Reading, literacy and language arts are important in the learning process.
For Rosa International Middle School students, the process has changed in a unique way.
For the past three years, the school has been teaching students the art of book writing through the BookMates program.
The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Catholic-Jewish Commission have been running the BookMates program for more than 13 years.
“The program has different parts,” said Rhonda Shevrin, a volunteer for the program. “The main part is adults reading to children one-on-one.”
According to Shevrin, more than 300 adults partake in the program, reading to students in schools in both Camden and Burlington counties.
Rosa International is in a section called the Young Authors Program, Shevrin said, which was introduced three years ago to language arts teacher Lillian Halden by Shevrin’s daughter Carly.
“She thought that, not only it would be a good language arts project, but it could also be a good community project,” Halden said.
Rosa students are required to put in a number of community service hours each year.
The Young Authors Program provides students with 11 hours of service.
Eighth-grade students, who take a field trip to read their books to children in inner city schools, create the books. Halden’s class works with students attending Forest Hill Elementary School in Camden.
Originally, the field trip didn’t have funding, according to Halden, but Rosa Principal Edward Canzanese found the money.
“He’s always supportive of programs supporting kids,” Halden said. “He said he would find the money to get the buses to take us on the trip, which has been true all three years.”
Each year, the school brings in volunteer Ronnie Shussman to explain the program to the students.
“I come in and give the kids a workshop. We talk about BookMates and elements about children’s book and examples of children’s books,” Shussman said. “We talk about what goes into what is included in a children’s book, including vocabulary and acting it out.”
The workshop process is extended through Halden and additional teachers.
“The kids need to learn plot elements in the book and find examples of repetition onomonopia and alliteration,” Halden said. “They have to list those things in the book. That’s just one handout.”
According to Halden, additional handouts deal with the children’s reaction to plotlines and their own feelings in real-life experiences to brainstorm ideas.
“By the time they’re in eighth grade, they’ve figured out things they love to do, what their passion is, which is why I love teaching eighth grade,” Halden said.
Finally, the students move on to the storyboarding phase, where students put their words to a 32-page book from beginning to end.
The students are then required to craft illustrations or find suitable photos online to help tell their story.
“You wouldn’t believe the mastery of artistry these kids have in eighth grade. Some of them don’t even realize themselves how good they are,” Halden said.
The advisers then edit the book and sign off on the work. The students are required to bind their books; staples are unacceptable as part of the program.
“There is a binding machine at school to help them finish their project, or they can get it done for about $4 at Staples,” Halden said. “One student sewed his book. It was stitched, it looked really, really cool.”
By the time the students are finished, they have completed a book and have transformed into an unexpected author.
Though they receive a grade for their hours of work, the experience sticks with them and Halden.
“Reading these books, I am sometimes moved to tears. They’re incredible,” Halden said. “The books are just so well done.”
The children finally take the field trip to Forest Hill Elementary School, where students read their work and give lessons to their BookMates.
“At the end, many of them say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done,” Halden said. “Some of them ask, ‘how come we only did this once?’”
Currently, Halden is working on having the BookMates meet more than one time in a school year, to enhance the experience.
“The partnership has only gotten stronger,” Shevrin said. “I think that we all learn along the way. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone.”
Shussman loves the finished product and seeing what the kids have created year-to-year.
“One of the schools we went to told us it was their favorite day of the year,” she said. “The best part is seeing the interaction of the kids.”
Halden loves what she does and remains enthusiastic about the program.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve done as a teacher,” Halden said. “It’s unbelievably rewarding.”
To learn more about BookMates, visit JCRCSNJ.org and click on the BookMates tab. According to Shevrin, the organization is “always looking for volunteers.”