Literacy Bridges in Family and Community Engagement

Volunteer Readers Bridge the Community and Our Classrooms

 //  Mar 1, 2022

Volunteer Readers Bridge the Community and Our Classrooms

Christian Adair has over 20 years of experience as an Educator, Coach, and Director of Alpha League, a Mentoring and Leadership program for boys of color. In this blog post, he discusses how bringing volunteer readers into the classroom has a powerful impact on students.

Fayette County Public Schools believes the community is our partner, and the home is the first educator for our students. However, to affirm this truth, we first had to answer a few questions: How can we best engage families and our community to be volunteers that would make an impact? How can we extend education into the home? How can we ensure cultural diversity and inclusion in the process?

To find answers to these questions, we relied on our mentors in the community.  We set out and recruited with a purpose and ensured we included diversity from the volunteers and the texts we shared with students. We asked the community to highlight their love of reading and real-life experiences with our students for four months for up to one hour a month. The community and schools rallied around this effort and the implementation of the Scholastic R.E.A.L Mentoring program, which helps young people succeed by establishing supportive and beneficial relationships between community volunteers and caring adults to inspire students and build literacy skills.  We engaged 36 elementary schools, 13,000+ students, 300+ volunteers, including 100+ men of color, college athletes, civil servants, grandparents, and veterans. We also sent home more than 150,000 books, ensuring 100% of our public elementary school students now have a home library.

This effort and program have not only had a significant impact on my students, but it has impacted volunteers. Because I learn best from storytelling, I want to share a few stories about outcomes.

My first story occurred when I was a guest reader at a 2nd-grade classroom. During this visit, I read aloud a story about Ruby Bridges.  I knew the students loved the read-aloud because I received a round of smiles and applause—and I even received a large group hug before I left the classroom. However, what will stick with me forever, is during that hug, a male student reached up to my chin and started playing in my short beard. He scratched it and laughed. I kept my head straight but turned my eyes down and asked what he was doing, and his ground-shaking reply was, “I had never touched a beard before.” Those words changed me! I now clearly understood the importance and the possibilities of this program; it was more than reading. It was my PRESENCE and my action of caring. At that moment, I had to get MEN in the classroom through R.E.A.L as the tool to engage students in learning and literacy. Reading will bring our community partners and families into the school, and just as important, including men of color who historically have had an adversarial relationship and are not well represented in the field of teaching. 

A few other memories that will stick with me include when I spoke with:

  • A new immigrant parent from Russia who was carrying his stack of R.E.A.L books to his adopted class to read. I asked him how he liked reading to the kids, and his reply was, “are you kidding me? I'm a superstar when I go in that classroom.”
  • A newlywed stepfather who was not getting along with his stepdaughter; shared that they became best friends once he became a monthly reader.
  • Two brothers who did not have books at home before the program; their mom jokingly told me she had to stop them from reading out loud to each other during dinner time. It became annoying! The outcome was that as an older brother was able to practice his reading skills outside of the classroom, a first-grader was introduced to higher-level reading. This is a perfect example of extending education from the seven hours in school to the 17 hours into our communities.

And finally, like so many other schools, the pandemic caused us to pivot and use technology to expand our reading engagement virtually. With uncertainty around participation, we asked volunteers to submit videos of them reading, and just like that, we received numerous clips via Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and even TikTok. Because of the positive response, we created a VirtualReal library and podcast that allowed students to open up their books and watch or listen to a virtual reading mentor anytime, anywhere. We intended to ensure all of our students increased their reading levels while giving them real-world access to literacy. We also found that the volunteers benefited just as much. Now we have a variety of groups that have joined our school community, and we make it fun with a play on words and slogans; for example, REAL Men Read, REAL Coaches Read, REAL Women Read, REAL Veterans Read, REAL Athletes Read, and REAL Barbers Read.

The few stories I share here affirm how powerful community mentors can be. Their participation in Fayette County Public Schools demonstrates what is truly possible beyond quantitative data.

Photo courtesy of Christian Adair