Students Pass on Love of Reading with Story Time

Ben Caldwell

The Story Time Project gives Whitman students a chance to pass on their love for books by reading to children who might not otherwise have much literature in their lives.

Contributed Photo by Marika Lou

Story Time is one of five ongoing weekly service programs managed by the Student Engagement Center. It was started by Adjunct Instructor of Sport Studies Rebecca Thorpe and several others about 10 years ago and was officially recognized and funded by ASWC three years ago.

Senior Marika Lou, the student intern in charge of the project, sends pairs of Whitman student volunteers to local elementary schools and daycares to read to children. According to their preferences, students are assigned to school programs either by choice or at random. Lou sends them either to one of six elementary schools, three daycares, the YWCA or the Walla Walla Pediatric Clinic. The readers go in their pair once a week and read to the kids there for half an hour. The children range from ages five to nine.

“In addition to reading, they engage the kids and ask them questions about the book and hopefully get them involved in the story. The goal is to not only cultivate a love for reading but also for critical thinking and analyzing plot and things like that,” said Lou.

Lou volunteered as a reader for the Story Time Project for three years before applying to take the lead as the student intern. The program has remained high on her priority list for so long because this is the only program at Whitman that is literacy-focused. The other community service programs fall heavily on friendships and developing social relationships.

“Reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and reading to others is something I enjoy … I wanted a way to become more involved in the program and do more to facilitate early literacy in this community and get Whitman students excited about books,” said Lou.

The SEC also runs the College Coaches tutoring program for high school students, but Lou thinks it’s important to start sooner than that.

“I’ve noticed a lot of discussion in the media about the importance of early literacy in kids, and how kids who aren’t read to by the time they are four or five are already behind their peers when they enter kindergarten,” said Lou.

Contributed Photo by Katie Steen

She is not alone in her conviction. At the beginning of every semester, students sign up to join the service listserv at the activities fair and apply to join the project as readers.

First-year Peter Ramaley joined with one of his close friends after finding out about the project at the fall activities fair. Ramaley said he has enjoyed volunteering as a way to balance out the academic side of his first year of college.

“It’s really fun, because you get to hang out with these preschoolers––they’re super energetic. They love it. When we walk through the door they always scream ‘Story Time readers!’ … and they come up and hug you, and sometimes they give you a picture they’ve drawn … One of the cool things is you get to read them the books from your childhood and see how they experience it, which is always fun,” said Ramaley.

First-year Forrest Arnold participated in the project last semester. Every Monday morning for four months, he walked to Green Park Elementary School with his partner and read to the bilingual students there. Arnold was assigned to Green Park’s Spanish immersion program because of his experience with the language. Though the SEC and Penrose Library both have collections of children’s literature, Forrest always went to the public library to access their larger Spanish collection.

According to Arnold, the project proved educational for him as well as the children. He didn’t always understand all the stories, but he made sure he was able to pronounce everything.

“Even beyond the expansion of vocabulary, it definitely [improved the] speaking skills that lead to fluency. My pronunciation has become so much better than if I hadn’t done this program. And besides that, it’s a learning experience to be integrated into any kind of school experience where you’re actually part of a lesson plan, and you see how they work you into the class,” said Arnold.

Arnold says it is beneficial in other ways too. He appreciates going to the library each week just to get off campus and get into the community. He thinks it’s important to bridge the divide between Whitman students and Walla Walla community members.

“I think it’s really important to get out of the Whitman bubble, and it’s just such a great experience … a low time commitment [and] high-enjoyment service opportunity,” said Arnold.

Most importantly, the children love it too, according to Lou.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any readers telling me the kids are not interested in being read to, or don’t enjoy it, or don’t care. The kids, overwhelmingly, get really excited when the readers come to read to them,” said Lou.

For Ramaley, the kids’ enthusiasm makes it all more than worthwhile.

“I’ll definitely keep doing Story Time next year,” he said.