Posted 4:09 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Makenna Sacre, a sophomore majoring in early childhood-middle childhood education, works with her reading buddy at Northside Elementary School in La Crosse. A new partnership between the School of Education and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse is providing local children with personalized reading instruction, and future educators with valuable experience assisting young learners.

Community partnership a win-win for young readers, aspiring teachers

A partnership between the School of Education (SOE) and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse is providing local children with personalized reading instruction and future teachers with valuable experience assisting young learners.

In February, 80 SOE students were paired with children (kindergarten through third grade) from the Boys & Girls Clubs at Northside and Hamilton elementary schools in La Crosse. Throughout the semester, each student spent one on one time with their reading buddy, getting to know them on a personal level while learning how to provide individualized reading lessons.

“One of the most important tools a teacher can utilize is relationship building, so they can gain insight into what will engage a learner,” explains Caryn Peterson, a lecturer in the Educational Studies Department at UWL. "Working one on one with a buddy, students are able to discover a child's interests, determine their reading level, and then fine tune a lesson plan to meet their specific needs. We want our future teachers to experience the impact this knowledge could have in their classrooms someday."

Deanna Maynard, assistant professor of educational studies, says it’s critical to find materials, genres and teaching techniques that make reading enjoyable for students.

“If we can engage learners at a young age, then we can make literacy interesting and fun for the rest of their lives,” Maynard says. “Maybe that means introducing them to poetry or engaging them in writing. It’s important for them to see that there’s a lot out there.”

SOE students say they found the experience enjoyable and impactful as well.

McKenna Bowers, a sophomore majoring in early and middle childhood education, says the program has been a great lesson in adaptability.

For example, Bowers’ reading buddy loves basketball and moving around. So, after finishing a book, Bowers plays basketball with the student while she asks him about the book’s themes, characters, setting and plot.

“I never expected this program to help me in the way that it did, because you truly must expect the unexpected,” she says. “You have to be able to have a flexible lesson plan in case it doesn't work with your buddy’s mood, activity or way of learning for the day. That is truly what teaching is all about.”

Marshall Simon, a sophomore majoring in elementary education and teaching English to speakers of other languages, says the program has taught him the importance of connecting with students on a personal level.

“It’s cool to see our relationship grow, as well as seeing the progress my buddy has made in their literacy skills,” he says. “The relationship my buddy and I have built is beneficial to both of us, and is something we both look forward to every week. I think one of the biggest things is learning to build a relationship with my students in a way that allows them to trust me and want to learn from me.”

Typically, there's a 10:1 child-staff ratio at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse. The new literacy partnership ensures that each child receives personalized, one-on-one reading instruction.

“It’s cool to see our relationship grow, as well as seeing the progress my buddy has made in their literacy skills,” he says. “The relationship my buddy and I have built is beneficial to both of us, and is something we both look forward to every week. I think one of the biggest things is learning to build a relationship with my students in a way that allows them to trust me and want to learn from me.”

Added Martha Moran, a sophomore majoring in elementary and middle education and special education: “This program has showed me the drastic impact I can have on a student, giving them a personalized, unique, and safe learning environment. To be the best educator I can be, I am dedicated to learning from my successes and failures through amazing programs such as Reading Buddies.”

Teigen Meiners, ’13, community engagement coordinator for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse, says this one-on-one instruction has the potential to be highly transformative.

Typically, there’s a 10:1 child-staff ratio at the Boys & Girls Clubs. When each of those 10 students has unique needs, the job becomes exponentially more challenging.

“It’s not always easy. Some of our members are reluctant to read because they’re behind, and some might be reluctant because they’re way ahead,” Meinders,’13 (elementary education/special education), says. “So it’s really nice that students can modify their lesson plans for the individual they’re working with.

“We know that, the more meaningful connections we’re able to make with a child, the more we’re going to be able to help that child,” Meiners adds. “These relationships have allowed us to spark that interest in reading and writing, which is so important at this age level.”

Jake Erickson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse, says this partnership has been beneficial — especially coming out of the pandemic.

“We rely on our strong partnerships to create high-level opportunities that will benefit local youths’ academic success,” he says. “Many kids have suffered from learning loss and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnerships, like Reading Buddies, help close education gaps and promote healthy relationship building.