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My Life as a Reading Partner

This chapter of my life started in December 2018 eight months after my husband of twenty years had died. During my practice as an Emergency Physician I was constantly reminded of the difficulty patients experienced reading and understanding Discharge Instructions. I wanted to do something about the problem. Being a semi retired physician I now have that chance.

My first session (after going through the tutorial and being approved for the program with a background check courtesy of the local public school system…the Dallas Independent School District) was for me to observe the lesson. The Head Tutor was hired by AmeriCorps to create and run the program to which I was assigned. It is located in an Elementary school within the high density immigrant section of Dallas.

A casual glance might lead one to think the tutor was playing a game with the student…from the students’ obvious delight in the sequence of events. read?” The words and letters are written on small squares of white paper, with a hole in one corner. The squares are then placed on the student’s “alphabet” and “word” rings…these rings, which are no larger than a standard key ring are then placed in the students folder. They are reviewed at each lesson until the student has mastered the alphabet, and learned a basic set of useful words. If the student has trouble learning the new letter or word, then the “White Board” is brought out. Using a special marking pen the student can practice writing the letter, or, perhaps even, the whole word…if it’s not right, the Board allows for it to be easily erased. I am astonished that such a well-designed program, with steps written out for the tutor to follow, can be so captivating for the child.

Second observation session occurs a week later: the Head tutor has a 7 y/o child, who seems to have come from somewhere in Africa, who has difficulty sitting still. This was the week before Christmas. The school, even with its meagre resources, had festive decorations everywhere. The story is about an old woman in a forest with a glove, into which more and more animals are added until the glove finally bursts. The child, let’s call her Kiki, cries out “On No!” She is close to tears, she got so involved with the story. There were no new letters or new words that day. The tutor asks me if I would like to take Kiki as my student. Absolutely, I answer. I can see she was moved by the story. Even though her English seems unclear she understood what was happening. She is an animated child, who seems to want to learn.

Then the Christmas break. Time away from school for children in a high poverty area is fraught with troubles: usually no regularity to their days. In general, no continuation of their lesson plans. First lesson in January: she reluctantly comes through the door. She does not want to sit at the table. She does not want to look at the book which has been designated for the “Read Aloud” part of the lesson. Here is, more or less the dialogue which followed: “Why not” “I don’t want to” “But WHY not?” “Because I’m not smart” With that she turns around in the chair, puts her head down and covers it up with her jacket. I am a medical doctor, not a child educator, or a therapist. Not being sure what to do next I look for the Head Tutor, and with my eyes and gestures ask for help. She comes over and quietly says, “They were tested last week”. OK. I get it. Having been through nursing school, then college, then pre-med courses, then medical school, internship & residency and Board exams, then (2006-2015) for music studies at SMU in Dallas (Southern Methodist University), I understand something about tests. But a first grader, who seems to be from some place in Africa; (we are not told anything about the child’s origins, at least at the beginning of the program), and who, by her unclear English probably speaks some kind of dialect at home…this I have not had any experience with. I realize that she must be lacking in very fundamental skills, so I pick the simplest book I can find. She doesn’t want to learn new letters of the alphabet, and has trouble with the letters she is supposed to have learned. I say, “I am glad to be here with you”. Silence “I am going to read something” To my surprise she stays, and small bits of the lesson can be at least started. I ask the tutor if we can put the regular lesson on hold. “Use your judgement. Go at the pace you think is right” I then volunteer to come in three mornings/week instead of two, and make them sequential. I ask for permission for this; it is granted. I ask how is it that a child half way through the first grade hasn’t learned the alphabet. “She’s not alone. Lots of the children didn’t learn their numbers or their letters last semester. The school didn’t have a full-time teacher for last semester. They had a series of substitutes. They do have a full-time teacher now for first grade.”

I ask Kiki if she knows the alphabet song…she knows the beginning but then hesitates. (in the interim I have gone to Google to be sure I have it down correctly.) Once she gets to “K” I fill in “L,M,N” she then excitedly adds in “O,P”. Together we sing the rest. She looks astonished. I ask her to sing it again, all by herself. She is hesitant, but becomes more confident as she goes along…by the third time she has done it she sings the ending “Now I know my A B C’s.” I would like to clap, but there are other lessons going on in the room, so I refrain. I just say “this is wonderful Kiki. She smiles.

The following Sunday at church (First Church, Unitarian), I notice books for Children in the Church Book Store. I had rejoined the church several months after losing my husband; it was through their Social Justice table that I learned about Reading Partners. There were many charming children’s books. I later discovered they were “The Classics”. I did not have children… I was a step-mother to several teenage children at one point in my life, but didn’t have prior knowledge of these stories. I bought as many as I could comfortably carry.

