A visit to Boise State Universitys literacy academy for elementary students banishes anyones old-school ideas about what might go on in such a program. Rote memorization, competition between students and standardized tests are not part of the picture here.
Students are more likely to be performing a play they wrote about zoo animals than reading about them in a textbook.
They learn concepts such as the difference between left and right, but they do so through a Simon Says-like game that integrates physical movement, fast thinking and fun.
The academy helps kids learn to love reading as much as it teaches them the basic skills, said Debbie Shorthouse.
Shes the mother of Hannah, a second-grader whos attended the academy the past two years.
Its that idea that a book can take you anywhere that a book is a journey, said Shorthouse. They teach all of that.
A MODEST BEGINNING
When Boise State began its reading and writing academy for 30 elementary-age children in 2007, it was exclusively a summer offering. Professors wanted to create a place for education students to do their classroom field work.
But we found there was a niche and a need in the public school system for this kind of program. Word spread, said Anne Gregory, a professor in BSUs Department of Literacy who co-founded the program with professor Mary Ann Cahill.
The program has grown steadily since its first year, and the university began offering it on a year-round basis in 2012.
Registration for the new session, which begins Jan. 19 and continues on Saturday mornings through April, is now open.
LOOKING FORWARD TO SATURDAYS
Heres what we know, said Shannon Nicholson, a third-grade teacher at Meridians Pepper Ridge Elementary who also helps in the BSU program. Kids who struggle with reading and writing have a harder time catching up the older they get. The gap gets larger if they dont get help even with math. They have to read story problems.
One of Nicholsons favorite projects: Having her young students at BSU choose an animal, research it, then write and illustrate their own books. Nicholson sent the books to be bound in hard cover for students to keep.
Julie Seinigers daughter, 10-year-old Tessa, has been enrolled in the program since it began. Its different from sitting in a classroom, said Seiniger.
Typical activities include a field trip to the zoo or the library, followed by writing or storytelling based on what kids saw on their trip.
Seiniger adopted her daughter from China when Tessa was 18 months old. Tessa grew up hearing and learning to speak Mandarin. Some students with that language background have difficulty adjusting when they start to read and write in English, Seiniger said.
She looked for a program that would enhance Tessas regular school schedule and found Boise States.
Tessa gets help from a reading aide at school. Seiniger believes that help and the literacy program are helping Tessa make steady progress.
This program makes it acceptable to spend extra time working on your reading, she said. Thats as important to me as the academics.
And never once has Tessa said she didnt want to go. Its always, Oh, tomorrows reading academy.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
The literacy program serves kids with a range of abilities. The summer program often attracts parents of students with Down syndrome and autism, among other issues.
Half of the kids I taught were there because they needed extra help, Nicholson said. The others were there because they just like to write.
One of Hannah Shorthouses friends in the academy is reading several grades above her level.
But theres no competition, said Debbie Shorthouse, recalling a carpool when the strong reader was reading aloud to her classmates.
Thanks to the academy, she said, Hannah is a more comfortable reader, too. She has issues with her vision and had not been in the habit of picking up books to read until the academy started to influence her.
Now she reads aloud to her stuffed dog, Kipper, Shorthouse said.
With a ratio of three kids for every adult, a mix of certified teachers such as Nicholson and undergraduates enrolled in BSUs teaching programs, the learning is personalized.
If you can target programs at a students level, it can really help them and scaffold them to go on, said Cahill.
Thats a luxury not always available in a classroom of 30 kids with varying abilities and external, objective measurements of student reading ability.
Saturdays take away that stress, said Cahill.
Anna Webb: 377-6431