Open Books Reading Buddies


As a child, I liked to read with my grandmother. I remember her soft voice which opened a door to another reality for me, a fairy-tale land filled with characters I still love. One time when I was sick in bed with high temperature and couldn’t sleep all night, she read my favorite Peter Pen twice to me, and I think that was the main reason I felt better in the morning.

So when in July Open Books was looking for Book Buddies volunteers, I grabbed the opportunity to pay back all the time that my grandmother invested in teaching me to love the printed word. Book Buddies is a weekly  literacy program the main purpose of which is to help boost students’ reading skills and add to their confidence about reading. Twice each week, volunteers read together with two Little Buddies in 30-minute segments. The program usually runs for a semester, but that time it was just for the month of July.

My Little Buddy was a first – grader Angel (it’s the cutest name ever, isn’t it?:). Now, it is crucial to build a relationship when working with kids of such a delicate age from day one. Open Books assisted in this by giving the students a survey to fill out about themselves at the beginning of the program. That’s how I learned Angel and I shared passion for soccer.  Needless to say that the books that I chose for him to read were mainly about sport. Also, prior to the program, Open Books assessed the students’ reading levels. It made it really easy to choose the appropriate books. All the books brought to the site had labels on them with a difficulty level indication.

If any of you plan on reading with young children, these are the main points to consider in my opinion:

1. Build phonemic awareness and phonics (connection between letters and sounds). When you encounter an unfamiliar word, you can sound it out together or use a picture to give a clue to the word. Rhyming is also a great tool with young kids.

2. Make sure the children comprehend what they read. Ask them to retell the story in their own words. Prior to reading the book, build a background – ask them what they think the book will be about. Also, let them make predictions as you read.

3. Build their vocabulary. Challenge them to use new word in a sentence later in the day.

4. Work on their fluency. Read a book which was difficult for them couple of times.

And, of course, don’t forget to praise them for the progress they are making. Try to avoid the cliché “Good Job” though. Instead, try these phrases:

1. Praise for doing something right:

“I like the way you…”

“I had fun… today!”

“You should feel very proud of yourself for…”

“You learn so fast!”

“I really enjoyed working with you today because…”

“You are a great reader because…”

2. Encouraging a Struggling Reader:

“Great try at…”

“Don’t worry, you’ ll … next time!”

“Don’t give up on …! You’ ve almost mastered it!”

“You are getting better and better at… every day! You’ ve just got to keep trying!”

I can’t stress enough the support I had from Open Books site leaders and Program Directors! They were always around if volunteers had any questions and provided encouragement to Little Buddies. Open Books used Student Progress sheets that volunteers were required to fill out to track anything they could help with to make each session smoother.

Finally, nothing can compare to a child’s gratefulness and words like: “You are the coolest adult ever!” At the end of the program, the kids were asked to make the volunteers pictures or cards. This is what Angel made for me:

 angel pic

It’s us playing soccer. Unfortunately, I lose…J

In September I started Book Buddies program again at Mitchell Elementary School. This time it ran for a semester and involved third-graders. There are a few more things that I learned  about reading with kids:

 – If you are reading with two or more children, try acting scenes out(role-playing). It will make reading fun and prevent the kids from being bored waiting for their turn to read.

– Since the program ran for a few months, we could implement a system of encouragement for the Little Buddies. They got a sticker for every session they attended, and could redeem ten stickers for a free book of their choice. Sometimes I gave two stickers for one session if my Little Buddy went over the page goal we set up at the beginning of the session. That made my Little Buddies super excited!!!:)


Sweet Home, Chicago: Slam Poetry With Middle Graders.

     Hey, everyone! Summer is gone and the season for vacations and time away from my laptop is over. I had a very busy summer though volunteering at Open Books and taking part in almost every literacy program they had:) In the next blog posts I will share this experience with you.

    “Go Big or Go Home!”- these were the encouraging words that started each slam poetry performance at summer field trips on creative writing I was a part of. It means “express yourself to the fullest or leave”. Originated in Chicago as a competitive art of performance, slam poetry helped bring poetry into the masses and stop it from being still. All topics are safe and acceptable in slam; it explores what hurts the most and what is the most important for the author.

