A Wilmington school’s night time story program started to keep students engaged while classes were in virtual mode has grown into a cultural touchstone for students, families and teachers.
Every Thursday night, as many as 70 Harlan Elementary School students and their families log on to its Bedtime Stories via Zoom to hear a teacher read a book. During the 30-minute program, a teacher or Principal Tracey Roberts point out aspects of the story that the students can connect to. Prizes are given, including copies of books.
“We want to foster a love for learning and a love for reading,” Roberts said. “We want to get students excited about reading different types of books, to get them to know that when you hear a book or read a book, that you can always make a connection to it in some way.”
Some of those connections might be personal — the main character might have a brother, and so does the student — or it might be a connection to another book or a movie that had the same theme or kind of character.
The 70 students attending Bedtime Stories represent about one-fifth of the school’s students, who are 96% African Americans, 3% Latino and 1% other.
It began in January 2021, and ended with the school year, but when the kids returned to in-person classes for the 2021-2022 year, many kept asking if it was coming back. It did in October.
The number of attendees has grown steadily since the program started, Roberts said. She hopes to find ways to continue that growth.
Online, the kids are excited to see each other and to see Roberts and their teachers. A year after starting, it’s common for students walking through school halls to stop and tell teachers or friends that they saw them on the Bedtime Stories livestream.
“What we get from it is certainly the sense of community,” Roberts said. “The families feel, and they report the students feel, that we have a common language for the books we’ve read and the topics we’ve discussed, or the strategies we’ve learned from the books.”
Teachers sign up for slots to read and they choose their own books.
The favorite book this year has been “Inside My World” by Adina Travis, Roberts said. It was read by Travis’ twin sister, Harlan teacher Ashley Graves. Travis joined the Zoom, which delighted the students and their families.
“The feedback was that they would love it if that could happen more frequently,” Roberts said.
She has not crunched numbers to see whether the program has raised reading scores, but believes that connecting a love for stories with reading ultimately will do that.
“I can’t tell you right now that academically it’s impacted test scores or their reading levels,” she said, “But it has created a sense of community here as well as the students having a voice and understanding of the types of literature that they’re interested in and interested in reading.”
Harlan Reading Specialist Dr. Shannon Gagnon hopes the program will eventually raise reading scores.
Already, she said, students and family identify with Bedtime Stories being “a Harlan thing.”
“The connectedness you can feelFF on Bedtime Stories, you can feel it just in the building,” she said. “Like it’s one more thing to bring us together that we have in common.”
Students encourage other students to come, she said.
Gagnon said her own family looked forward to it every week.
“I believe that showing students and their families that you can read these great books and listen to these great books hopefully encourages them to read more, maybe on their own,” Gagnon said. “And hopefully fostering that love of reading actually does impact our reading scores maybe.
“And even if it doesn’t, it just helps everyone to love reading.”
Harlan Librarian Regina McAlonan also sees students being enthusiastic about Bedtime Stories.
“I have had a few children who recognize stories from the evening and know that so-and-so teacher read this to us,” she said. “So they’re making personal connections.”
A favorite she’s heard mentioned several times is “Stick Man,” by Julia Donaldson. It features a man made of … wait for it … sticks who is separated from his family home and has many adventures returning.
McAlonan plans to start a display that will feature only books read on the Bedtime Stories program.
“Anything that you can do to make children excited about stories encourages them to become a reader,” she said. “That’s where it starts.”
Library volunteer Pam Fraser says her grandson Khiyon, who is fourth grade, really enjoys Bedtime Stories.
Fraser, who is 65, feels passionately about helping kids learning to read because when she was a child, Blacks were not welcome in libraries.
“I found myself really struggling with reading,” she said. “So I’m here in the library because I’m really trying to not only foster reading, but to encourage more kids not to find yourself in that trap that I was in.”
She urges younger students to pick up books like “Pete the Cat,” a series created by American artist James Dean, the “Dog Man” series by Dave Pilkey, and “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney.
Older students seem to gravitate toward graphic novels. Boys seem to like superhero stories, she said, while girls go for “Twins” by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright. In that series, two sisters compete against each other in sports, elections and more.
For Bedtime Stories, Harlan teachers try to pick books on the third-grade level, to hit in the middle of the kindergarten to fifth grade classes.
Other favorites on the livestream have been “Hey, Tuskegee” by Robert Constant, about the Alabama Historically Black College and University, and “A Little Spot of Confidence,” part of a series of books by Diane Alber that focuses on different emotions and emotional qualities, including anxiety, fear, kindness and patience. Several of the books have been read during Bedtime Stories.
Books like the “A Spot of” series help students with the social and emotional learning that helps them take their place in the world, Roberts said.
Now, she said, it’s easier for her or teachers to say to a child who is upset or frightened, “imagine if you have a spot on your hand” as means of introducing coping methods.
“We can always go back to those stories that they’ve heard to kind of help them as they’re getting through the day,” she said.
Roberts promotes the Bedtime Stories livestream to parents via routine school messages. She reminds students at school, but she’s learned that it helps to remind parents the day of and issue one final email reminder blast about 7:25 p.m. on Thursdays.
The principal promises kids she will be there no matter what, and she’s committed enough to the program that she’s read from a chair in a hotel room when she’s been on vacation.
She even promised the kids she’d be there on Thanksgiving night, and was horrified when she fell asleep in her chair after dinner and missed logging on.
Roberts is still apologizing about that.
Bedtime Stories isn’t the school’s only effort to help their students develop a love of reading.
Roberts was very excited about working last year with the United Way of Delaware’s My Very Own Library program. It allowed every student to pick five books from the annual Scholastic Book Fair. The program then gave students a backpack filled with those five and another five, many of them about African Americans or written by African American authors.
Members of the Delaware Blue Coats have read to classes, and on March 2 members of the Wilmington Police Department will come to Harlan to read to students.
If you’d like to join Harlan Elementary’s Bedtime Stories, or if you’re an author and would like to appear on a segment, contact Principal Tracey Roberts at [email protected]
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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