Friday, June 15, 2018

Tales of a Reading Buddy by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

At the beginning of the school year, I finally took the plunge and became a “reading buddy.” I’d always told myself I was too busy, and could give the one hour a week that the program asked for, but now the coordinator sounded a bit desperate. There were so many students struggling to read, and too few “buddies” to help them along. I said I’d help.

I was assigned two 4th graders. Anthony was new to the school. Ian had had a reading buddy since 1st grade. I’ve never had any formal training in teaching reading, and wondered how much I would be able to help. “Just help them to see that reading isn’t something to be feared,” the coordinator said. “Try and make it fun.”

At our first meeting, Anthony told me he hated reading. He could read, but it was a struggle. He picked out a graphic novel and, with a heavy sigh, started to read.

It soon became apparent that he found the very act of reading to be physically taxing. Every minute or two, he would stop, apologize, and yawn loudly. I asked him if he hadn’t slept well, and he said no, he’d gone to bed early. It was just that reading hurt his brain.

I decided to ask him about his interests and his life. He was into Minecraft. He lived with his mother, and she had a boyfriend, but I was never sure if the boyfriend lived with them or not. He also had a cat. Sometimes, he went to visit his grandmother, and she lived in the country, but he wasn’t sure where. Somewhere in Oregon. Kids at school were always mean to him, but he had one friend, Gabe. He hoped to have a sleepover with Gabe some day.

My other reading buddy, Ian, I soon discovered, was not really going to read aloud to me. His agenda was to play Dungeons and Dragons, as well as share his own comic books. They were miniature, and I marveled at how small his writing was. I also told him that I thought the title of the story he was writing, “The Knight in Shiny Shorts,” was fantastic. He shrugged off the praise, but at the end of our very first meeting he told me he was sad about the end of the school year. “You are?” I asked, astonished. “Why?” This was October. There were months to go. “Because your kid’s in fifth grade, and he’ll leave the school, and I won’t have you as a reading buddy any more.”

I met with them every week. Ian eventually lost interest in Dungeons and Dragons, and became obsessed with The Guinness Book of World Records.” We read every page of every edition from 2007, the year he was born. Anthony, for his part, still yawned a lot, but he seemed happy to read books on Minecraft. He also liked the “I Survived” Series, as well as a graphic novel series called Stick Dog. Graphic novels allowed him to do what he was best at: read dialogue with great expression. “Anthony, I told him. “Maybe you should think about being an actor.” He smiled slightly, shyly.

A week before the end of the school year, the reading buddies, student and adult, were invited to a pizza party. The coordinator gave out certificates to each student participant, and they were then let loose on the pizza, cookies, and juice. I gave both Ian and Anthony a card, saying how much I’d enjoyed spending time with them. Quietly, Anthony said he had a present for me in return.

He handed me a gift bag. In it, there was a lollipop and a little blue cat. Folded in a handmade yellow card were two dollars. “Thank you, Anthony,” I told him, knowing that this was a substantial sacrifice for him. “Read the card,” he said.

I opened the card. In it were words which I will always treasure, and which made every minute of being a reading buddy worthwhile. Words which surely would delight every teacher, every reader, every writer.

Anthony had written: “To my reading buddy. I appreciate everything you did. It changed my life and helped me read. Thanks."

1 comment:

  1. I love this, Michael. A few years back, I worked with Albuquerque Reads, a program that helps Kindergarteners. I met with my two readers once a week for a year. It was so satisfying to watch them grow in skill and confidence!

    I know your reader felt supported and heard, which is the ultimate educational boost. Thank you for doing this.


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