Submitted By Sara Stevenson, Librarian at O. Henry Middle School
“I don’t want you to participate in the Read-A-Thon,” says Dana Phillips, eighth grade English teacher. “I NEED you to do it. For all the little Danas out there, this book made a difference.”
Ms. Phillips is holding the book, I Mean It, Stanley, which her teacher, Miss Libby Lee, gave her in 1984 when Dana was in second grade. “This book said that I mattered, that I was important, and that I was a reader. If it weren’t for this book, I would not be standing here in front of you today.”
I look out at the students in Ms. Phillips class. They are silent; their attention riveted. No matter how many times I hear this speech, I am moved by it. It’s no surprise that Dana’s students have the highest participation rate in the school.
Several years ago I was searching for a way to jumpstart my reading program in January and decided to give the Read-A-Thon a try. During the first year, only 32 out of 1,000 O. Henry students took part. I was disappointed in the turnout. As a reward, I took the participating students to Allan Elementary on the day the children received their Reading is Fundamental books. This way the O. Henry students could experience actually seeing and meeting the children receiving the books. Several of my students had been on the receiving end of the Read-A-Thon and wanted to give back. One girl, Estefania, who had attended Allison Elementary, had all her RIF books still saved on a special bookshelf next to her bed.
At Allan Elementary, our O. Henry students mixed with the Allan children for story time. Afterwards, when the Allan students selected their “forever” books, our students paired up with them as book buddies. There’s something so inspiring about seeing young adults nurture young children, and the little children so look up to middle school students. Even though we don’t get to spend much time with the children, our departing students sometimes have to break apart the children’s arms hugging their legs before they can return to O. Henry.
Over the years, participation rates have increased tenfold. I take four separate field trips to elementary schools in May each year. The Read-A-Thon has become an O. Henry tradition in just a few years.
Even though I love to see the kids reading and gathering pledges, what I love best about the Read-A-Thon are our field trips. So rarely do we get to meet the beneficiaries of our service. I also love how my students’ own reading becomes the fuel to buy books for low-income children here in Austin: reading promotes reading. It’s the perfect equation.