Room to Read’s Students Helping Students program started when students began raising awareness and funds on behalf of the organization following the 2005 Asian tsunami. Since then, schools and communities around the world have worked tirelessly to support Room to Read in big and small ways—from bake sales and read-a-thons to large-scale events, student groups have taken action on behalf of literacy and gender equality in education.
As with many of our best relationships, our partnership with the John Eliot School, an elementary school in Needham, Massachusetts, came to us by way of a dedicated Room to Read chapter. In this case, Boston chapter leader Wendy McAllister had been working with the Eliot school and forging a friendship with its principal, Ms. Suzanne Wilcox, when a partnership was born. Ms. Wilcox saw the connection between Room to Read’s work and her own school’s challenges almost immediately.
Despite being a high-performing school, the Eliot School’s literacy test scores had reached a plateau. Once she learned more about Room to Read’s work, Ms. Wilcox realized that taking the global literacy movement local might be just the way to improve performace at Eliot. “It occurred to me that becoming involved with this organization just might be the ticket to engaging students in more recreational reading, resulting in improved rates of literacy for the students at Eliot,” said Ms. Wilcox. “Developing an interactive program with Room to Read would naturally align with our school and district goals, 'to advance standards-based learning, develop the social and emotional skills of all students, and promote active citizenship'.”
Ms. Wilcox knew that the success of embedding Room to Read’s work within the school’s curriculum wouldn’t ultimately hinge on her, but on the talented and dedicated faculty at the Eliot School so she presented the idea to her colleagues. "In a matter of minutes, the room erupted with enthusiasm,” she said. Brainstorming ensued. At the end of their meeting, the teachers agreed to collaboratively create a curriculum spanning classrooms and content areas. Ms. Wilcox applied for and received a grant from the Needham Education Foundation to sponsor staff development days for teachers to come together to plan out the year ahead. Their sessions resulted in three components that led to the school’s success: summer reading (adult and student), classroom buddies, and the Eliot School Cultural Diversity Day celebration.
Once the summer read-a-thon ended, the "reading mileage" challenge began. Ms. Wilcox and her team decided to have their buddy pairs (one upper-grade student and one lower-grade student) calculate the mileage needed to travel to their Room to Read country of choice and back to Needham. Those miles then converted into pages and with their itineraries set, the pairs took off on their read-around-the-world challenge. As a result, every buddy pair read their way to their country and back, and some made the trip more than once!
The school’s year-long focus on Room to Read and its program countries culminated in the Eliot School Cultural Diversity Day celebration, where classrooms presented their projects on Room to Read countries. Throughout the project, parents had many opportunities to engage in the overall reading goals of the school, including several opportunities to participate in book discussions. From classroom buddies to logging their miles, the students, staff, and families of the John Eliot School truly demonstrated that literacy is a priority, both at home and abroad.
As Ms. Wilcox examined her test data last fall, it was clear the campus-wide campaign had worked; students' scores showed marked progress in both English language arts and mathematics, particularly among special education students. “The notion that Room to Read could serve as a catalyst to help students explore and understand world issues, offer students an opportunity to take action and increase the volume of student reading with the outcome of an improvement in overall literacy rates was simply something we could not pass up,” she said.
The Eliot School is kicking off its second annual summer read-a-thon this summer and is looking ahead to a school year full of service learning tied to Room to Read’s mission. Learn more about our Students Helping Students program or email Jill Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo caption: Director of the Cambodia office of Room to Read Kann Kall poses with members of Allison Dick's 3rd grade class. From Left: Lila North, Jenna Sandler, Kurt Brinkhaus and Brian Poolman. Photo credit: Credit Robert Rosen