By Pat Nelson
For The Daily News, Longview, WA, reprinted with permission 2008
A thin girl with straight brown hair and dull brown eyes sat down beside me in a classroom twenty-some years ago, put her head on her desk on her folded arms, and shut her eyes. I was there as a volunteer, helping elementary students to improve their reading skills. This little girl’s eyes weren’t dull every day, but she often arrived at school sleepy, and sometimes she hadn’t eaten breakfast. On those days, she started school with two strikes against her.
Another child I worked with was alert and attentive, but lagged behind some of the other students in his reading skills, which undermined his confidence. He needed a little extra attention.
Every elementary classroom has students like these who can benefit from one-on-one help. Teachers can’t always provide individual help, so they must count on volunteers.
I’ve volunteered in my granddaughter’s classroom for the past two years. She attends a small country school, with only 18 students in her class. Because I’m a writer, I chose to help with writing. This September, I will start my third year with the same group of kids. When I first decided to volunteer, I cleared it with the teacher and then filled out a form at the school office to have my background checked.
Two years ago, as I sat at a low table in a little chair, students brought their folders to me one by one. I checked to see that they had completed their homework, and helped them if they had not. I listened to them read, and worked with those who needed extra help. Because I worked with the same students each week, I came to understand their individual learning styles or difficulties, and as time went on, I became better at directing my help towards the students who needed it the most.
Other times, the teacher allowed me to present a writing lesson. One day, the students all sat on a carpet in front of me, cross-legged, as I talked to them about what goes into making a book. I had written a book many years earlier, so I showed them the manuscript, the editor’s copy, the page proofs, the galley proofs, the cover design, and the finished product. I explained to them that each of the books in their classroom had gone through the same stages. They were especially interested in learning that even authors make mistakes, and enjoyed seeing the red proofreading marks on the edited manuscript.
Parents, grandparents, and other interested adults can help students boost their skills, interests, and confidence by volunteering in a classroom on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to take long. Last year, I helped with writing just thirty minutes a week. The children knew me and I knew the class routine, so I slipped into the classroom quietly just before the writing segment, and observed to see who needed help or a little extra encouragement. As students got to know me, they started voluntarily coming to me for help, and they were proud to demonstrate their accomplishments. They liked showing me that they had hung my newspaper columns in their classroom, and they talked to me about my articles.
Last year, I presented an exercise on observation. I brought a basket full of items from home, and each child drew one item and filled out a description of the item based on using their senses. Those descriptive words then became part of a short story.
Students from the classroom won first, second, and honorable mention in a county-wide writing contest, and I was excited to celebrate their achievements with them.
If you would like to share your own time, skills, and experience with a classroom at an area school, plan to sign up soon. Woodland’s school offices open August 18, and other school offices are about to open as well. By calling now, you can get the background check started, and you and the teacher can discuss your schedule. You’ll be giving a lot more than time. You will be helping youngsters thrive. If you would like to make a difference, this is a great way to do it.
School Volunteers Checklist
1. List your areas of interest and expertise.
2. Note the days of the week and hours that you can be available on a regular basis.
3. Contact a school of your choice to sign up as a volunteer.
4. Arrive at class a few minutes early and enter the room quietly, disrupting the classroom as little as possible.
5. Sign up again next year. You’re always needed.