"Who’s enjoying their steaks?" Tish Howard, principal of Washington Mill Elementary, called out to the boisterous group of 40 fifth- and sixth-grade students. "Those are your elementary school steaks."
The broiled hot dogs she was referring to may not have been sirloin or filet mignon, but the students’ appreciation was obvious when they were asked who wanted seconds.
The meal of hot dogs and pizza was part of the plan for the evening, a "Read-Over" at the school lasting from 6:30 p.m. Friday to 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, designed to encourage students to associate reading with activities they enjoy.
In addition to an unaccustomed dinner at school, students would read, be read to by parents and teachers, play board games, and watch a video before falling asleep in their sleeping bags on the library floor, surrounded by shelves of books.
Howard came up with the idea of the "Read-Over" while talking to her grandchildren about the activities they enjoyed and those that she remembered enjoying when she was their age. She had enjoyed reading and overnight parties, but today it seemed like most children appreciate the latter far more than the former.
By combining them, she hoped the excitement children felt about sleep-overs, especially a sleep-over where they would get a chance to see their teachers in pajamas, could become associated with reading.
"When I became the principal here I tried to convey to the children the passion for reading that I’ve had since fifth grade, when I started devouring Nancy Drew," Howard explained.
She felt the school’s previous reading strategy, Drop Everything and Read, in which students read for about ten minutes a day, made reading seem like a punishing time-out, not a pleasurable way to spend their time. When she tried the idea of the read-over last year, there was an immediate positive response.
"It was fun," Howard said. "The kids were so well-behaved."
Within two weeks they scheduled the same event for their third and fourth-graders.
"It was nice to see teachers, the principal and parents reading. Almost everyone fell asleep with a book."
THE EVENT went so well, staff-members and parents asked if they could sleep over on Friday night and help.
Karen Sparacino, the school’s reading teacher, praised the read-over as an opportunity for students "to see reading in a different light."
"The more they read, the better readers they become. So we just take every opportunity we can to promote that. When they see their friends reading it becomes cool for them to do it themselves."
They’ll see that "it doesn’t always have to be for work," said Danika Hawkins, who was there to help her mother, a teacher at the school.
"It’s nice to see them out of the classroom," said Forest Chilton, another teacher at the school. "It helps with bonding and discipline."
"It’s a testimony to the community as a whole," he added, that so many people could come together to make an event like this happen.
Promoting reading has become a focus at Washington Mills. The PTA recently donated money so that every classroom could start its own library.
HOWARD’S APPRECIATION for the role reading played in her development has led her to do whatever she can to pass that love on to her students.
She told the story of Bus Seven, which she described as "busy," with students acting out and distracting the bus driver.
One day several weeks ago, Howard boarded the bus along with the students with the book "A Purpose Driven Life" under her arm. She told the students, "I would like to do some reading. Please give me some peace and quiet so I can do that. If you would like something to do, you can read a book as well."
She said that although only about five of the students had books, the bus became quiet.
Howard rode Bus Seven every day for the next two weeks. Its riders quickly dubbed it the Bus Seven Book Club. By the end of two weeks, she says, only about five students did not have a book to read on the way home.
Last week, Howard started riding Bus Two.