Lesson plans the following week seem to be a little smoother. She still has trouble sitting still. I ask her to please sit still. “Why” The only phrase which comes to mind is, “Because you are a smart girl and smart girls sit still” During that lesson I realize I have to minimize distractions, whether too many pencils, or loose pieces of paper, and to sit her so she is not facing the other lessons and students in the room. At the end of that lesson, as she is leaving she looks at me and asks, “What is your name?” By that time I have been working with her for almost six weeks.

The Head Tutor tells her every time when she goes to the classroom to bring her to the lesson, “You will see Miss Ellen today” However, it wasn’t until that day that Kiki seemed to want to know who I was. She wasn’t ready to learn it until then. She has delighted in the story of “Brown Bear What Do You See?”, one of the books I found at the church. The week of Valentine’s Day arrives. Before the lesson starts the Head Tutor comes to me… “Several things…the family does speak Swahili at home. She scored only 417 last November (out of a possible 1000 points); with her testing last week she has improved 200 points. Her teacher really appreciates what Reading Partners is doing for her. “ The child comes in. She has a smile for me. The lesson goes smoothly. I notice the Walt Disney Alphabet book in the Library section (the books are divided into what stays in the library, what is recommended for each level of reader, and which books the child can take home.) At the end of this lesson we have the following dialogue: “I want that one to take home”. (She points to the Walt Disney ABC book). “No, I don’t think you can take that one” “But that’s the one I want” I look over at the Head Tutor for help. She immediately comes over. Kiki, that book has to stay here. “Why?” “So the other children can use it also”. Kiki starts to pout. She does not want to pick out one of the “Take Home” books. So the Tutor says, “OK, we’ll go back to class then”. She gently takes her by the hand. As they are about to go through the door the child breaks loose, and comes running over to me, throws her arms around me and starts to sob. What to do? I am convinced that the child has probably suffered great deprivations, and sharing is probably a hard concept for her. But what to do in this moment? My thoughts go back to a John Bradshaw Family Therapy program I went to in the 80’s..in which in a ballroom of 1000 people, groups of ten people, who have never met each other before but who are motivated to improve their lives, sit in a circle. The exercise consists of each person putting their chair in the center of the group, and then, following John Bradshaw’s instructions, simple affirmations are given, with a gentle non-sexual touch. The affirmations are: “I’m glad you’re here.” I’m glad you’re a boy/girl” “You’re beautiful/handsome” “We love you.” I remember that just 15-20 minutes into this exercise half the room was sobbing…just hearing affirmations that they may never have heard growing up. This is all I can think of to do with Kiki. As she continues to sob I glance at the Head Tutor…she gives me permission to try to console the child. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re a girl. You’re beautiful” I decide to add “Kiki is smart”. This goes on for 3-4 minutes. She stops crying. I ask if she wants to pick out a book to take home. Silence. That morning we had read about who ate all the cupcakes…it was the Grumpy Toad. However, his friends, the fox, the bird, etc., all give him a second chance. I say, “Grumpy Toad had a second chance. Wouldn’t you like a second chance?” She says nothing but nods. We go over, and she picks out a book to take home. The program is designed for the child to pick out a book, write down the title of the book, who they are going to read the book to at home, then bring back the sheet of paper, indicating if they liked the book and if they do this, then they are rewarded with a sticker. (The child is able to keep the book, which is why the school often runs out of “Take Home” books.)

That day on my return home I look up how much the Walt Disney ABC book costs; new it is $21.79. Used, $1.83. I order two dozen…plus the Mickey Mouse ABCs, and several others, “I Like to Brush my Teeth”, etc. But I have the stark realization that more than books are needed.

Will Kiki be reading at grade level by the end of this year? 85% of students who DO have the full Reading Partner experience are able to read at grade level by the end of the year. Probably Kiki won’t have that level of success this year, but she may get there by next year. The literacy rate of 4th graders in the USA, (ability to read at grade level at the end of 4th grade), is 36%. The literacy rate in North Texas is 25% In mid 2018 there were approximately 9 million 4th graders; only 11,000 of them had a Reading Partner.

What is the next step? A major effort is necessary to motivate and engage adults of all ages who can spare just 2 hours/week to help solve this challenge. I have joined the fight.

(The child’s name has been changed for her protection.

Ellen Taylor Seldin, MD UT Southwestern Medical School, Emeritus member American College of Surgeons, Member American College of Emergency Physicians, Graduate of Southern Methodist University (BA and Master of Music), Volunteer Faculty UT Southwestern Medical School

Submitted February 2019

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