Turning the page to confident reading
When Gresham's Jessie Wheeler first started volunteering with a program dedicated to helping kids become better readers, one first grader she was paired with was shy and unconfident.
The little girl didn't like making eye contact and read so quietly that Wheeler could barely hear her.
"Finally she looked at me and said, 'Reading is hard,'" Wheeler remembered.
But the pair kept working at it every week, with fun games and exercises to build the girl's confidence. Now during their mentoring sessions, that girl can barely contain her excitement when she picks up a book.
"Now whenever we get done working on a book, she always wants to read it back to me," Wheeler said.
Wheeler is a volunteer reading mentor with the AARP Experience Corps program, housed locally within nonprofit Metropolitan Family Service. The program connects older adults with Portland and Gresham elementary school students to improve their reading levels.
"I am an avid reader — I have three books going at all times," she said. "This is a great program I believe in 100%"
The connection is all about setting students up for the future — literacy rates in elementary school are a strong indicator for success through the rest of an academic career. Fourth-graders who can't read at grade-level are four times less likely to graduate from high school.
The volunteers help tutor children who are struggling to read at grade level. The mentors are normally placed in neighborhood schools and matched with students identified by teachers as struggling. The pairs then work together for several hours each week during one-on-one sessions.
During COVID, as students were forced to stay home, the program pivoted to digital reading sessions.
Wheeler first joined two years ago. She was retired and wanted to find a way to make a difference in her community. She was initially posted at Hall Elementary School in Gresham, but now works digitally with kids at Mill Park Elementary in Portland.
Four times a week she connects one-on-one with students to improve their reading.
"When you first start the kids are a little shy, but they eventually relax and start having fun," Wheeler said.
She starts each session spending a few minutes checking in with the kids about their week — one girl recently showed off a new fishing rod her father had gotten her. Then Wheeler uses teaching games to improve the students' reading. One is called "echo" and has the students read back a line Wheeler has read, helping them with proper pronunciation of new words. Another has Wheeler and the child take turns reading lines from a book, slapping the table to trade off.
"For the kids all the games are fun and help the lessons not be boring," Wheeler said.
The reading mentors start to gain a rapport with the kids.
"One little girl and I have an agreement that I won't help with the words unless she looks at me," Wheeler said. "She wants to sound it out and figure things out on her own."
And while the program is about the kids, Wheeler admits she gets just as much out of the experience.
"My kids and grandkids are all grown and moved out of the house," she said. "Last year one of the boys drew me a picture I hung on my refrigerator — that was the first time in a long time I had kid's art to put up."
If you are interested in helping Gresham students become better readers, apply to be an Experience Corps mentor. Volunteers must commit 4-10 hours a week to help students improve their reading level.
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