First-graders enter the library at Iola Elementary School on a mission.
It’s a Thursday morning, and they have just 45 minutes.
The 80 or so students head straight to one of dozens of Chromebooks, ready and waiting. Preferably, they’ll find one next to a volunteer. They each have their favorite volunteers, of course, and they’ll wait if they have to.
Many of the adult volunteers are retired teachers, who gave up their classrooms but never lost their love of kids or of teaching.
Other volunteers are fifth-graders, students just like them who grew up with a love of reading and who are now learning about community service.
The first-graders log into their Accelerated Reader account. Some need help but the truth is, most of the kids already know more about technology than their adult helpers.
The part they need help with is reading.
“Do you want me to read the questions?” volunteer Connie Brown asks a little girl next to her. She nods.
Throughout 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 read the book with them, encouraging both family bonding and a love of reading. If not, the volunteers will read the book with the child before they take the test.
A fifth grade girl helps a child with a book about a mouse named Pip Squeak, whose roof is leaking.
“Something wet was falling 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 read a book about velociraptors.
“A velociraptor was as tall as what animal? A. Large dog. B. Big moose. C. Horse. D. Giraffe.”
The tests are simple, just enough to verify the child read the book and understands what it said.
Across the library, volunteer and retired kindergarten teacher Linda Johnson calls out for librarian Tammy Prather: “Timberlyn just reached 50 points.”
That means the first-grader has read at least 100 books. Prather gives the girl a high-five and takes her to a big board that is filled with colorful paper cutouts of students’ names. She helps Timberlyn find her name and they move it up one level.
It’s quite an accomplishment, so Prather celebrates with the girl. The ritual is just one way to encourage students to read.
“The library doesn’t teach kids how to read. It teaches them how to love books,” Prather explains.
By the end of the school year, each first-grade student will read between 250 to 400 books.
Since school started in August, students from preschool through fifth grade have checked out a combined 27,828 books.
The library holds about 25,000 books, which means 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 nearly every morning.
“I enjoy seeing the progress they make and the joy they get out of certain books,” she said. “They get so excited when they pass the test.”
She’s one of a group of longtime, retired elementary teachers who are regular volunteers, including Linda Garrett and Linda Brocker. It’s a way for them to stay connected to the students and the school.
“I want to give back for all that was given to me,” Johnson said.
Donna Houser, a retired English teacher, decided to volunteer after reading about the program at the start of the school year.
She remembers how sad it made her when students entered high school not knowing how to read.
“I thought, maybe I can help some kid learn how to read. It’s so necessary in today’s world to be able to read, and first grade is when we need to catch them,” she said. “It’s been such a joy to me. These kids are so excited. I had one little boy at the start of the school year who couldn’t even spell his name. Now he’s getting 100% on his tests.”
Connie Brown also volunteered at the start of the school year after reading about the program in 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 serving in the Air Force and more than two decades as a radio disc jockey, but — unlike many of the other volunteers — never officially worked as a teacher.
This experience has changed that. Brown enjoys her volunteer time at IES so much, she recently applied to become a substitute teacher.
“I just love kids and I love reading. I’ve always volunteered at school for my kids and grandkids. During the pandemic, I homeschooled my grandkids, so this isn’t entirely new for me,” she said.
“The program they’ve built here is so beneficial. These kids are all so unique and such individuals. They’re so receptive to learning.”
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 take just five minutes to read to a child, it means so much to them.”
LIBRARIAN Daryl Sigg understands the morning reading activity might be a little overwhelming for newcomers. She’d like to organize an orientation or some kind of training program to encourage potential volunteers to learn more, without being thrust unprepared into the chaos of a morning.
Library staff and other volunteers will train anyone who wants to try. It’s fairly straightforward. Plus, she said, the students don’t really care. They’ll gladly just sit and talk about the books.
And because it’s a volunteer activity, you can come whenever best suits your schedule. Some parents will hang out with their children in the library before starting their workday.
A LITTLE AFTER 8 a.m., a series of soft chimes play over the intercom. It’s a signal to fifth graders. Time is up, and they need to go to class.
They’re reluctant to leave. Some have finished helping their first grade partners take tests, and are now working with them to find new books to check out.
“What’s your favorite princess book?” a fifth grade girl asks. “Do you like Cinderella?”
The girl finds an appropriate book for her younger friend and leads her to the checkout counter before heading to class.
Another series of chimes, not quite as pleasant sounding, alert the rest of the students that it’s almost time to go.
At the counter, Prather is busy scanning books with staff members Mona Melvin and Mary Jo Dickerson. Prather comments on each choice, excited by their discoveries.
“Oh, you found the deer books!” she exclaims.
“Yeah, ‘cause I love hunting,” a boy answers.
“You got one of the state books!” Prather says to another. “You must 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 read all 50 books about the United States.
A loud, persistent alarm begins to blare. Students must get to class. Now.
There are about 20 first-graders in line to check out books. A few are still finishing their tests.
The next two minutes are frenzied. Each student has a library folder; staff tell them to put the books inside the folder, leave them and go to class. They’ll finish the checkout process and deliver the folders to classrooms later.
Students leave, and there’s a moment of calm. Volunteers and library staff gather the laptops and put them in a charging station, where they’ll be refreshed in time to start all over again the next morning.
It’s hard to believe it’s only 8:30. Prather and Sigg still have classes to teach. Dickerson and Melvin need to finish scanning books and deliver them to classrooms. They have hundreds of books to put back.
If a book isn’t in the hands of a child, it needs to be on the shelf and ready for someone to find it.
In the afternoon, older students will come to check out books.
The library may be quiet now, but only for a moment. Soon, it will once again be teeming with life and sound.
It’s a different environment than the libraries most of us grew up with, Prather acknowledges.
“For this generation, reading has to be social. Books are just our way to connect to the larger world,” she explains. “Children learn empathy through books. Within the pages of books, they begin to feel what another person feels.”
The Iola school district has emphasized its morning reading program for years. The COVID-19 pandemic kept parents out of the schools for two years, but the library staff did its best to keep students reading.
With all elementary students now under one roof at a new school — with a large, inviting new library — Prather, Sigg and the staff are excited to see what the future holds.
A fundraising effort called Project Bookshelf allowed the district to buy 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 who is interested in volunteering is encouraged to contact Prather or Sigg to learn more. In addition to the morning reading activity, library staff can use help at any time to reshelve books or do other tasks.
The students are always excited to meet new people. They’re eager to talk about the stories they read and the facts they learn from books they found in the library.
“Every day, they get to have a conversation about books with an adult. The most important thing is that they feel loved,” Prather said.
“And that’s how we create a reading school.”