By Sella Bemrose
Some people think one person can’t change things, but I know that I have good ideas and, as the AFT saying goes, “I’m making a difference every day.”
My job as a paraprofessional is helping children at our K-3 school become better readers. I love it! I go room to room, and have students come to me in the reading room, helping students in all grades by teaching them different strategies that will make their reading easier and more fun.
My work started years ago with a saying I found at my local public library. It inspires me and guides my professional life:
“Richer than I you will never be, for I had a mother who read to me.”
I learned about the First Book program through my union, the Oregon School Employees Association. It occurred to me that this program could be a great way to get books into the hands of Title I students in our literacy program. So it became my dream to have a First Book library at my school, a room lined with tall bookcases, where children could go “shopping” for free books to take home and keep.
But first I needed permission. After attending a conference in Washington, D.C., for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, I took the idea to my principal and showed her a picture from a workshop that I had participated in. I said, “This is what I want. This is my dream.” At first, she was a little skeptical. I don’t think she realized how big it could become, or how important.
Then a music teacher switched rooms at our school, freeing up her room. I went straight back to the principal to ask if I could turn it into a book giveaway room. She said it was to be used for a conference room. I asked, “Why can’t it be for both?” She agreed.
Our school painted two of the walls, and I re-painted one because I needed it to look just right. Most of the bookcases came from our storage room, and to get all the bookshelves matching, I asked teachers if we could swap shelves with them, and then a friend and I went there after school and switched them out.
That was three years ago. Now, when parents, school board members and other community members use the conference room for meetings and events, they ask what’s going on with all those books lining the room, and they can see with their own eyes the good that OSEA does for our community.
So let me tell you how we actually get the books. As I said, First Book came to my attention through my union, at an OSEA conference in 2012. I needed some time for the idea to gel. The next year was when I said “I’m doing it,” and I signed up for the First Book Marketplace, where you can select the exact books you want very inexpensively, like literally 55 cents per book. I wanted to get a book into the hands of every student in my school.
From left, Bob Reinhardt of Cascade High School, Kim Albee of First Book and Sella Bemrose. (OSEA photos)
Then I heard about Bob Reinhardt, a career tech teacher at Cascade High School nearby, who already was planning to use another First Book program where you line up a truck to bring 40,000 free books to your community. For that project, you get your local union and lots of neighbors involved. When I heard about Bob, I asked, “Can I jump on board with you?” Of course he said “yes.” He needed volunteers! In early 2014, we held a book distribution in Turner.
Other educators were amazed. They said, “Really, I can just sign up and get free books?” I told them, “Yes, I will register you, and you get to go pick up free books.”
After the distribution, I went out and got donations from the community to supplement our collection from the First Book Marketplace. The school’s parent-teacher club donated $400, and other businesses donated money too. At the end of that school year, my school found out that it could use Title I funds to purchase more books. We got $750 in Title I funds, and I was able to purchase a pallet of books from First Book.
In the beginning, the only students who got into the book room were from the Title I literacy program. That didn’t seem fair! Remember, my dream was to get a book into the hands of every student in my school. An idea I had was a weekly book raffle. At my school, students keep a nightly log of their reading at home. Now every week, teachers put tickets with their children’s names in a bucket. All students have to do is read at home, even for a few minutes, and then turn in their log with a parent’s signature to get their name in the bucket. We draw three winners from each first- through third-grade classroom, and those students get to go “shopping” and choose a free book.
At my school, we have a 400 Club for first- and second-graders who have read for 400 minutes at home. We have a 500 Club for third-graders. If students do about 20 minutes of reading per night, they earn a lanyard and badge. Every few months, we host a special activity, like a movie with popcorn, a popsicle party on the playground or bingo games to earn prizes along with their fruit rollup. It might not sound like a big deal, but it creates a special activity for the students. Since the raffle started, the number of children who have made it to the 400 Club and 500 Club has tripled.
There’s a lot more to our book room than there was in the beginning. Over the years, it’s grown way past my dream, actually.
Every month, starting in October, we hold an assembly on the first Friday and announce the Students of the Month. To qualify, students need to use their three B’s: Be Responsible. Be Respectful. Be Safe. Every class selects two students each month, including our music, physical education and English learner classes. Our librarian picks students, too.
Plenty of books in the First Book room at Stayton Elementary School in Oregon.
Each Student of the Month gets to go shopping for a free book. On the day of the student assembly, the winning students get their pictures taken, then go pick a book and are presented with a bookplate with their name on it. Then I’ll go classroom by classroom, congratulating readers and taking raffle winners to the book room. The teachers will say, “Oh, Mrs. Bemrose is here. Let’s have the raffle drawing now.” Each raffle winner gets to pick one book — a book he or she really wants.
Counting the book raffles and Student of the Month winners, every classroom has five book winners per month. Kindergarten classes have five raffle winners, because they do not choose Students of the Month. That way it is fair for every classroom! Isn’t that hilarious? Schoolwide, we give out between 80 and 90 books per month.
Each year, we also give more than 100 books to kindergartners at Halloween and Christmas. We’ve been lucky enough to get Disney “Scary Stories” class sets. Every kindergartner is given a book for Halloween; it’s better than giving them candy, right? And at Christmas, they get to choose between two different Disney storybook collections. It’s really important to get books into the hands of these kindergartners.
When students come in for literacy night once a year, they get a ticket and go down to the book room for a free book. We make a party of it; inviting parents, helping students design bookmarks and holding other activities. We also bring in special guests to read during story time. We usually hold it around Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
My new idea this year is a wish list. Sometimes a child will be in the book room and ask, “Do you have any books about puppies?”
I pretty much know what we have. So I went to the reading specialist and asked if we could order books on particular subjects. She said let’s go for it! Now when she’s ordering from Scholastic or I’m ordering from First Book, we try to get those books. When we take students shopping for free books, we say, “Mrs. Bemrose is always getting new books. You never know what’s going to be in here; there’s always new books.”
One year, our school’s clerical staff conducted a clothing drive, giving out backpacks and supplies during school registration. They asked if I wanted to pitch in some books. Well, yes! I love it when somebody comes up with an idea and says, “Hey, what do you think?”
Another program we started, right before the school year ended, involved giving students in the Title I literacy intervention program four books each — two at their level and any other two. It was all about preventing the summer slide. For another event, we gave away beach buckets of books, including bookmarks, stickers and literature on the summer slide, at our school’s literacy night. We wanted to get more parents to attend, and it worked.
In the past few years, our parent-teacher club has been giving birthday books to the students. But it is just random books, not necessarily matching the interests of the children. This past June, I went down to the third-grade classrooms to accompany book raffle winners to go shopping. One of the students asked, “Are we going to your book room?” “Yes,” I said. “Oh good,” she answered, “because you have way better books!”
When our students advance to middle school, they’re a little sad because that school doesn’t have a book room. But by then, they’ve got the reading bug, and that’s what matters.
Sella Bemrose is a reading intervention assistant for the North Santiam School District. She works at Stayton Elementary School, near Salem, and is a member of the Oregon School Employees Association.
This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion.