What I’ve learned as a SMART volunteer


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7:34 a.m. PDT May 25, 2016


For the past school year, I have spent an hour every Friday at a Salem elementary school reading to two students as a SMART volunteer.

When I was asked to volunteer for Start Marking A Reader Today, I was worried — worried I didn’t have the time to commit to volunteering and apprehensive I wouldn’t teach the students well enough.

On the first day, my jitters melted away and it became a simple task. I showed up, I smiled and I read.

The first thing the girl I worked with said to me was, “You have freckles just like me!” I responded, “You have freckles just like me!”

Each week we’d catch up on how her pets were doing and whether her older brother was still giving her a hard time, as mine did. Then we’d pick a couple of books to read. We both loved dog books.

We worked a lot on sounding out the words. She was great at guessing what the next word might be based on context and pictures, but over the past few months she grew as a reader and not a guesser.

On the first day with the second student, he grabbed an advanced book for his age and speeded through it as if he’d read it a thousand times. He reads with great ease. When I told him that, he said, “I know.”

He was a big fan of Star Wars and superheroes. And SpongeBob, of course.

He loved when I read in funny voices — the biggest challenge was imitating Batman — and he began asking me to read to him more and more

For him, it wasn’t about the act of reading. It was about making sure he had access to the resources and support he needed to develop as a reader. And it was about knowing someone cared.

One day he just turned to me and said, “Did you know I’m autistic?”

He can read better than most his age, but that doesn’t mean he always has the chance.

The lessons I’ve learned from my SMART experiences are these:

1. It’s OK to make mistakes

By allowing the readers to be comfortable trying, even if that means making mistakes, they learn more and grow in confidence and trust.

2. This is not a college literature class

I have to keep in mind that I am not there to discuss the literary elements of a remarkable story. I am there to help a young student learn and appreciate reading, the same way my parents and teachers patiently helped me when I was growing up.

If a student doesn’t get a word right, or doesn’t remember something from the week before, that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t learning. It means the student still is grappling with the concept and perhaps I need to find another way to help him or her so it solidifies.

3. Reading is not easy for all

Although reading comes easily to some, it is easy to forget that isn’t true for everyone.

We need to make sure everyone can read. Adjust to the skill and speed of the reader and figure out what he or she needs.

4. Rely on each other

On the days I was tired, upset or extremely busy, I needed to let all that go and show up at school anyway.

The best way to do that? Be in the moment with the kids and rely on each other. Laugh at their jokes, read in ridiculous voices and smile.

Never forget to smile.

5. Sometimes we just need to talk about bunnies

When you see a student struggling, pushing through isn’t always the answer. We don’t want to push students so far they never want to read again.

Taking time to cool down and reset can be the best solution.

When my freckled buddy didn’t want to read, we looked at the pictures and created our own story line, or we talked about her pet bunny.

What is important is that you are there.

Natalie Pate is education reporter for the Statesman Journal. Contact Natalie atnpate@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6745, or follow her on Twitter@Nataliempate, on Facebook at Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist or on the Web at nataliepate.com


SMART Oregon “helps children become confident, enthusiastic readers through shared reading and books to keep.”

The organization has 267 programs statewide, 355 site coordinators, 4,624 volunteers and 114,750 books given away this year to the 10,101 children it serves.

How to volunteer

Go to getsmartoregon.org/get-involved or call 503-391-8423.

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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