relationship I enjoy with the teachers at our partner school. We communicate regularly about their curriculum and how my students and I can best make our reading sessions meaningful and beneficial to their students. They send me specific topics their students are learning, along with sight words or vocabulary words, and my students put these into Quizlet, which allows us to review these words in a virtual flashcard format. The more the teachers and I communicate about literacy needs, the better our reading sessions! Their time is valuable, and the instructional time with their students is valuable. It’s my goal to help my students contribute to their learning in a positive way.
Sometimes, our partnership expands beyond our weekly reading sessions in very cool ways. Because I regularly host authors at my school, I was able to invite the 4th graders at our partner school to join us virtually for my students’ visit with author Roland Smith. I set up my laptop and webcam in the auditorium, giving our reading buddies a front row seat to the action! After Roland spoke to my students, he did a special Q&A session with the 4th graders. They asked great questions! I loved that we were able to extend the benefits of an author visit to our reading buddies. And, did I mention how cool Roland Smith is?
We also connected a guest reader to our kindergarten classes last year. Miss Tennessee, Grace Burgess, is focused on literacy and spreading the love of reading during her reign, so we hosted her in our virtual reading room, and let her lead the session. Check out a few clips of her reading I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal here.
Additionally, our relationship has materialized in the form of book drives. My students have held a book drive each year for our reading buddies, which has helped grow their personal and classroom libraries. My students love their reading partners, not only sharing stories with them weekly, but getting more books into their hands, and encouraging them to be lifelong readers.
We see the students via our webcam weekly, and likewise, my students and I are beamed across town onto classroom smart boards, but at the end of this past school year, my students and I took an actual field trip to meet our reading buddies in person. A couple of my students designed t-shirts, which we all wore. We came armed with picture books and treat bags, and tons of excitement! My students were greeted with the biggest smiles! As we visited each classroom and shared stories, it was a beautiful thing to witness my students serving as reading role models and the seeing the reactions of our young readers as they spent time with the kids they admire. Read2Me has been one of the most rewarding reading communities my students and I have experienced. We took an idea and ran with it, and empowering my middle schoolers as volunteers who get to share their love for reading, has been one of the best decisions as a librarian I’ve ever made. Here’s an article about our memorable day!
I hope you will consider establishing a virtual reading partnership of your own. If you need any help getting started, please reach out. I’d love to support you in any way possible. Check out the video my students made to share what we do!