I traveled last week to Eugene, Oregon, for the Springfield Public Schools' Gift of Literacy. What an absolutely fabulous program! I was there for the culminating event, held this year on May 28 at Lane Community College, where hardcover books were distributed to every first grader in the Springfield Public School system; but the Gift of Literacy program extends well beyond a single day.
Early in the school year, a committee chooses ten different book titles to be featured during the Gift of Literacy program. The books are chosen to represent a range of writing styles and topic matter, including stories in rhyme, bilingual books, nonfiction, and classic titles. The books are then provided to all the schools and read in all the first grade classrooms. After the students are exposed to the books, each first grade student gets to pick one of the books to be his or her very own.
The book, complete with a personalized bookplate and placed in a backpack filled with other educational goodies, is received at the May event. For each of three waves of student arrivals, the day starts out with an exciting assembly and then moves on to small group reading. In the small groups, a variety of guest readers read from the books. This is followed by a nutritious lunch. This year, close to 900 children participated. In a school system where more than half of children live under the poverty line, the Gift of Literacy tangibly demonstrates just how important literacy is to the community.
Springfield's Gift of Literacy program was inspired by a similar program in Wyoming. John Jorgensen, whom I had the true honor and pleasure to meet during the Springfield event, began distributing books to first graders as a tribute to his late wife, Sue Jorgensen . What began at the local elementary eventually spread to the entire state. The Wyoming Reads program now distributes a new hardcover book to every first grader in the entire state, and John Jorgensen's program has inspired programs in several communities in other states.
In Springfield, the Rotary Club of Springfield brought the idea to the Springfield Public Schools, and this led to a community collaboration and the inaugural Gift of Literacy in 2006. The program has continued and grown ever since.
In the course of my time in Eugene, I met many of those involved in the planning of this year's event, and I was thoroughly inspired by their dedication to bringing the joy of reading to the students of Springfield. I also was impressed by the community that has come together and built up around this program. It's truly a collaboration. A phrase that is found in many of the Gift of Literacy informational materials -- "inspiring young readers through partnership" -- is much more than just a catchy tag line. It's exactly right. And it's a big part of the reason Springfield's program recently received a Magna Award from the National School Boards Association.
There were two things I especially liked about The Gift of Literacy. One is the fact that the program gives kids the opportunity to choose their own book from ten options. What a wonderful way to help students feel empowered in their own literacy journey!
The other component that I particularly liked was that the program featured volunteer guest readers. Some of the guest readers were local (or even national) dignitaries and "celebrities" (and I do hope I can be forgiven for briefly entertaining the fantasy that guest reader Craig Robinson raced right home to call his sister and tell her about the great fish book he'd just encountered...), but every single guest reader was a hero to the kids in the room. When adults take time out of their lives to read to children, good things happen. It's the ultimate modeling of good behavior. We all should do more of it.
A tremendous thank you to all who were involved in this year's Gift of Literacy. It was an honor to be a part of it.
(And it was also great fun to visit the Eugene area! I'll share a bit of travelogue about my trip later in the week.)