The Home Library Effect
How a simple idea is transforming the lives of at-risk readers.
June 8, 2015
Think back to your first memory of reading. Did the memory involve someone you love—your mom or dad, grandma or grandpa—perhaps a big brother or sister?
Children living in poverty don’t always get that early experience of reading with someone they love. For these children to someday live the lives they dream of, we have to close the book gap in their homes.
When I started the home library project five years ago with my second-grade class, it transformed the worlds of 25 children. In 2015, the initiative will impact 2,500 at-risk readers.
The idea for the project was simple.
Problem: Many children who live in poverty have few books at home.
Solution: Provide those children with their own books to keep.
How to make it happen: Make sure each child has a place in his or her home for a growing library—it can be a bookshelf, a plastic tub, or even a shoebox decorated with stickers. Over the course of the year, help the students choose 10 or 15 books at their reading level. Then, watch as their world changes.
When I began the project, I was amazed at the impact on reading development, family literacy and love of books.
One of my second-grade students was reading at a kindergarten level, and no one in her home was literate. She made two full years’ reading growth that year. When I asked how she had done it she said, “Well, you know those books you gave me? Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV at night, they say, ‘Melinda, read to us.’ So I do.”
The project has grown gradually during the past five years, but its roots go deep. What started with one classroom became a third-grade project with three other teachers and later expanded to 13 teachers at our school— Harvey Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas.
This year, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Farmers Insurance Dream Big Challenge, every teacher at our school became part of the home library project. We also held two family literacy nights for children and their parents to choose books from a Scholastic book fair, including many titles in Spanish.
A mom came with her daughter, and she thanked us for the project. “I know how important it is to get books for her,” she said, “but after rent and groceries, we just don’t have anything left.”
We have expanded the project’s reach to two nearby elementary schools with high levels of poverty. We have also partnered with a community group called Bright Futures—a non-profit dedicated to the success of all children—and the University of Arkansas Center for Community Engagement, which have brought the project to two additional schools in the district and several rural schools in the region.
Educators from all over the country have reached out for ideas on starting their own home library projects, ranging from a kindergarten teacher in Oakland to a child development professor in Texas. The Center for Teaching Quality, a national education non-profit, is working with us to develop a digital platform that will feature contacts, resources and a starter kit for anyone who wants to start a home library project in their own classroom, school, or district.
We live in a time when amazing things are happening in classrooms all over America, led by truly talented teachers. In too many cases, their innovations never reach beyond their own classroom walls. The home library project is a powerful example of teacher leadership taken to scale: a simple idea with profound impact on students.
Home libraries have the potential to shape our national approach to literacy for at-risk readers. There are times when effective classroom instruction is not enough to move a struggling reader from frustration to confidence. In these cases, providing a child with great books can be a potent intervention with greater impact—and a lot more joy—than summer school or conventional remediation.
By the end of 2015, this effort will have put 50,000 books into the hands and homes of children who need them. These children will become more confident readers, inquisitive thinkers and compassionate human beings as a result.
Justin Minkel is a 2006 winner of the Milken Educator Award and 2013 Lowell Milken Center Fellow. He teaches second-grade at Harvey Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas.
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