CU-Boulder students, elementary schoolers discover ties that bind

Reading Buddies a community partnership built via books
Jennifer Contreras, 9, reads her book "Oscar" with the help of CU student Forest Rodriguez at the Boulder Public Library in April.
Jay Dedrick/University of Colorado
Jennifer Contreras, 9, reads her book "Oscar" with the help of CU student Forest Rodriguez at the Boulder Public Library in April.

Zora Eckert opens her storybook and begins to read aloud, her voice assured but quiet, leading the audience to lean in. Seated beside her on a bench, Serena Lewis holds up a second copy of the book, giving the circle of listeners a chance to peek at the crayon-colored illustrations floating above the text on crisp, white pages.

“The Cat and the Duck” is a rare volume, not sold on, nowhere to be found on bookstore shelves – nor on those just a few steps away in this space at the Boulder Public Library. But that’s not why the books are priceless to Zora and Serena.

The two bonded while creating the book. Zora wrote the story and drew the pictures; she’s a second-grader at Jarrow Montessori. Serena helped with the editing and binding; she’s a freshman at CU-Boulder.

Like dozens of other pairs, they became friends this past semester by way of Reading Buddies, a Boulder Public Library-based community program that benefits from strong ties to the University of Colorado Boulder. By spending time at the main library with CU-Boulder undergraduates who are studying linguistics and writing and rhetoric, the participating elementary school students from Boulder County turn a page in discovering the joy of reading.

“Through this program, these children find motivation to read,” says Kira Hall, associate professor in the departments of linguistics and anthropology, and program director of Culture, Language and Social Practice (CLASP), an interdisciplinary forum on language and society. “They come to see reading as desirable or even cool – something that college students do. It makes for a powerful collaboration.”

Hall’s students may choose Reading Buddies from a list of programs that meet the service learning requirement in the LING 900 Literacy Practicum. Catherine Kunce’s students in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the Farrand Hall Residential Academic Program are required to participate in Reading Buddies.

“The first-year college students are totally adored by their Little Buddies, and I know that the CU students’ affection and concern for the children does indeed change children’s lives for the better,” Kunce says. “As frequently happens in ‘teaching,’ though, the ‘teachers’ learn more from the students than the other way around. The college students exercise patience, understanding and, in short, become admirable role models and selfless educators.”

Reading Buddies is just one facet of Boulder Public Library’s BoulderReads! Program, which includes tutoring for adult learners of English. When that effort was underway 20 years ago, parents often needed child care during literacy sessions. That’s how Reading Buddies began, the brainchild of former BoulderReads! director Diana Sherry in collaboration with CU’s Kay Ann Short. Made possible by grants from the Boulder Library Foundation, the program has since grown to include children from roughly ages 6 to 11 who are enrolled in elementary schools in Boulder County and who may be at risk for reading difficulty. The program is so popular, there’s a waiting list.

Each semester, a CU student is paired with a Reading Buddies participant. In mandatory, 90-minute sessions each week, they meet at the library to explore books together, take part in literacy activities, share storytelling and play games.

“The goal is not to teach children to read, but for them to have an enjoyable exploration with books,” says Shelley Sullivan, manager of BoulderReads!

In the final weeks of each semester, imagination moves to the forefront, with the little buddies developing a story for a book, and big buddies helping to develop the narrative, and, eventually, typing and printing. Each semester culminates with a group reading of the books, when parents and siblings applaud the debuts.

“The feedback we hear from parents is that their child was so excited to get to Reading Buddies each week – their big buddy was cool, they were fun, they listened and got to know the child,” Sullivan says. “Parents say they notice their children are more curious about books. And that’s exciting.”

The mother of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old who took part in the program said her kids didn’t want their time in Reading Buddies to end; one shed tears when the day came.

“My young children love to be with the ‘cool’ college kids,” the parent wrote in a feedback letter. “They have someone who will read any book they pick!”

Cierra Weiss, a freshman in Hall’s linguistics course, was paired with last semester’s youngest Reading Buddy, 4-year-old Sami Luckenbill. The two collaborated on “Unicorn Has Wings.”

“Sami was a real joy to work with – just adorable,” Cierra says. “Sometimes she would be really interested in reading anything and everything. The next week, she would just want to sit and color. So trying to find a happy medium between the two, and making sure Sami was happy, was a challenge. I noticed that my ability to read out loud got a lot better as we went through the semester.”

Up to 90 CU students participate in Reading Buddies each year. Kunce says involvement leads to their growth into “model citizens.”

“They recognize,” Kunce says, “that the fulfillment of the privilege of being at an institution of higher education is to share the knowledge they acquire – to become leaders – and to recognize that ‘giving’ is sometimes neither easy nor totally fun. Welcome to the world of parenthood and teaching! But ultimately, that giving is richly rewarding.

“Students also learn about themselves. They learn that they are needed in the world, and that their unique talents will last well beyond their college years.”

Hall says the Big Buddies become more engaged in her department’s course, which looks at the social life of language in the United States.

“The academic material becomes real for them and they begin to feel responsibility for the child they’re working with,” Hall says. “A lot of students express that it’s a life-changing experience for them. As I tell them, it’s one thing to learn about a problem in books and lectures, but in this case they have the opportunity to be part of the solution.”

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