New ‘Read Across America’ initiative engages young minds

Haddonfield School District marks annual read-a-thon by celebrating diversity.

On March 3 at Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School, fourth graders and second graders gathered in Carolynn Clark’s classroom to participate in ‘Team Up for Diversity,” a part of ‘Read Across America’ week. Older students were paired up with younger ones to read, see and talk about books related to topics regarding different facets of diversity.

The National Education Association’s “Read Across America” week, originally centered around the celebration of Dr. Seuss’ March birthday, shifted its focus this year to a celebration of the many facets of diversity.

As such, the Haddonfield School District followed suit for its own commemoration, squarely in line with its mission statement of nurturing, inspiring and empowering students and two of its core strategic goals: social and emotional development as well as cultural competency. 

Throughout the week, the district’s three elementary schools focused on reading books which reflect multiple versions of that ideal, introducing readers to characters who present a new culture, way of life, behavior, physical challenges or alternate point of view. 

When the Sun stopped by Elizabeth Haddon Elementary on March 3, three separate batches of readers engaged in “Team Up for Diversity,” where teachers united classes of older students and younger pupils for shared reading about subjects related to a diverse brand of topics.  

“We’re exposing the students to diverse books. Books which feature characters with different experiences, to make them more compassionate, more empathetic and open-minded,” said Sophie Nelson, media specialist for both Haddon and Tatem elementary schools.

“We read diverse books year round. But this week, we’re really focusing on kindness and empathy for students who may stand out for any reason.”

Haddon Principal Gerry Bissinger talked about the social-emotional component of the exercise, which he hopes will extend beyond the classroom. 

“They all have ‘buddy classes’ where the older class is paired with a younger class, and that’s great because the kids have a familiar face around the school, someone who’s older than them,” he explained. 

“Maybe they don’t have an adult to turn to if they need something, but they have an older kid to mentor them when we get together for special activities like ‘Read Across America’ week.”

Bissinger also recognized the value in having the mentorship include the feel and look of physical books, rather than engaging with stories via electronic devices. 

Rebecca Lane (left) holds the attention of Lucille Green (center) and John Williams (on chair) in Carolynn Clark’s 2nd grade class.

“Older kids get practice with their reading and the younger kids hone their listening, or see something they might want to do as they get older. In elementary schools, we really try to get a lot of rich literature in the kids’ hands, have them holding books and talk about their reading, finding textual evidence to support their opinions,” he offered.

“These are really rich picture books with great illustrations and things that kids can look at to increase their understanding too. You don’t get that as much when looking at a tablet.”

On Thursday, March 5, Tatem Elementary held its “Drop Everything and Read,” challenge, where, for 15 minutes, all students and teachers read independently while sitting along the walls in the hallways outside their room, forming a chain of readers throughout the building. 

One day later, Haddon dropped everything to read for the same 15-minute interval, but with a twist: all participants wore pajamas and read to a stuffed animal in their classrooms. 

“We believe that all children should see themselves in the books that they read. We’re trying to open up their minds to experiences that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to,” Nelson added. 

For a comprehensive list of NEA’s “Read Across America” diversity resources, visit: www.readacrossamerica.org/