As Ashley Williams helped pre-kindergarten students to read on a recent afternoon, she leaned over to them as they handled cutout letters so they could get a feel for them as palpable objects.

Encouraging students to experience letters – and stories – in the physical world plays a prime role in the Arkansas River ESC’s Summer Literacy Camp at James Matthews Elementary School. Organizers are actually dubbing the endeavor the “Curious George Summer Literacy Camp” since the students are reading about various Curious George adventures and then going to nearby places that embody those adventures – from the City of Pine Bluff Fire & Emergency Services to the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff.

“We read the story in the morning, and we talk about it right before we go on the field trip,” said Williams, a teacher in the Early Childhood Division of the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative. “We talk about what they see and hear in the book. And then when we go, we look for those things.”

The camp, for children from Jefferson and surrounding counties, is coordinated by the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative in collaboration with the Dollarway School District, which has supplied the facilities. It’s running from July 9 through July 12 and from July 16 through July 19.

The camp is funded by a 2018 Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) Innovation Grant for $45,000, through the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said Cathi Swan, director of the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative. Swan said the grant offered several focus areas from which to choose, and she said she and her colleagues chose literacy.

“A student’s success is determined by how well they read,” Swan said. “Research shows that the younger they start reading, the younger they’re read to, and the younger they love to read, the higher their reading level goes.”

Swan said the camp has 60 slots, all for pre-kindergarten students. Each of the camp’s three classrooms has a certified teacher and two certified paraprofessionals – and it’s a camp she hopes to expand in future summers.

Reading and experience

The students’ days during the camp are divided up between classroom work and a cluster of activities that embody the stories they’re reading. On Wednesday, that embodiment took the form of a trip to Thunder Lanes Bowling Center in Pine Bluff. The children had just read a story about Curious George’s adventures with bowling, and now they were about to see some of the new words they’d learned in action.

The children seemed enthusiastic and well-behaved as they handled, with help, the weighty bowling balls, and as they adjusted to the game’s rhythm. Kimberly Newton, home-based educator for the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative, said this sort of actual experience with what they read about can spark students to understand and to remember.

“It helps with story comprehension,” Newton said after helping several students to bowl. She and the students were preparing to head back to the classroom and to their books as she talked.

The camp’s genesis

Swan said she planned the camp with Marguerite Flannigan, coordinator of the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, a division of the Cooperative; and Wendy James, coordinator of the Early Childhood Division of the Cooperative.

Swan reflected on the whole process of pairing story themes with places that embody those themes. She said that in past educational work, she’d often noticed that “the frame of reference” for students was narrower than it might have been. She wasn’t able to assume that a student had seen a nearby city, for instance, or maybe even a nearby museum. Expanding that range of experience, she thought, might feed children’s desire to read and nourish their ability to comprehend.

“What experiences have children had in their local community?” Swan asked. “And are they able to tie those experiences to learning?”

Swan and her colleagues brainstormed about ways to marry experience and reading, and they landed on Curious George and the way he – in stories – goes to visit various places the children could also visit.

Swan acknowledged that using field trips to complement reading is something that schools already do – but she said that in a camp, staff and students could use the strategy a little more frequently than schools might have the opportunity to do. The Dollarway School District is providing the bus, Swan said, and the grant is paying expenses.

Swan said, too, that she and the other organizers talked about ways to measure the camp’s accomplishments. That’s a component that’s especially important since the group wants to repeat, and to expand, the program in future summers and will seek funding to do so.

“What we built in was a pretest for students at the beginning of every day,” Swan said. “The teachers have a list of words, and they pretest them in the morning and the post-test them at the end of the activity just to see, in the course of a day, how they’ve progressed.”

Swan said parental surveys and reflections from teachers will also supply some data, adding “qualitative” to the “quantitative” data from the short tests.

But these kinds of measurements, as Swan tells it, do not take away from the imaginative thrust of the program. She said children all have backpacks with small Curious George stuffed animals that they can talk to at the end of the day.

“At the end of every day, they get out their Curious George and they story-tell,” she said. “They have some reflective time, quiet time at the end of the day when they tell their companion about the story, the book. As that’s happening, the teachers are milling around to make notes on what they’re hearing.”

Beyond the camp

Michaela Howard, administrative assistant in the Early Childhood division at the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative, said an important part of the camp involves sparking children to read once it’s over.

“One (goal) is to get the kids excited about reading, even when they’re away from the camp,” she said.

Howard said the camp can also increase children’s vocabulary and expose them to what they see, and she said that a couple of parents told her earlier in the day that they read the previous day’s story to their children again in the evening.

“That’s the type of result we want to see,” Howard said.

For Williams, teaching one of the sessions on a recent morning, it’s that sort of human contact that makes reading effective, and interesting, for children.

“It’s the way you tell the story that makes it appealing,” she said. “You have to use your imagination and ask high-functioning questions such as, ‘What would you think about if you did what George was doing?’”

As Williams told it, the questions that adults ask children about their reading – just like the experiences children have outside of their books – can fuel curiosity.

“When you ask questions to help them get that cognitive thinking going,” Williams said, “then it all becomes appealing to them.”

People seeking more information about the camp can call the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative administrative office at 870-534-6129.