First years enter the library of Iola Elementary School on a mission.
It’s Thursday morning and they only have 45 minutes.
The 80 or so students walk straight to one of dozens of Chromebooks, ready and waiting. Preferably they find one next to a volunteer. Each of them has their favorite volunteers, of course, and they’ll wait if they have to.
Many of the adult volunteers are retired teachers who have left their classrooms but have never lost their love for children or for teaching.
Other volunteers are fifth graders, students like her who grew up loving reading and are now learning about community service.
First graders log into their Accelerated Reader account. Some need help, but the truth is that most children already know more about technology than their adult helpers.
The part they need help with is the reading.
“Shall I read the questions?” Volunteer Connie Brown asks a little girl next to her. she nods.
Across the library, volunteers and students read a short multiple choice quiz about the books these first graders read last night. Hopefully their parents or siblings will read the book with them, which will encourage both family bonding and a love of reading. If not, the volunteers read the book with the child before taking the test.
A fifth grade girl helps a child with a book about a mouse named Pip Squeak whose roof leaks.
“Something wet fell on his toes, so what did he get? A. A pan. B. a mop. C. A towel. D. A tent.”
Another volunteer helps a boy who has read a book about velociraptors.
“A velociraptor was as big as which animal? A. Big dog. B. Big moose. C. Horse. D. Giraffe.”
The tests are simple and just enough to check that the child has read the book and understood what is in it.
Across the library, volunteer and retired kindergarten teacher Linda Johnson calls out to librarian Tammy Prather, “Timberlyn just hit 50.”
This means that the first grader has read at least 100 books. Prather gives the girl a high-five and leads her to a large chalkboard filled with colorful paper cutouts with the students’ names on them. She helps Timberlyn find her name and they move it up one level.
It’s quite an achievement, so Prather celebrates with the girl. The ritual is just one way to encourage students to read.
“The library does not teach children to read. It teaches them to love books,” explains Prather.
At the end of the school year, each first grader reads between 250 and 400 books.
Since school started in August, students from preschool through fifth grade have borrowed a total of 27,828 books.
The library holds about 25,000 books, meaning that in just three months, students have read the equivalent of the entire collection — plus some.
That’s why volunteers are so important.
JOHNSON, the longtime kindergarten teacher, volunteers at the library almost every morning.
“I enjoy seeing the progress they’re making and the joy they’re finding in certain books,” she said. “They get so excited when they pass the test.”
She is among a group of longtime retired elementary school teachers who regularly volunteer, including Linda Garrett and Linda Brocker. It’s a way for them to stay connected with the students and the school.
“I want to give back for everything I’ve been given,” Johnson said.
Donna Houser, a retired English teacher, decided to volunteer after reading about the program earlier in the school year.
She remembers how sad it made her when students entered high school without being able to read.
“I thought maybe I could help a kid learn to read. In today’s world, being able to read is so important and in first grade we have to catch it,” she said. “It brought me so much joy. These kids are so excited. I had a little boy at the beginning of the school year who couldn’t even spell his name. Now he gets 100% on his tests.”
Connie Brown also volunteered early in the school year after reading about the program on the register. She and her husband moved to Iola from Colorado about a year ago. She was looking for a way to meet friends in the community and give back.
Brown retired after working in a variety of industries, including the Air Force and more than two decades as a radio disc jockey, but — unlike many other volunteers — never formally worked as a teacher.
This experience changed that. Brown enjoys her volunteer time at IES so much that she recently applied to be a substitute teacher.
“I love children and I love to read. I have always volunteered at school for my children and grandchildren. I’ve been homeschooling my grandkids during the pandemic, so this isn’t entirely new to me,” she said.
“The program they have built here is so beneficial. These kids are all so unique and such individuals. They are so trainable.”
She hopes more parents, grandparents and others in the community will take the time to learn about the program and get involved.
“I know people are busy, but if you can just take five minutes to read to a kid, it means so much to them.”
LIBRARY Daryl Sigg understands that morning reading activity can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers. She would like to organize an orientation or a training program to encourage potential volunteers to learn more without being thrown into a morning’s chaos unprepared.
Library staff and other volunteers train anyone who wants to try. It’s pretty easy. Besides, she said, the students don’t really care. They like to just sit and talk about the books.
And since it’s a volunteer job, you can come whenever it suits you. Some parents meet their children in the library before starting their work day.
JUST AFTER 8am a series of soft chimes chime over the intercom. It’s a signal to fifth graders. Time is up and you have to go to class.
You hesitate to leave. Some have finished helping their first graders with the tests and are now working with them to find new books to look at.
“What’s your favorite princess book?” asks a fifth grade girl. “Do you like Cinderella?”
The girl finds a suitable book for her younger friend and takes her to the register before leaving for class.
Another set of chimes, not quite so pleasant, warns the other students that it’s almost time to go.
At the counter, Prather scans books with employees Mona Melvin and Mary Jo Dickerson. Prather comments on each choice, excited by her discoveries.
“Oh, you found the deer books!” she exclaims.
“Yes, because I love to hunt,” replies a boy.
“You have one of the state books!” Prather says to another. “You absolutely have to want to take a ride in the Slingshot,” she adds, referring to a new program that offers a special ride in a three-wheel vehicle for students who have read all 50 books about the United States.
A loud, sustained alarm begins to blare. The students have to come to class. Now.
About 20 first graders queue up to borrow books. Some are still completing their tests.
The next two minutes are hectic. Each student has a library folder; The staff tell them to put the books in the folder, leave them there, and go to class. They complete the ordering process and later deliver the folders to the classrooms.
The students leave and there is a moment of silence. Volunteers and library staff collect the laptops and place them in a charging station, where they are refreshed in time to start again the next morning.
Hard to believe it’s only 8:30 am. Prather and Sigg still have lessons. Dickerson and Melvin need to finish scanning books and bring them into the classroom. You have hundreds of books to put on hold.
When a book is not in the hands of a child, it needs to be on the shelf, ready for someone to find.
In the afternoon, the older students come to borrow books.
The library may be quiet now, but only for a moment. Soon it will be full of life and sound again.
It’s a different environment than the libraries most of us grew up with, Prather concedes.
“For this generation, reading has to be social. Books are just our way of connecting to the larger world,” she explains. “Children learn empathy through books. In the pages of books, they begin to feel what another person is feeling.”
The Iola School District has for years placed great emphasis on its morning reading program. The COVID-19 pandemic kept parents away from schools for two years, but library staff did their best to encourage students to read.
With all elementary school students now under one roof in a new school – with a large, welcoming new library – Prather, Sigg and the staff are excited about what the future holds.
A fundraiser called Project Bookshelf enabled the district to purchase thousands of new books. The need continues, with hundreds of books being read by students every day.
They need all the volunteer help they can get. Anyone interested in volunteering is encouraged to contact Prather or Sigg to learn more. In addition to the morning reading activity, library staff can always ask for help to rearrange books or perform other tasks.
Students are always happy to meet new people. They are eager to talk about the stories they have read and the facts they learn from books they found in the library.
“Every day they can talk to an adult about books. The most important thing is that they feel loved,” Prather said.
“And so we create a reading school.”