Nancy Matthews didn’t need to be in the room on Thursday to provide the class of prekindergarten students at FACES with a captivating reading experience.
Even from her home on St. Simons, the longtime Reading Rockets volunteer was able to connect with the students over Zoom and offer a high-energy reading of “Pete the Cat,” a book clearly beloved by the class.
Matthews and other reading volunteers are in their second week of a new pilot version of the Reading Rockets program that launched this month and will run through the end of April.
More volunteers are needed to read to the students during the next six weeks.
Reading Rockets, a program sponsored by the Rotary Club of St. Simons and offered through a partnership with Marshes of Glynn Libraries, has in past years brought readers into pre-K and kindergarten classes once a week in an effort to promote literacy for the community’s youth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented readers from going into classrooms. This new Zoom pilot, in which the readers are called “Zoomers,” aims to be a creative solution to the pandemic’s challenges.
“We were hoping, of course, all along to be able to have our volunteers just go back in the classroom as usual and read to the children,” said Linda Muir, co-chair of the St, Simons Island Rotary’s literacy committee. “The program’s been around for 12 years come summer, and we’ve always just gone through a process where people volunteer, get trained and then they get assigned to a certain class.”
At the start of this year, the idea formed to offer weekly readings via Zoom, during which a volunteer reader shares a story from their home with one or two classes of students.
“This is kind of like the flip side of the distance learning, when the teachers read to the kids when the kids were at home on the computer,” Muir said. “Now the readers are at home on the computer reading into the classrooms, and they see the reader and the book on the big screen that’s been mounted in their classroom.”
Muir is one of around a dozen volunteer readers, and she’s been able to read from her home in Atlanta.
“Instead of seeing one person, I’m seeing the whole classroom and the children sitting in their little squares on the carpet,” she said.
Leslie Mattingly, a member of the Rotary Club of St. Simons who got the whole club onto Zoom soon after the onset of the pandemic, has been instrumental in creating the new Zoom version of Reading Rockets, Muir said.
And Glynn County Schools staff members played a key role in supporting the rollout into classrooms. Assistant superintendent Tere Miller and her assistant Ella Sheila Farmer made contact with the teachers and helped coordinate the weekly readings.
The Reading Rockets coordinators also worked with local teachers to make sure the new program would work in their classrooms.
“It’s a bit of a pilot to see if this can work and how the readers like it, how the kids like it and the teachers,” Muir said. “Even going forward — and we’re gong to be back in the classrooms we hope — we would still have this Zooming alternative for maybe teachers who prefer it or readers who prefer it.”
About 11 volunteer spots are open now for a variety of time slots at different schools.
Volunteers are asked to have at least a basic familiarity with Zoom and PowerPoint, as both programs are used during the weekly readings. Training will be provided for all volunteers, during which they will get to do a test run with one of the Reading Rockets coordinators.
“Even though you’re reading to a classroom full of kids and there’s a teacher there who has to go through a little bit different process, it’s not any different from talking to anybody else on Zoom,” Muir said.
Books are selected for the volunteers each week and sent in PowerPoint form at the start of the week. At the time of the reading, volunteers send a Zoom invitation to the teacher, who will be expecting their message.
“We get it all coordinated with the teacher,” Muir said. “The teacher knows to expect an invitation, so you just send an invitation to a Zoom meeting just like you do anybody.”
The teacher will get the students settled in front of the big screen, and the reader will have the chance to share that week’s story.
“This is pretty much a pilot to prove that this technology can be used as a tool for Reading Rockets, and we’re hopeful that next year the classrooms will be open to visitors and the volunteers will feel comfortable to go into them,” Muir said. “And we would hope that people would want to continue to be Reading Rocket volunteers next year.”