While some kids were swimming or lounging in front of televisions last month, others were writing poetry, visiting the public library, buying books and learning to love reading.

Many of them started the month as struggling readers, or at least not enthusiastic ones, but educators in all three districts focused on showing the students they can read well and have fun doing it.

Reading is a critical skill, and one with which Tennessee students have struggled. Statewide, less than half of third-graders read on grade level, and that can lead to difficulties across subjects as they progress in school. Students who aren’t at grade level then are four times less likely to graduate by the time they are 19, according to the state Department of Education.

In recent years, local teachers have seen the evidence that students who attend reading camps in June not only avoid the “summer slide” of losing academic ground during the school break but gain ground and become more confident.

The state has been using federal grant money for Read to be Ready summer camps but learned this year the money could not be used for the summer programs. Instead, it found state money to fulfill the plans already underway for 218 camps across Tennessee this year, with grants averaging about $1,000 per student.

Educators are concerned about whether the state will find the funding for summer 2020.

“I want to do this at Montvale next year,” said Principal Donna Russell, who was among the educators leading the camp at her school this year for 42 students.

Most of the rising second and third graders were Montvale students, but others were from Fairview, Rockford, Middlesettlements and Prospect elementary schools.

One of the challenges educators know for families is transportation to and from the camps, but by working with the summer feeding program from the East Tennessee Human Resources Agency the schools provided breakfast and lunch for the students.

Like the other camps, Montvale built fun activities around reading each day. Its theme was animals, mythical and real.

A special trip to Barnes and Noble put a new spin on the idea of a kid in a candy store, when the students walked in with wish lists and $100 each to spend on books. Some ended up with 20 to take home.

“For some kids it was their first trip to a bookstore, and they were thrilled,” said Muffie Duggan, a kindergarten teacher at Porter Elementary

Through the camp, she said, “we have increased their motivation to want to read by allowing them choices of books they love” and exposing them to high-quality literature.

They also showed the kids fun ways to experience written works, such as a popular “readers theater,” with teachers acting out the parts.

While some students may have missed 15 words on an assessment at the beginning of the four weeks, by the end it might have been three.

Russell was a struggling reader in elementary school and credits fourth grade teacher Wanda Hatcher with making a difference. “She turned my world around,” the principal said.

Leading students in activities during the last day of the summer camp at Montvale, Russell said, “If it was not for her, I would not be standing here.” Leading the summer reading camp is a way for Russell to pay it forward.

Not just an assignment

Alcoa Elementary had more than 60 applicants this year for 30 spots in its third year of offering the summer reading camp, which included rising first through third graders.

Students discover, “reading isn’t an assignment — it can be fun,” said Michael Bradburn, intervention and instructional coach.

They’ve also discovered different types of writing, from cartoons to instructions, recipes to poetry, noted Lisa Hendrickson, a second grade paraprofessional.

With a theme of “Above and Under” the earth, Alcoa campers explored topics from dinosaurs to outer space. “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs” was a favorite book.

Cooper Banks, a rising third grader, found inspiration from a Shel Silverstein poem to write his own about all the things he could do with a coin.

“I just love reading camp,” Cooper said.

Alcoa’s campers took field trips this year to Liles Acres Organic Farm, Tuckaleechee Caverns and The Muse Knoxville and each week took home new books.

In just a few weeks accuracy and comprehension scores rose about 5%.

“Students are seeing themselves as readers and seeing themselves as confident readers,” Bradburn said.

Library field trips

Maryville expanded from 15 students in its Read to be Ready summer camp last year at John Sevier Elementary to 42 rising third graders this year, 14 from JSE and 18 from Sam Houston Elementary.

With poetry a focus this year, the Maryville campers started getting to know each other the first day by writing an acrostic poem based on their names.

Each day featured a “focus book” read aloud to students, and they were each given a copy of those books to take home every day.

They took weekly field trips to the Blount County Public library, which some students had never previously visited. When they discovered an author they liked at camp, such as “Those Shoes,” the students could look for more by that same writer at the library.

Books such as “The Dot” also led to art projects.

“Their comprehension scores increased significantly,” said kindergarten teacher Beth Gotcher. The average rose from 64% to 84%.

She recalls one student’s surprise when he didn’t miss any questions on the comprehension assessment at the end of camp. “I’ve never not missed anything,” he said.

“He had that confidence that ‘I can do this,’” Gotcher said.

Some families read together over the summer, but others don’t know how to or struggle to find time, the teacher noted. As a result teachers can spend the first month of the new school year re-teaching from the previous grade level because of that summer slide students often experience.

The educators across all three districts also said the training they received from the state Read to be Ready program has been valuable back in the classroom during the school year, from how to add activities to even seeing a wider range of texts and identifying ones they want to add at their schools.

Beyond Camp

Well before the Read to be Ready summer camps Maryville City Schools found a way to encourage reading over the summer by opening its school libraries, although each school customizes its approach.

Some locations expect students to take AR (Accelerated Reader) tests on the books they read during the break, and at others it’s optional.

This year with construction at Foothills Elementary the school moved a portion of its library into Montgomery Ridge Intermediate School.

With students in the Adventure Club visiting and others dropping by with their families, Foothills was averaging more than 150 students a week. Librarian Audrey Berry and the teachers supporting the program even picked up books from Foothills and brought them over to MRIS when they had a request, such as a student looking for the next book in a series.

Foothills offers a theme every week and sometimes snacks. Milk and cookies with the principal has been popular.

Often students come with siblings, and rising kindergartners become accustomed to the school, which “kind of gets past those first day jitters,” Berry said.

The open school libraries also are another way for educators to get to know families.

But, Berry said, “The biggest thing is to get them to read over the summer.”

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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