Literacy night pulls families closer

(Photo by DAVID GUNTER) Farmin Stidwell Elementary teachers Mac Hollan and Jessica Sweet are putting literacy into action as part of a project called “Open Books-Open Minds” that is designed to put bookshelves and books into the homes of students.


Feature correspondent

SANDPOINT — Fifty bookshelves for 50 families. It might not sound like a change-the-world event, but just imagine the ripple effect from that many kids discovering a love of reading at an early age.

The new outreach program, developed by two Title I teachers at Farmin Stidwell Elementary School, is designed to help literacy take root on the home front.

It’s called ‘Open Books-Open Minds’ and was the brainchild of educator Jessica Sweet. The inspiration came during an event-planning meeting at the school, where one attendee mentioned that her son always waited for her to get home so they could snuggle and read together.

“We thought, ‘That’s it!’” Sweet said. “That’s what we want to do.

“So we have created a special night for 50 families to learn how to create literacy in their homes,” she added.

“The idea,” her colleague Mac Hollan said, “is to make reading more than just a class. All we want is for kids to go home and read.”

The Title I team at Farmin Stidwell already has been a cheering section for reading at home, regularly making free books available to students and keeping a bookshelf of gratis titles — displayed at kid level — stocked in one of the school’s main hallways.

For the upcoming literacy night, Sweet went in search of something that would build a sense of buy-in from students and parents alike and came up with the plan to send families home with miniature wooden bookshelves. She quickly enlisted Hollan, who has a home woodshop, to construct them. The final steps of completion will belong to the families themselves, who will paint their shelves with colors donated by the Paint Bucket.

“We couldn’t have them actually build the shelves, so we were trying to find a way for students to still take ownership by painting them,” said Sweet.

“And when the kids leave, we’ll have books for them to take to start filling them up,” Hollan said.

“That was really the point,” Sweet explained, noting that having your own bookshelf with your very own books is important to young readers. “With my daughter, any book that she can read to me, she gets to keep and put on her own shelf.”

Open Minds-Open Books is scheduled for the evening of Feb. 17, starting with a dinner for the families of Title I students and moving on to a bookshelf painting party. The shelves will be left at the school to dry for a week, at which point they will be sent home with a small container of paint and a brush so that a second coat can be applied.

Although small, each shelf will be able to hold between 35-50 books, the teachers said. That part should be a breeze, the instructors pointed out, because Farmin Stidwell keeps an ongoing stock of donated children’s books on hand for all takers. At any given time, there are up to 200 titles sitting on the hallway bookshelf waiting to be claimed by young readers.

“We go through boxes of donated books every week,” Hollan said.

“It’s kind of like a lending library without the lending part,” said Sweet.

“A giving library,” her colleague chimed in.

Title I was adopted as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, originally meant to narrow the academic achievement gap between low-income and other students. In 1994, funding for Title I was reauthorized, with a shift from remedial education to helping all disadvantaged children reach state academic standards.

For Sweet and Hollan, helping kids learn to read has become a cornerstone of their Title I teaching.

“For us, because we work with these struggling readers, it’s in the forefront,” said Sweet. “We’re always looking for ways to make reading fun. Sometimes, that gets lost.”

Looks like the Feb. 17 event may have placed it back in the “found” category. And if the families involved embrace reading, as well, the positive impact could be passed on for generations.

“The simplest way to help a kid improve in reading is just to read,” Hollan said. “It’s not so much the nuts and bolts as it is making time. Regardless of what they’re going to do — trade school or college — reading is the most important thing they’re going to learn.”

There’s an added benefit, according to Sweet. In keeping with the conversation that inspired the literacy night theme, she holds reading together up as something families can do to draw closer as they invest wisely in their child’s education. Even better when your child is snuggled on your lap, sharing the moment.

“That’s my favorite part of the day,” she said.

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