ReadBoston Goes Green for Literacy

By Theresa Lynn
As published in The West Roxbury Transcript
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Linking literacy and the environment is the fundamental concept behind a ReadBoston initiative implemented two years ago in a number of preschool, Boston Public School and after-school programs.

Based on strong research showing that environmentally based education curricula can dramatically improve student learning, including higher standardized test scores, ReadBoston sought to increase literacy skills, to develop children’s knowledge of the environment and their capacity and commitment to preserving it.

The goal of ReadBoston, a nonprofit children’s literacy program founded by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, is to have all children in Boston reading at grade level by the end of third grade, a critical point for students. This is when they move from learning to read to reading to learn.

Children have a strong natural interest in environmental topics, from animals to the outdoors to the planets. When students read, write and speak about subjects that appeal to them, they are more likely to make an effort to strengthen these important skills. And to do well on standardized tests, including MCAS, students need to have had a lot of exposure to unusual words and subject matters, which helps to increase their overall knowledge and vocabulary.

In West Roxbury, ReadBoston implemented this environmental-literacy initiative at the Joyce Kilmer K-8 School. Each Lower School classroom at the Kilmer received a collection of new, environmentally themed books and magazines. Titles, which vary dramatically, are linked to the science standards of the Boston Public Schools. ReadBoston distributed more than 100 books, including the beloved “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss; “10 Things I Can Do to Help My World” by Melanie Walsh; and “A Grand Old Tree” by local author Mary Newell DePalma. Students were required to take the books home and read them with their parents, with the goal of reading at least 20 minutes per day at least four times per week.

Another key component of the program is engaging children in activities that go beyond book learning. In a kindergarten classroom at the Kilmer, we conducted an experiment with the students in which they saved their snack trash — mostly paper plates and cups — in a bin for one week. Each student was asked to make a prediction about the size of the end-of-week trash pile. Linking the experiment to a wonderful book by Chris Van Allsburg, “Just a Dream,” we then returned to the classroom, where — spurred on by the desire to reduce the trash pile — we decorated special individual snack plates with the children so that these could be used instead of paper goods. Another activity involved creating “binoculars” out of recycled toilet-tissue holders and then, armed with a checklist of items to find, heading outside to locate birds, flowers, worms, rocks and more.

The theme of the environment was continued in the summer months in West Roxbury with a dedicated week during ReadBoston’s Summer Storymobile program in which children at the Roche Community Center enjoyed a presentation by Save that Stuff, a recycling company, and when a volunteer from the MSPCA visited the children at Willow Path Childcare Center. Future plans to expand the program include partnering with West Roxbury Saves Energy to bring in local “green” experts to talk to children.

ReadBoston is very encouraged by the early results of the environmental-literacy program. Children are reading more; in fact, at one school, reading rates improved a remarkable 100 percent. Teachers are very happy with the initiative and with the additional resources it brings to the classrooms and also report that the concepts and books are especially appealing to boys and those termed “reluctant” readers. The ReadBoston environmental-literacy program is funded through private donations, and we hope to attract additional donors so that we are able to serve more children and classrooms, including more of those in West Roxbury.

This monthly feature is provided by West Roxbury Saves Energy, a community-based organization committed to spreading the word that individuals can easily make positive choices that save money as well as the environment. For more information about WRSE, visit www.westroxburysavesenergy.org.

Theresa Lynn is the executive director of ReadBoston.