For the past six years, the Kepler's Literary Foundation has worked with the Ravenswood City School District to bring authors into classrooms to foster a love of reading.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, they're taking a new approach.
Starting this month, each one of the 1,800 students in the Ravenswood City School District will receive a book, thanks to the foundation's efforts. To encourage writing, the foundation also provided journals that accompany the books, and the youngest students received crayons, as well.
Students will receive different books based on their grade levels. Transitional kindergartners through second graders will receive "Hiro's Hats" by Elisa Kleven, students in grades three through five will receive "The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate, and students in grades six through eight will receive "The Unwanteds" by Lisa McMann.
In one of the videos, McMann addresses the middle school students in the district and gives a brief summary of the first few chapters of the book introducing them to a fantasy world called Quill, where children expect to be categorized as "unwanteds" at age 13 for being caught engaging in creative activities.
She told the students she got the idea for writing the book after her children's school stopped offering art, music and drama programs due to budget cuts, and from there she started imagining a society where kids are punished for being creative.
According to Lara Daetz, school events manager for the foundation, the program is intended to help students become more engaged readers. They partnered with three authors who had previously participated in school visits to the district with the program.
The program is focused on helping students get engaged in learning, even at a distance. "Remote learning tends to be less engaging than in-person instruction," she said.
Schools received the materials in the middle of October, and it's up to teachers as to when to introduce the lessons to their students.
"We knew it would be important for teachers to have flexibility," said Forstner.
As for the students who are still learning to read, the videos provided are read-aloud lessons, where the book pages were digitized and a cursor goes over the text while the author is reading, providing students a video they can watch as needed to reinforce their early reading skills.
"The One and Only Ivan" for third through fifth graders, Daetz said, feels particularly relevant for 2020, as the character featured is isolated, so kids who are not able to attend school and play with other children can relate. Applegate, the author of the book, had visited every school in the district through the program before the pandemic, and will be a familiar face to the students, she added.
"Pre-pandemic, our librarians noted that students were much more excited to check out books immediately following an author visit. The new, enhanced program is so flexible that our students and teachers can easily use it online now and in the future with classroom or hybrid instruction. Staff can also use this flexibility to pace delivery to complement their individual teaching plans," said Lara Burenin, director of curriculum and instruction at the Ravenswood City School District.