Summer school reading program takes New Haven students to camp
New Haven Register News. Brian Zahn. July 30, 2017.

Huddled around a campfire in King/Robinson Magnet School, six rising fifth-graders from across the district turned to the first page of “Planting the Trees of Kenya,” a children’s book about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.

Although the campfire was merely tissue paper and fairy lights, district officials say the idea is to make the city’s summer school literacy program as much like a summer camp as possible.

The district purchased the summer school curriculum from Scholastic, seeking a change to make summer learning more engaging.

“Summer school was looked at as remedial time,” said Lynn Brantley, the district’s literacy supervisor, “Now, it’s about loving books and social-emotional learning. They’re not here to feel like they have to catch up.”

While their summer camp-going peers gather those social-emotional skills through camping and play programs, Brantley said the district is able to bring “a breath of fresh air” to the summer school students by bringing the summer camp concept to them while teaching literacy.

Debbie Thorson, who oversees the summer school literature curriculum, said that social-emotional learning comes in the form of “seven strengths” that are taught through the reading and book selection.

The district piloted the program with the rising fourth- and fifth-grades last summer, and this year, it expanded the scope of the summer reading program to serve Kindergarten through fifth grade.

Brantley said the program runs at eight other sites besides King/Robinson for the month of July and is available to any student, although “the most fragile readers, it’s suggested they come.”

Thorson said the aim of the program is to emphasize a community spirit in reading. Lauren Canalori, who is leading the fifth-grade classroom at King/Robinson, said the most popular aspect has been a quiet reading component where the students read around the faux campfire.

“They get excited about ‘bunk time,’” Canalori said, something that was evident in the children’s enthusiastic desire to recap some of the books they’ve read and their morals.

“Don’t always judge people by the way they act,” Janii Morgan, 10, said was the lesson she learned from “Because of Winn-Dixie.” “Don’t tease your friends,” was Adam Compton’s, 10, takeaway.

Together, the fifth-graders tallied 52 books over the span of a month.

“They look at it with a different lens, sitting around the campfire with songs playing and they read,” Thorson said. “They explore different genres so they don’t feel pigeon-holed.”

Among these genres were graphic novels, books in comic book format, especially one featuring a superhero lunch lady — Canalori’s students took turns recapping their favorite foes from memory.

“If I can read a graphic novel, it feels like I’m doing it differently,” Brantley said.

Brantley said she has heard positive feedback about the program and may consider expanding partnerships with nonprofit organizations offering literacy training to city students in the future, but the most important resource would be more funding. The program ends at noon and there is no transportation, either to take students home or elsewhere, so the benefit of giving working parents day care is essentially lost. During the year as well, she said, some reading specialists and interventionists such as Thorson float between schools, which share employees.

In order to reduce burdensome testing, the children’s reading entering the program is measured by a May exit exam and an exam exiting the program not to be repeated once they enter the next grade.

Approximately 20 minutes after flipping open their new book, the students in Canalori’s class had their own summations of “Planting the Trees of Kenya.”

“You can make a change in the community if there’s a problem,” said Orokwu Igoamadi, 9.

Without knowing it, Orokwu and her fellow students were considering kindness, one of the seven strengths baked into the program.

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