Photo credit: Northwest Independent School District
When learning shifted to online in many school districts across the country during the pandemic, schools focused on getting devices and hotspots to students. Some school and municipal libraries closed, as well, blocking access to print books for many students.
Reading is an important part of education, but to make students into readers, they need books at home so they can read for fun. According to Scholastic’s Kids & Family Report: 7th Edition, frequent readers ages 6-17 have an average of 139 books in their homes compared to 74 in infrequent readers’ homes.
Students’ race and economic level also correlates to their access to books at home. Families with incomes of $100,000 averaged 125 books in the home compared to 73 books in homes where the family income was below $35,000. Hispanic and Black families also tended to have fewer books in their homes than white, Asian, or multiracial children.
Beyond having access to books at home, the content of the books matters, too. “What about books that represent your culture, that validate your language, your experiences, your communities?” asks Jessica Villalobos, senior director of language and cultural equity for Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico. When students don’t see themselves in books or can’t relate to the characters, they can lose interest.
Schools and districts increasingly are addressing issues of representation in and access to books through book giveaway initiatives that put books in the hands of students and aim to include stories written from diverse experiences.
While the pandemic threatened to disrupt some of these initiatives, schools and districts found safe and creative ways to continue distributing books to students.
Read at Home book giveaway events
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) has a popular literacy initiative called Read at Home, which distributes new books to all elementary through high school students through book giveaway events held at schools. “[Some students] never really had the opportunity to take a beautiful brand-new book home and not have to bring it back,” says Villalobos. “I think literature in the house is just super important. It is one of the equalizers.”
Villalobos adds that they strive to choose books that provide windows and mirrors for students. The analogy comes from Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University who often is referred to as the “mother of multicultural literature.” Bishop said that children need books where they can see themselves reflected and others where they get a window into different experiences.
APS includes many Spanish-speaking students and newcomers from around the world, so the book giveaways include characters from various cultural backgrounds as well as from the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities. “We have a very diverse board of education, which always helps because they understand where we’re coming from,” says Villalobos.
Rachel Altobelli, director of library services and instructional materials for APS, adds that “we need these wonderful, engaging, culturally responsive books and appropriate textbooks in libraries and classrooms and in homes … It’s really powerful when it’s your family’s story or your story, and you have that moment of connection.”
These events look different depending on the age of the students. At elementary schools, the students receive a backpack with three books on a mix of topics. Middle and high school students pick their own books. “Otherwise, it’s just not cool and fun,” says Altobelli. Choosing their own books may also boost student engagement. Research from Scholastic shows that 89 percent of students say their favorite books are the ones they picked out themselves.
Sometimes the students create book displays in the library or auditorium, depending on where the event is held. Some children are tentative about taking a book, but once they learn that the books are free, they get excited and ask to take more than one, which is encouraged. “It’s hard to tell what the perfect book is going to be,” says Altobelli. “If you have options, your odds of connecting with the book are so much higher.”
Sometimes Altobelli hears from a student about how they would tell a story differently, and she loves that. “We don’t just want our kids to be readers,” she says. “We want them to be writers. We want them to graduate from high school and be like, ‘You know what? I have a story to tell. I have a voice, and people will care’.”
During the pandemic, when large events were paused, the district switched to Books on Buses, turning school buses into mobile bookstores touring the district and handing out free books. “We just told the schools when their day is and they tell their kids and their families show up [and pick out books],” Altobelli says. “The bus drivers were wonderful.”
Books on Buses has ended, but the Read at Home book giveaways will continue. Villalobos credits their ability to get funding from various sources because the initiative is so successful. “One of the ways we determined we were successful is when you have a district the size of APS—83,000 plus kids—and your board members show up to your events,” Villalobos says. “That’s huge. Because they’re supportive, and they’re picking up the books.”
Book vending machine
When Danielle Grimes saw a vending machine that dispensed free books on social media, she immediately wanted one for O. A. Peterson Elementary where she is principal. “One of our campus goals is to increase our kids’ reading levels, and so this was like one more way to just propel them forward wanting to read,” says Grimes.
