Bookends program allows seniors to review literature with students from comfort of home
CHAMPAIGN — It seems like an unlikely combination: a fourth-grader, a 64-year-old volunteer, an iPad, a blog and a children's book.
Turns out, a connection through technology and literature can become a solid one, as local students and volunteers participating in a book blogging program found out this fall.
Fourth-grader Conor Peyton and Champaign resident Jane Tock connected through the book "The Thing about Georgie," sharing their experiences with bullies, people who lie and getting along with others. Peyton's class at Champaign's Bottenfield Elementary is participating in the program, which is called Bookends.
Conor said he thought Tock had "just the right amount to say" about the book, including nice, thoughtful things "that actually made sense about the book."
He said through the blogging process, he learned more about Tock's life and what she's been through.
"It's good to share your thoughts with someone," he said.
Tock said she enjoyed connecting with Conor and found him to be sensitive and thoughtful as he shared his experiences, which were similar to those of the main character in their book. He also asked Tock about her life, and she responded.
"We got to be like pen pals," she said. "I feel like we had a real friendship going, because he was honest with me and I was honest with him. It was awesome to have a fourth-grade friend."
This fall, Bookends paired fourth-graders in Andrew Peralta's class with local volunteers who never actually set foot in the classroom.
The program started as a pilot last year, after Champaign resident Deb Halle, who had retired from the Champaign schools, realized she missed working with students but still wanted some freedom.
"I was trying to come up with a way to fulfill some of the needs of students and teachers in the schools, and I knew there are other rich human resources out in the community who wanted to find other ways to interact with kids in the schools," she said.
So she worked with several other educators to create a program that allows students to interact virtually with senior citizens in the community, as they pair up and read the same book and blog to each other using secure software.
Halle won a grant from the Stevick Foundation — the program fit the goals of both enhancing the quality of life for seniors and promoting reading and writing skills for local students — to buy 10 iPads for students to use while blogging. It also paid for books and other supplies.
As they started the program, organizers trained students to "stop and jot" their thoughts at certain premarked places in their books.
They'd send their thoughts to the senior citizen volunteers, whom Halle also trained, and the volunteers would then send responses back to the students. They started in September.
"I can't tell you how beautiful the conversations were," Halle said, adding that she watched students' writing improve and all involved share stories from their personal lives as they related to themes like kindness and bravery in the books they read.
The goal for the students was to improve their reading comprehension skills, and tests at the end of the project show that they improved, Halle said. She said she also thinks the anonymity of writing to someone they haven't met in person allowed them to express themselves more freely.
"I liked it because you could let out your thoughts with somebody else," said fourth-grader Lainey Somers.
Her classmate, Serenity Hillsman, said the blogging part was fun, but it involved more than just technology.
"It's not all iPads," she said. "You have to write. You have to read."
Students also had to learn how to organize their thoughts and evidence in a specific way before actually writing their posts and then typing them to their buddies. Halle also approved every blog post sent from both students and volunteers, and emailed all involved when they had a response waiting.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it pays off," Lainey said. "You get to share your thoughts instead of keeping them all in your head."
The goal for the seniors involved was to give them a way to work with students in the schools, but to remove obstacles like travel and mobility, Halle said.
"It would be very difficult for some of them to get into the schools," Halle said.
She said the volunteers found they also really enjoyed reading the same books as the fourth-graders.
The students and volunteers won't meet face to face, but students are sending videos to the volunteers, thanking them.
Champaign resident Jim Carnahan said he appreciated the chance to see a fourth-grader's thoughts on the book they were both reading.
"It's really interesting to see how a fourth-grader thinks about a book that's worth thinking about," he said, adding that the central character is a boy who is a dwarf, and the book explores his relationships with other kids. One is a girl who sits behind him in class and torments him at every opportunity.
"If you're a mature reader, you know that's a setup for something that's going to play out later," Carnahan said, and he knew his blogging buddy would have interesting perspectives when he wrote that sometimes, at his age, when a girl is mean to you, it means she likes you.
Carnahan said he sees the program as something that could be expanded, because it easily allows outside volunteers to fill a need for children, which is to participate in active reading and writing.
Teacher Peralta said his students knew someone besides him would read their thoughts, and therefore put more thought and effort into their writing.
"In terms of their learning throughout this project, I think the most important thing that they learned was to support all of their ideas with evidence from the text, and then add some more thoughts about their opinion," he said, because they were required to back up their opinions with what was happening in the text with specific examples.