Fanny, a kindergarten teacher, and Angela, a second grade teacher, recently decided to pair up their children for weekly reading buddy sessions. The children already were working together on a study of their new guinea pigs. The teachers asked me if I could give them some advice and I began looking through my files for an article that I wrote in 1996. I found it! Here it is.
The scene in the classroom would have made any teacher smile. Blanca and Ellen sat together in a corner, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat between them, Blanca’s arm draped around Helen’s shoulder. Blanca, the second – grader, pointed to the words as she read aloud to Helen, the kindergartner. The older girl paused at the end of each sentence until the younger one chimed in with the missing rhyming word. Before long, Helen would be reading about that mischievous cat all by herself.
These children are participating in a popular program at my school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York. Our teachers and students refer to the project as “buddy classes”, and they’re taking place all over the school. The benefits are compelling. Younger children like Helen learn how to read, older children like Blanca practice their reading skills and take pride in passing them on, and teachers at both levels marvel at their students’ growing knowledge and confidence.
In our hectic days filled with required subjects, enrichment classes, outdoor playtime, and more, it can be difficult to fit in even one extra activity. But because the teachers in my school are so convinced of the positive effects on children’s learning and self-esteem, we take the time to make the program work. During lunch, before and after school, in car pools, and on the phone during evenings and weekends, we eke out the minutes to plan our weekly reading get-togethers.
Because classes and schedules vary, teachers organize the program in the way that best fits their needs. Some classes have an easygoing system in which one or both children bring a book to share. The students find a comfortable place and spend the 45-minute period reading. It isn’t unusual to see children stretched out on a rug, sitting together on a rocking chair or on a pillow in the hallway, or even finding a spot of privacy under a desk. Teachers walk around the room and make sure all is running smoothly.
Other classes may pair up on more ambitious projects. One kindergarten and fourth grade team is working on an alphabet study together. Having read and compared many different ABC books, they’re now creating their own alphabet books and cards and learning to sing “A You’re Adorable.” Some classes are reading and writing poetry. One year my kindergartners and Adele Schroeter’s fourth graders took part in a sea study. We read fiction and nonfiction books about the sea and marine animals, worked on small-group research projects and ended the year with a boat ride in Jamaica Bay led by five instructors from the New York Aquarium.
If you would like to create a buddy program, here are six steps to make your start-up easy:
1. FIND AN INTERESTED COLLEAGUE. One unexpected bonus of this activity is that upper and lower grade teachers get to know each other and share ideas.
2. AGREE ON YOUR EXPECTATIONS. How much planning time are you willing to devote to the program? How frequently, and where, will your groups meet? Young children often feel more comfortable meeting in their own room, especially at the beginning of the school year. After a few weeks, some teachers split the groups in half. One group stays in the kindergarten class and the other meets in the upper-grade class. Twenty-five children in a room are a lot quieter than 50!
3. CREATE THE RIGHT PAIRS OR TRIADS OF STUDENTS. Most teachers take personalities and reading abilities into account when making this decision. Talk about your children together and think carefully about the match. Sometimes you’ll have to switch children around but it’s usually best to let them try to work out problems on their own first.
4. DECIDE HOW YOU WILL RUN THE SESSIONS. A typical get-together begins with a short meeting on the rug, often with the little ones singing on their buddies’ laps. The teachers might share a story or role-play a strategy in front of the group. Then the children go off in pairs to read together. About ten minutes before the end of the session, everyone gets together again to share something interesting that they’ve read and to sing a song. The classes may also take turns providing a snack for the session.
5. FIGURE OUT HOW THE CHILDREN WILL GET THEIR BOOKS. In my class, students chose one or two books they wanted their buddy to read to them and labeled the books with their names. A day or two before our meeting, a group of fourth graders picked up the books and brought them back to their classroom. The fourth graders read the books for homework and had time in their class to work on book-sharing strategies.
6. AFTER YOUR PROGRAM IS UP AND RUNNING, CONDISER EXPANDING IT. The opportunities for cooperative activities are limited only by your imagination and schedule. Classes can go on trips together or the children can tem up to create their own stories.
Any way you choose to implement your buddy program, this shared learning activity will provide an enriching experience for everyone involved. Your students will no doubt be the first to agree. When asked about the advantages of working with kindergarteners, one fourth grader in my school said, “We give them security and friendship.”
But perhaps a kindergartner summed up the program’s educational benefits best when he said, “They tell you stuff you never knew before.”