The school received a grant through the Northwest Independent School District Education Foundation in North Texas, and the book vending machine arrived in October 2020. Using some of the school’s Scholastic money and donations from the PTA, the librarian stocked the vending machine with books. Students started using it in January 2021.
Each Friday, classroom teachers award a gold coin to one student who has shown qualities of a reader. That student gets to take home a book from the vending machine and has his or her photo taken for the Bookworm Wall of Fame. “We gave [teachers] the autonomy to choose so that way they’re not just saying the students who read the most books or the most minutes,” Grimes says. “It might be the student who went up a level in their reading or made great gains in their small group or something like that.” Teachers of upper grades also might choose a student who wrote a book review. Grimes says some schools reward students with books based on good behavior, but she wanted to tie this program directly to reading.
Remote students are also eligible to receive a book. The teacher takes a computer to the library with the student on Zoom and the student chooses a book remotely. Then a parent can pick it up.
The school keeps the vending machine stocked via an Amazon wish list the librarian created using frequently checked out books. “Those are the ones that the kids seem to be grabbing off the shelf all the time,” Grimes says. She shared the wish list via the school’s social media, so community members can contribute.
Representation of characters from diverse backgrounds is another consideration for books on the wish list. “We are one of the most diverse campuses in our school district with different cultures represented,” Grimes adds.
The program is proving to be hugely popular with students, teachers, and the school community. Teachers set reading goals at the beginning of the week, so children know what could earn them that coveted gold coin and a new book. “The kids are working really hard to hit that goal, which shows me that they are motivated by it,” Grimes says.
Take reading with you
Reading Partners is a national nonprofit organization that pairs K-4 students at under-resourced school districts with volunteer reading tutors from the community. After each tutoring session, students get to choose a book to take home with them. Some of these books are purchased through publishers and retailers who emphasize diversity, while other books are donated.
“We want to make sure that we aren’t just teaching kids to read in a classroom, but that we’re actually giving them the resources to enjoy reading, trying to find what interests them and is going to spark that love of reading and become lifelong readers,” says Jennifer Joyce, director of the National Program for Reading Partners. “If students don’t see themselves in books, then they don’t see books as for them.”
Jean Parker Elementary School in San Francisco has been a Reading Partners school for several years. “They feel that connection to their special book, and so are more likely to read it and reread it, which supports their reading progress,” says Sara Saldaña, the school’s principal. The 2020-21 school year was unusual due to the pandemic and virtual school, but in a regular year, about 30 students from her school participate in Reading Partners.
In non-pandemic school years, each participating school has a reading center on campus where students work with their Reading Partners tutor and select books. During the pandemic, when students were remote, they held drive-through book distribution events, where families would drive to their school or community center. Reading Partners would hand them a bag filled with books to take home.
Programs like Reading Partners supplement rather than replace reading programs in classrooms, says Saldaña. The program doesn’t take up much staff time, but it does require coordination. The school’s literacy coach checks in with the Reading Partners site coordinator periodically and other staff members coordinate referrals between classroom teachers and the organization and arrange permission slips and schedules with the families of participating students.
Saldaña has observed students in the program making reading process. Beyond that, she adds that “a big benefit was just having a connection and having that relationship with another adult.”
Once of Joyce’s favorite stories is about a second-grader who read his books to a pet turtle. “We always ask who you’re going to read this with at home, to make sure they have some help,” she says. “He would come back and tell me what his turtle thought of the book.” That information helped his reading tutor understand what he thought of the books and which books would spark his interest in the future.
Whatever the delivery method, giving students books they can take home and keep can be powerful in growing readers and thinkers. “When students are in a literacy-rich environment, they have access to books outside of the learning environment,” says Joyce. “They have the opportunity to see books beyond just for learning purposes, and it fosters a love of reading.”
Susan Johnston Taylor is a freelance writer and children’s book author. Learn more at www.susan-johnston.com.