Slam is very popular in the Windy City. For instance, Young Chicago Authors(YCA) hosts Louder Than a Bomb Slam competition that gives young talent a chance to show themselves. At the field trips we used this video of Adam Gottlieb (a slam poetry star at YCA) to illustrate what an effective slam was:

A performance by Lamont Carey “I Can’t Read” is also a powerful example:

And so, at slam poetry field trips we taught our middle-graders to focus on WHAT they are saying with their work and most importantly HOW they are saying it, using body language, voice, and face expressions. The topics for their work the students could choose varied from the dreams for their future to their favorite activities. Since we asked them to describe something intangible,  we told them to use five senses to talk about it. To warm up the students, we first created class slam poems about happiness:

Happiness looks like a rainbow.

Happiness tastes like buttery waffles with syrup.

Happiness sounds like pop music on a sunny Saturday while sipping lemonade at the beach.

Happiness smells like cotton candy flavored gum. Yum!

Happiness feels like winning the World Series.

 …and summer:


To my surprise, when asked to write what they want to become, students’ answers ranged from a movie star or a cook to an astronaut. One girl touched my heart and the hearts of others when she wrote that the things she liked to do was not to feel medicine in her blood after she’d recovered from an illness…

Please, enjoy the poem about future dream my student and I created together:

My dream is to be a dancer.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream is bright like the stage lights when people applaud me after the dance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream tastes like a big piece of watermelon that my mother cuts for me on a summer morning.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream smells like a touch of a perfume before the dance performance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream looks like beautiful costumes made especially for me.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream feels like sore muscles after a tough training.

I want to become a dancer. I want to feel elevated.

“Colorful Me” Field Trip


My face.
Milk-tea brown.
I am brown. I am beautiful.
Your face.
Sienna brown
or cocoa brown,
café con leche brown or
radiant ocher brown.
Our hands, our fingers.
Cinnamon brown
or rich coffee brown,
sandalwood brown or rosy adobe brown.
Our ankles, our feet.
Nutmeg brown or mocha brown,
dark chocolate brown or tawny golden brown.
Our eyes.
Luminous topaz brown or sweet cappuccino brown,
shiny sepia brown or twinkling brown.
Our hair.
Spruce brown or bay brown,
russet brown or deep tamarind brown.
We are brown. We are beautiful.

From Tan to Tamarind:Poems About the Color Brown by Malathi Michelle Lyengar

My second field trip with Open Books was based on the book Tan to Tamarind and was dedicated to the idea that no matter what color is your skin, you are BEAUTIFUL! Each poem in the book celebrates different shades of the color brown  and the role it plays in many human experiences and rituals.

At the end of the workshop the 4th graders created their own poems describing the colors they associate themselves with.

Before writing their poems, the kids learnt about simile and metaphor because they had to craft metaphors to write the poems. Here are just a few examples of the beautiful descriptions students came up with:

“My lips are a smooth peach.”

“My hair is a bright morning sun.”

“My nails are a yellow sweet fresh melons which my mother brought from the market.”

“My eyes are two green ripe apples from my garden.”

It is always a great pleasure for me to work with children and inspire them to open up and share beautiful ideas they have!

Adventures In Creative Writing Field Trip

open books

Pencils raised in the air: “I am a writer! I have important stories to tell! I will not stop writing!” With this Author’s Pledge proclaimed by writing coaches and their students finished my first Adventures In Creative Writing Field Trip with Open Books. It was themed “Celebrating Our Loved Ones” and involved 4th graders from Monroe Elementary.  The task of the writing coaches-volunteers was to guide the students and help write their own small piece of prose about a person/thing they love at the end of the trip. Not only did the kids have to compose a story, but first learn the ways to depict a character. Funny and engaging field trip coordinator Julia talked about direct and indirect description, protagonists and antagonists in stories. In order to better illustrate the material students read and discussed extracts from “Matilda” and “Charlotte’s Web” where the main characters were masterfully described. As a practice before individual writing each group of students got a task to describe a random person on the picture given by Julia  – come up with his/her occupation, hobbies, likes and dislikes etc. Needless to say, I really enjoyed the kids’ boundless fantasy and enthusiasm to participate in the conversation. Their eyes lit up when the time came to write about their special people because they were given a chance to express their own thoughts, write about their own life. To guide them in the right direction, we gave the kids worksheets to fill out with questions to help the students “dig up their story”.  It was particularly amazing to connect with the shy ones and let them open up to you and turn on their imagination. I really enjoyed working individually with each student in my group and developing their story into a concise and engaging piece of writing. All stories were very touching, mostly about their teachers and mothers and showed an emotional depth of young people. At the end of the workshop ten students wearing a pencil costume (like on the picture) read their work to the applause of the audience.


