What do you get when you combine watermelon, a “story stroll”, 600 PreK & K students, and a librarian? Pure Joy! In May, that is what happened in Talbot County at 5 public elementary schools during their Raising A Reader Blue Bag Bashes. All PreK and Kindergarten students participated in a program called Raising A Reader, an evidence-based family engagement literacy program designed specifically for young children and their developing brains. The program aims to substantially increase the number of families who frequently and routinely share picture books and stories with their children. Each week young learners take home red bags containing 4 high-quality diverse books. Loving adults “book-cuddle” with children to encourage development of early language and literacy skills that are critical for academic and life success.
“Our family loves the Raise a Reader program. Our daughter Jordan is so excited to get new books to read every week. We put all the books out and read each title and then let Jordan decide which one she wants to read first. After we read all the books Jordan will grab two books and ask us which one we want to read.” says one Easton parent, highlighting the importance of fostering intrinsic reading motivation. “Children are more likely to enjoy something that they see their families enjoying. Bonding over books encourages young children to form positive associations with books and reading now that will carry through later in life,” says Katie Fox, a program co-coordinator.
“Usually, at the end of the school year, PreK students celebrate the program’s culmination by taking a field trip to the library. They receive their library card, a blue library book bag to keep, tour the library, listen to a story, and check out books. It’s so exciting and meaningful. Supporting families in enhancing or establishing home-based literacy routines is the most important part of this program. The library is the cornerstone of that.” says Amy Walstrum, the other program co-coordinator. “But COVID made us think differently about providing access to the program and to the library. Our current Kindergarteners missed out completely last year. We felt compelled to include them somehow in the program. I mentioned it at a Talbot Early Childhood Advisory Council meeting. Our Judy Centers jumped on the opportunity to provide the classic red bag rotation for our K students in Easton and St. Michaels and local funds were prioritized for our 3 other schools. We more than doubled the number of families engaged in the program. We also expanded the program at Critchlow Adkins Childcare Centers to include 2 and 3-year-olds! It was a very productive TECAC meeting.” The site coordinator of the St. Michaels Judy Center, Genevra Farrer adds, “Our kids and their families have missed out on so much. Stepping up to expand this literacy program is everything The Judy Center stands for. Partnering in this way is the least we can do to support our children and their families.”
Field trips were prohibited for most of the year, so Fox and Walstrum worked to bring the library celebration to the schools. Students rotated between 3 read-aloud stations including a “story stroll”, a snack, and blue bag presentations by the librarians. “It was so fun. The kids were so engaged. It was amazing to see them so happy about their receiving blue bags and library cards.” says Sue Tucker, a Kindergarten teacher at White Marsh Elementary.
The TCFL staff processed over 400 cards! “We designed a specific bi-lingual library card application. 80% of our PreK & K students now have their very own library cards along with their very own blue library book bag,” says Fox. “It’s nothing short of amazing and speaks volumes to the dedication TCFL has to our young readers and their families.”
The program was a massive success due to the collaboration among many community partners; The Judy Centers of Easton and St.Michaels, University of Maryland Extension Office SNAP-Ed, Chapel District PTO, Tilghman Area Youth Association, The Talbot Family Network, and of course the Talbot County Free Library.
“We dedicated May as Blue Bag Month. Families started showing up at the library immediately after the first bash.” Says Laura Powell, the TCFL’s Children’s Librarian. “The children are so excited to complete the scavenger hunt, choose a prize, register for our summer reading program, and most importantly, check out books!”
A St. Michaels parent sums up the incredible impact of this program, “I knew how much my older son enjoyed Raise a Reader when he was in PreK, so I was thrilled to have Sadie experience it this year in Kindergarten. We love visiting the library as a family and she was so excited to receive her own library card. Her blue bag hangs proudly in our entryway at home!”