June 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

California Teens Create Literacy Center—and a Brighter Future—for Preschoolers

Cindy was never much of a reader until she spent time at the local juvenile residential facility. Thanks to the teachers and volunteer librarian there, a new world opened for her. “My love for books grew while I was incarcerated,” she shares.

This past fall, Cindy was back in school at Gateway Community School in San Mateo, CA, a school for those suspended or expelled from schools in their home districts. Adjacent to Gateway is the Early Childhood Education Center (ECE), which serves preschoolers from throughout San Mateo County who are deaf, hard of hearing, visually impaired, or who have multiple disabilities. The facility is also used by a Head Start program.

A little idea sparks big excitement

Cindy quickly noticed an empty book donation box in the hallway at ECE and had a thought. Why not start a book drive for the preschoolers―and pay forward her newfound love of books?

So in September, Cindy created a colorful flyer with the title, “Play, Learn and Grow Together!” She then recruited a small group of fellow students to help post flyers around campus. They also sent emails to school and probation staff requesting donations. By mid-November they had collected more than 300 books.

From boxes of books blooms a bigger and better center

But those books were only the beginning. Once the Gateway students noticed an ECE classroom was not being used, it hit them. It would be the perfect place to become a literacy center that would do a lot more than just house books.

But it would require imagination and elbow grease. “At first we couldn’t even enter the room because there was furniture piled up everywhere and lots of spiderwebs,” says Cindy. The team quickly got to work, during school and after, sweeping, dusting, washing walls, lining bookshelves, cleaning the carpet, and moving furniture.

Though the new center was coming along nicely, one of the students mentioned that it’s too bad they were indoors, and the kids couldn’t sit under a tree and read. So with inspiration from Google and Pinterest, they created a life-size one out of colored and painted crushed paper.

They also decorated the room with a pocket chart of letters and posters. “It was rewarding to watch the students collaborating and working through the details on this project,” notes Sally Ploe, their teacher at Gateway. “From nothing, we created this literacy center out of paper, staples, and tape!” says Cindy with pride.

Gateway students at the literacy center they spearheaded.

Gateway students at the literacy center they spearheaded.

Bilingual bonding blossoms

Now the literacy center is a bustling, welcome addition to the ECE. Gateway students volunteer several mornings a week through Project Friendship, a program that connects preschoolers and high-school aides.  Twice a week, Gateway students, many of whom take English language development (ELD) classes, read to preschoolers in the Head Start Program. When the Head Start children march into the literacy center two-by-two, they put on brightly colored nametags made especially for them by Gateway students. Each teen takes a few preschoolers under his or her wing. In addition to reading, they stretch out on the carpet and do puzzles and sing songs together.

“I was really surprised the first time I came to read to the kids,” says Tony, a teen volunteer. “I thought they would be shy, but they were very friendly and jumping up and down. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to me, but they were so excited.” He says he especially likes reading pop-up books or books that have puppets attached, and doing puzzles together.

One little preschooler was quite shy at first, but when Sandra, another volunteer, sat down with her and spoke in Spanish, they began to bond. When the preschooler whispered that she wanted to learn her colors in English, they had a project they could work on together.

Cindy, the girl who started it all, has favorite books, including Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, which she fondly remembers from her own childhood, and Dinosaur Kisses by David Ezra Stein. “In Dinosaur Kisses, the words stomp and clap are repeated and the kids really like to do those actions over and over,” she notes.

“The Gateway students have a gift we don’t have,” says Mary Browning, site coordinator at the ECE. “Because many of them are bilingual, they connect easily with the preschoolers. Also, because they’re young adults, the preschoolers look up to them. When they see them read, they want to read, too.”

The benefits go both ways

Reading to the kids helps the teens polish up their English. But beyond that, being a part of this program has given the Gateway students, many of whom had erratic attendance in the past, an added incentive to show up for school. Engaging with the children is rewarding, and they know the preschoolers are counting on them to be there. “I’ve learned that I really like working with kids,” says Tony. “I’ve learned a lot just from reading to them and watching them come out of their shells,” adds Cindy. Several other students commented how they discovered they love being with kids and “seeing their faces light up when we read to them.” For many, the program has opened up a possible pathway in their future: They can see themselves as teachers.



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