Training brings volunteers in Northampton schools up to date on new classroom methods

Thursday, February 20, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — One afternoon earlier this month, city resident Libby Arny sat at a small table in a classroom at Jackson Street School, helping first-graders with their reading lesson.

Arny, a retired psychiatric nurse who has been volunteering at the school since September, listened carefully as Max Marlin, 7 and Luke McGrath, 6, alternated reading aloud from a book about an unlikely friendship between a lion and a mouse.

Besides getting the words right, Arny wanted to be sure the students understood the meaning of the story.

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“What do you think is happening here?” she asked them. “What does the story show us?”

“That even though you are a lot smaller, you can still help someone,” Max replied.

Then, in a leap worthy of an adult book group, he and Luke began discussing how the plot compared to another story they’d read that week about a mouse who befriended a whale.

Arny, 62, says she has seen students take many similar leaps during her weekly volunteer stints in the classroom of veteran teacher Mary Bates.

“The way they teach reading now is totally different and it’s amazing how much the kids learn,” Arny said. “In first grade they’re learning about biography and persuasive writing. They’re reading poetry. The strategies are very sophisticated.”

Fortunately, Arny says, she had a chance to learn about those strategies. She was one of about two dozen local residents who participated in a literacy training program last spring hosted by the nonprofit Volunteers in Northampton Schools, known as VINS.

Funded with a $2,000 grant from the Northampton Education Foundation, the training was a series of free workshops for volunteers about the latest literacy methods in city elementary schools. A companion session offered basic tips on how to communicate with children and work alongside teachers.

VINS Coordinator Anne Schlereth said more than half of the people who signed up for the training are volunteering in city elementary schools, where they are putting those literacy lessons to work.

Schlereth sees the workshops as an outgrowth of the VINS mission to recruit and support school volunteers. Last year, VINS managed a roster of more than 125 volunteers in the Northampton schools.

At a time when national Common Core standards and MCAS tests are changing the way basic subjects are taught, Schlereth said volunteers want more guidance on how to help teachers.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is that these sorts of training opportunities help volunteers feel more confident and useful in the classroom,” she said. “It gives volunteers experience with newer instruction that is not that familiar to many adults.”

That goes for the Reader’s Workshop literacy curriculum now in use in Northampton elementary schools, Schlereth said.

“When I was growing up, reading was all about phonics, but it’s really changed,” she said. “We understood that by supporting volunteers with some additional training, they in turn would be able to support teachers and classrooms more effectively.”

Bates, who is in her 13th year at Jackson Street, said that’s been her experience working with Arny.

“It’s always helpful to have an extra pair of adult hands in the classroom,” Bates said. “But it’s even better to have an effective pair of hands.”

While she has long welcomed volunteers in her classroom, Bates said she rarely used them in literacy lessons until now. That’s because few were familiar enough with the Reader’s Workshop model, which involves interactive group and individual reading activities and gives students an active role in choosing books.

“There’s just so much going on with the model. It has multiple strategies,” Bates said. “With Libby being trained, she knows how to be more of a coach instead of saying to the students, ‘This is what you do.’”

Arny, whose granddaughter attends Jackson Street, said she has learned from watching the way Bates teaches reading — sometimes focusing on pictures instead of words, for example, and encouraging students to stop and ask questions about the text.

“It’s a process,” Arny said. “At first I thought, there’s no way the kids can understand these concepts. But it’s amazing to see how children’s minds can pick things up. You feel like you do make a difference.”

New generation of volunteers

In addition to helping students, VINS founder Margaret Riddle hopes the new literacy training will help the organization recruit a new generation of school volunteers.

“It’s a different pool from what VINS had in the beginning: local people who had grown up here and had connections with the School Department,” said Riddle, who began work with the district in 1979 as VINS coordinator and retired last year after seven years as principal of R.K. Finn Ryan Road School.

While many school volunteers still come from that group, “Now we also have people coming in from elsewhere with an eagerness to really engage with the kids,” Riddle said. “I think this training is a natural growth opportunity for VINS.”

Beth Brady, who has been teaching for more than two decades at Ryan Road, pointed out that the VINS program removes an extra layer of work that used to fall to teachers in training classroom volunteers.

Having volunteers who are familiar with the district’s new literacy curriculum means “they come in knowing more about how to help,” said Brady, who hosts a VINS-trained volunteer once a week in her second-grade classroom.

“They know what to ask and what to listen for,” she said. “I can concentrate more on my teaching knowing there is someone else in the room who is focused” on the lesson.

With a second round of funding from the education foundation, VINS is launching another literacy training for volunteers on Wednesdays beginning March 5. Workshops will be held weekly from 9 a.m. to noon at the R.K. Finn school on Ryan Road through April 2. Details on how to register are available online at vins.northampton-k12.us/vins-volunteer-training or by calling 587-1332.

Earlier this month, participants from the first training met at VINS headquarters at the R.K. Finn school to review lessons learned and share ideas for the coming workshops. A common theme was how the training helped raise their comfort level about being in the classroom.

Christine Giers of Haydenville is a former first-grade teacher who had volunteered at Jackson Street prior to the VINS training. Giers told fellow volunteers that before taking the workshop, “I felt like a dinosaur because things are so different” in elementary schools these days.

Giers, 65, who retired in 2011 from her job as an educational therapist, said the literacy training helped prepare her to work more closely with students.

“The kids tell me how they choose their books and I’ve seen them do things like discuss the title and what’s going on in the story,” Giers said. “I go home and tell my husband all the wisdom I’ve learned from first-graders.”

Dawn Yakovlev of Florence said while she initially wanted to volunteer at Ryan Road because her sons Zach and Eli are enrolled there, the VINS training has sparked her interest in how kids learn to read.

Yakovlev helps out once a week in Brady’s second-grade class, where her son Zach is a student — often with students who have a hard time focusing on their assignments.

To keep their attention, “I ask a lot of dumb questions about the book: ‘I don’t’ get it.’ And they explain things to me,” said Yakovlev, 37, who works as a respiratory therapist. “I take turns reading with them.”

At the training session, reading specialist Mary Porcino — who leads the VINS workshops — showed volunteers how to handle a group reading assignment.

Reading aloud from “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen, she demonstrated how to stop and ask questions aimed at getting students to express their feelings and ideas about the text.

“Good readers are always asking questions when they’re reading,” Porcino said. “You want to give kids the message that reading is supposed to be about them and what they are thinking.”

Whatever the strategy, Porcino stressed that the presence of volunteers is crucial. “You being there and helping them complete a book makes a contribution to their sense of what’s possible,” she said.

Riddle agreed wholeheartedly.

“Having a volunteer in a classroom says to the children: ‘Your education is really important. Here’s a person who doesn’t even know me who’s here to help,’ ” said Riddle. “It’s powerful.”