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Even with the global literacy rate at an all-time high, one form of reading — curling up with a good book to relax at the end of the day, or losing oneself in the pages of a thick novel for an afternoon — is waning. In part thanks to the ever-present pull of distractions like social media and messaging apps, readership of literature has taken sharp declines in recent years, especially among adults.
With disheartening figures — like the nearly 40 percent of college freshmen who don't read books for pleasure at all — in mind, Durham Academy Upper School English teacher Fran Wittman sought to help combat the trend. Why Reading Matters, a fall senior English elective, aims to inspire a love of reading in both the DA students taking the course and in a classroom of third-graders at Creekside Elementary School. With the first year of the fall service-learning course having concluded in December, Wittman's experiment appears to have achieved its goal for both the DA and Creekside students.
Senior Caroline Sanguily and her classmates — joined on the stage of Kenan Auditorium by their Creekside "reading buddies" during an Upper School morning meeting in early March — spoke to fellow Upper Schoolers about the course.
"Personally, I'm not a big reader, but working with these kids and seeing them get excited and learning how to make them get more excited about reading, made me more enthusiastic about reading," Sanguily said.
Once a week during the fall semester course, the 12 Why Reading Matters students visited Creekside, where they each read and discussed books with two third-graders. The objective wasn't to teach students how to read, but rather simply to discover a love of reading. In that way, the program differs from DA's Augustine Literacy Project service-learning course, through which DA students teach struggling students at Creekside and Hope Valley elementary schools how to read using a phonetic teaching approach.
Creekside third-grader Hailey Chilausky said she's enjoyed discovering some new books, like Judy Blume's Freckle Juice, with Sanguily, whom she described as "nice and awesome and always helping me with reading." They have not only had fun reading together, but Hailey has seen a measurable increase in her reading ability.
"I think because of her, I've been doing well because I was an L [on a reading fluency scale] and I went all the way up to an O," Hailey said.
Creekside teacher Whitney Blalock has seen similar growth in a number of her students.
"Kids are more successful when they feel like they have someone on their team," she said. "Specifically having a high schooler on their team has just lifted their spirits. I have students who have grown two or three grade levels in reading since the beginning of the year. I think a lot of that is because they have people on their team, cheering for them."
Reading ability ranges widely in Blalock's third-grade class, from students reading on a first-grade level all the way to those reading on a sixth-grade level. She said it's been helpful to be able to match pairs of her students who read on similar levels during the DA student visits. In addition, the Why Reading Matters students have helped stock her classroom with a variety of books suitable for students' range of reading levels.
On the days that the DA students didn't visit Creekside, they spent some time preparing for their visits, but the majority of their time was spent discovering the love of reading for themselves. Wittman assigned a few popular fiction titles for reading as a class, and the group discussed strategies for engaging others in literature. Students also selected two books to read on their own and posted recommendations on the Upper School Learning Commons website. Before long, the students — many of whom wouldn't have described themselves as big readers at the start of the course — were recommending books to one another without prompting. The evidence of a blossoming enthusiasm for reading was there.
Wittman, who is studying literacy as part of an N.C. State University graduate program, sees it as critically important that students and adults find time to read for pleasure, citing a Harvard Business Review article that touts the connection between reading habits and effective leadership.
"I love TV, and I love movies. I just love stories. So I'll park myself in front of Netflix and binge-watch The Walking Dead just like everyone else," she said. "But I think being able to bring yourself to a book, being able to bring your context, your imagination — it's different when it's not somebody else's interpretation of a character. It's your interpretation that you're able to put on the characters and really get into the why the character is acting that way. I think you invest more of yourself in a book."
In her graduate work, Wittman learned that third grade is when many students begin to "give up on reading" — a statistic that led to her reaching out to Blalock about working with her third grade class for Why Reading Matters. From all accounts, it's been a productive and enjoyable partnership, and it was tough for this year's students to part ways at the conclusion of the course in December.
So in the 2016-2017 school year, Wittman will offer a complementary elective course in the spring called Escapist Fiction. Students enrolled in that course will also work with the Creekside students, with a focus during the DA classroom work on "escaping into literature and communities of readers."
Like many of his classmates, senior Davis Morgan was sad to say goodbye to his reading buddies when they visited DA, and his buddies Ryan Jackson and Kahaan Khati expressed similar sentiments, noting how much they've enjoyed their chats about the Boston Red Sox before and after reading sessions.
"It's been fun because we get to read," Ryan said. "It's just cool to be with high school reading buddies. And we like to know that we're helping them."
Morgan said that he did indeed gain a lot from the partnership.
"Going into it, my job was to try to help them learn to love to read, and when I got there, they were already terrific readers," he said. "So one thing I learned from them is how dedicated you can be when you like to do something."