The kids left proud of themselves, knowing that they became published writers-Open Books will type all the stories and make a book out of them. Copies will be given to the school and also distributed in the Open Books bookstore. Each student was also given a coupon for one free book which they could use at the Open Books bookstore and a personal journal where they could keep on writing.

All in all, it was a very fulfilling experience for me. I will keep you posted about other field trips I will take part in.

Volunteering in a local bookstore is an excellent way for beginning writers to observe their audience-kids, get creative with them and, of course, get some publicity. And you get to read books as much as you wish for free!:)

5765513620_888221e583_mThey say independent bookstores thrive to survive nowadays. It’s true only to some extent. “Open Books” in Chicago, IL that  I visited recently is an example of how a passionate work of volunteers through engaging programs can create a competing alternative to major bookstores not only because of the price of the books, but because of an extra value it creates for children and their parents. “Open Books” is a non-profit organization, which means almost all of its employees are volunteers. All profits from book sales are used to fund various educational and literacy programs.

It impressed me how many books the store had in every genre andIMG_2193[1] for kids of all ages! The most amazing thing was that all the books were donated! During the time I was in the store, four new boxes of books were brought in.


If you are from Chicago or an area nearby, it might be interesting to learn how you can volunteer and get closer to your potential audience in your community. Others can do long-distance volunteering with the “Open Books” or you can see which programs this bookstore has and find similar in your local venues.

The Store Manager Kevin took time to explain me about four major volunteering opportunities this bookstore provides. They are as following:

  1. Book Buddies. Being in a bookstore, I talked to volunteer Joan who did this a year ago. She was paired with a second-grader boy, and read books with him for over a year. She said, at first she would bring a box of books at the meeting and would spread them oIMG_2189[1]n the table in front of him. The boy  would pick which book they would read. After she learned that stories about Spongebob excited him, she would bring similar books to their “buddy readings”. It helped the boy to be passionate about reading and more consistent with the time he spent on it. Joan said that she noticed definite improvement in his reading techniques during a short period of time because she was always there to correct him when needed or explain a hard word. These meetings are usually held twice a week.

2. VWrite is a long-distance volunteering that can be done via emails or phone. It’s concentrated mostly on post-high school coaching on business writing (i.e. job applications, resume writing).

3. ReadThenWrite. This program is done by volunteering in specific classrooms in public schools. It’s a sort of a book club with a unique flavor. Members of the club meet every week to read a book. It’s usually picked up by the kids. Literacy coaches make surIMG_2195[1]e it’s related to a high school life. The second time they meet that week they focus on writing their own pieces which would be similar to the book they are reading with the help of the coaches. Kids also have a chance to publish their work.  They choose the pieces they want to see in print, and the bookstore publishes a compilation book with  “Open Books” then has an Author Event several times per semester when children present their book and make a public reading on the “stage” of the boostore. Every child-author gets a copy of the book;  it’s also sold in the store. Currently 3 schools participate in this program. Next Author Events: launching of the book “It’s All About  Awesome Poets” from Fairfield Academy will take place on February 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm in the bookstore; February 20, 2013 4:30-6 pm  7th and 8th grade students of Mitchell school will present an anthology of memoirs “Now You Know Us” inspired by David Klass’ s novel “You Don’t Know Me”.

4. Field Trips. 2-hour writing workshops are held in the classrooms at the bookstore and are also led by volunteering adult writers.  At the end of the workshop kids get to perform their work and get a feedback from their peers and a professional coach. There is a small entry cost; however, at the end of every meeting each child gets one coupon for a free book in the store.

Store volunteering opportunities are also available. Each volunteer is given three slots a month to choose from. Responsibilities will include assisting customers, making inventory (systemizing, shelving of the books), ranking the books, and many other.  To apply for any volunteering opporunity, just go to the bookstore website and fill out the form. After they contact you, you’ll be invited to attend one of their orientations where you can choose which days and hours you’ll work. Store volunteering is a great way to see what kind of books  in your specific genre kids like to read. And imagine what impact you might have on children in your community by simply spending time with them and reading!IMG_2186[1]


I already signed up for the volunteering in the store and can’t wait to start!

I hope you’ll also grab the opportunity and engage yourself in an amazing world of children’s literature in your local bookstore!