When he hears buddies say “reading isn’t cool,” 9-year-old Markus Worthen can point to 67-year-old Rob St. Clair and prove them wrong.
“When he reads, I follow along with him sometimes, and it helps me read,” said Markus a fourth-grader at Waddell Elementary School. “… When you’re reading right, you’re imagining what is happening and it’s fun.”
St. Clair, a retired probate lawyer and a retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve colonel, is one of 13 volunteers representing the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries in the Guys Read program. Combined with six CVL staff members, they provide 10 Muscogee County schools with a “Guy” who reads to a group of fourth-grade boys twice per week for five weeks.
The students are selected because they are reluctant readers and often lack positive male role models at home. Whether it’s because they struggle when they do it or because they don’t do it often enough, their reading performance is below grade level.
“Our kids are coming from such low socioeconomic and broken homes,” said fourth-grade reading teacher Christy Norris, in her sixth year at Waddell. “… So it’s really a big deal for them to see a man interested in reading and showing them how reading can benefit them.”
The program is exclusively for boys because girls consistently outscore them on standardized reading tests. This gender gap has been documented every year since the first National Assessment of Educational Progress was conducted in 1971. In Muscogee County, 14.1 percent of fourth-grade boys, compared to 10.1 percent of fourth-grade girls, failed to meet the state’s reading standard in the 2013-14 school year, when Guys Read began.
The local program also was inspired by GuysRead.com, the Web-based literacy program founded by nationally renowned children’s author Jon Scieszka. He will be in town Sept. 17 for the 2016 Columbus Children’s Book Festival.
St. Clair heard about Guys Read as a member of the Muscogee County Friends of Libraries board. The avid photographer was looking for a way to further contribute to the community beyond being president of the Columbus Artists’ Guild. His goal is to inspire these boys to read more and read better.
“I love books,” he said, “and I’d love to pass that on to young students, to think that it’s OK to read.”
It’s more than OK, fourth-grader Joshua Jenkins has discovered through the program. The 10-year-old called reading “cool” because “you learn more stuff.”
Wednesday, the topic was marine biology, but they didn’t know it. They used a cooler term: sea monsters.
After the nine boys at this session ate their lunch in Waddell’s library, they gathered around St. Clair for his interactive reading of “Sea Monsters,” part of the Prehistoric Safari series by Liz Miles. Every page, St. Clair used a word or a picture as prompts to pose questions.
He kept the boys engaged. He related the book to their lives. They laughed. They learned.
St. Clair embellished the end of a paragraph when he read aloud, “You’re about to set off on a safari to explore mysterious parts of the ocean. Reports suggest that prehistoric predators, thought to have died out millions of years ago, are still alive and still swimming around — and still looking for fourth-graders.”
St. Clair: “I made that part up.”
He baited their interest even more when he feigned fear as he peeked at a page and said, “I don’t want to show you this. This is scary.”
Student: “Yes you do!”
St. Clair: “OK, I’ll show it to you.”
It was a sea reptile the size of a bus. The boys gushed with excitement, and St. Clair continued to convert their attention into teachable moments, such as putting numbers in perspective. For example, he said that the 16-foot-long creature on the next page is about the size of three of the tables behind them.
Before he finished the session, St. Clair asked the boys whether they had read any books on their own during the past week. Almost all of them raised their hand.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch these kids have fun,” he said. “… If it inspires them to read more and take advantage of the library with different books, that’s what I get out of it.”
And here’s what the boys get out of it:
Norris said most of last year’s 10 participants at Waddell improved their reading performance by 1½ grade levels or more after starting the program at least one year below grade level. In fact, she added, some of them were selected for the Reading Bowl competition and joined the school’s book club this year as fifth-graders.
“It doesn’t matter if you start off behind,” said Waddell principal Tonya Douglass. “It matters that you’re growing and you’re growing every single day.”
Norris explained, “A lot of times, they hear, ‘Oh, you’re not on grade level’ or ‘Oh, you’re behind,’ and they feel beaten down, like, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to be a good reader.’ But then they come in here and realize, ‘Wait a minute. Here are books that I like, and I can read them, and I’m doing well, and then in class I see my growth, and I become confident that I can read.’”
CVL lead children’s librarian Sarah Spence chose the 350 Guys Read books, half fiction and half non-fiction, and geared them toward subjects boys tend to enjoy. The program culminates in a celebration with the students’ families and the volunteers at the Columbus Public Library. Each boy gets to keep one book and others are donated to the school libraries. The Macy’s/Reading is Fundamental partnership funds the program, which costs $250-$500 per school for the books and other materials, said CVL fund development and marketing coordinator Tiffany Wilson.
The other schools participating in Guys Read this year are Blanchard, Clubview, Downtown, Forrest Road, Gentian, Reese Road, Rigdon Road, South Columbus and Wynnton. The program has grown from eight schools and 80 boys two years ago to 10 schools and 100 boys this year. Wilson said.
CVL wants to eventually expand Guys Read to all 32 elementary schools in the Muscogee County School District if interest, scheduling and funding allow it, she said.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
Guys Read is one of the volunteer programs conducted by the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries. In fiscal year 2015, CVL’s 567 volunteers donated a total of 13,561 hours. To participate in next year’s Guys Read or another program through the library system, call CVL volunteer coordinator Priscilla Williams at 706-243-2674. Click here for opportunities.