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Program promotes reading and creativity

SHARING A LOVE OF READING — The Brooke County West Virginia University Extension Service is again using art and other activities to encourage youth to take an active interest in reading. Working with children in the summer program being held at Brooke High School are, from left, mentors Emily Sloat, Lacey Keith, Stephanie Fiber and Zane Gray and site supervisor Stephanie Silver. -- Warren Scott

WELLSBURG — Brooke County youth are drawing on a variety of children’s books to produce their own writing and art under the direction of local college students who also are learning through the experience.

All are participating in Energy Express, one of about 80 summer reading programs held throughout the state by the West Virginia University Extension Service.

Over several weeks, children in grades 1-4 have been reading books related to five themes — my self, my family and friends, my home, my community and making the world a better place.

They are overseen by mentors hired through the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program, who guide them in creating drawings or paintings inspired by the books, write about characters and themes from the stories and participate in other creative activities.

The aim is to encourage the children to relate personally with the books in some way and create a stimulating atmosphere by involving them in hands-on activities.

Lacey Keith, a sophomore education major at West Liberty University serving as a mentor, said after reading Nick Bland’s “The Very Hungry Bear,” about a bear in search of a home, she challenged the children to write about how their own house makes them feel.

She also keeps a jar of Popsicle sticks on which she wrote various creative activities. When one of the children finishes the primary task early, they can draw one of the sticks to determine their next task.

“To them, that’s very exciting. I’ve also told them they can draw whatever they want, but they really enjoy drawing an activity from the can,” said Keith.

Keith gained firsthand experience working with children as a student in Brooke High School’s early childhood education program, aimed at future teachers and daycare owners and staff.

But because of the pandemic, she hasn’t undergone student teaching as a college student, so she welcomed the opportunity to work with children in Energy Express.

Stephanie Fiber, an elementary education major at WLU, said after reading Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” “I asked them to write about what they would do if they were king or queen of the wild things.”

In her third year with Energy Express, Fiber said it was much different last year because of the pandemic.

“We did (virtual) Zoom meetings with the children and they had packets with activities they could do,” said Fiber.

She noted there were logistical challenges, including arranging for parents to pick up the activity packets and children who lacked access to the Internet, and she and others are happy to be back in the classroom, face to face with the children.

Jason Rine, the WVU Extension agent overseeing the Brooke County program, said last year’s mentors were able to conduct a community service project as was done in the past.

It was the planting of a community garden at the nearby Brooke Middle School, which the current mentors are maintaining.

Stephanie Silver, site supervisor for the Brooke County program, said this year’s program also was different because part of it coincided with the school district’s summer school program.

To reinforce virtual instruction provided when schools were ordered to close, the summer school program involved more students than in years past.

Silver said during the first four weeks, Energy Express’ mentors assisted the summer school teachers with classroom activities and joined the children for swimming, dancing and games of basketball and volleyball that served as a healthy break from their instruction.

Silver, who teaches at Brooke Primary South during the school year, said it was good for the mentors, many of whom are preparing for careers in teaching, to observe the summer school staff at work.

“I really liked their being in summer school because they got that experience,” she said.

Zane Gray, a music education major at West Virginia University, said it was good preparation for having the children under his direction when summer school ended.

Then, with the cooperation of Brooke County school officials, the mentors were able to use a cafeteria at the high school and four adjacent classrooms, which they decorated in various themes, often with the children’s help.

Gray pointed to cardboard toadstools taped to the floor that form the “mushroom reading circle” in his fairy tale forest-themed classroom, while Keith set up an inflatable pool floater in the corner of her ocean-themed room to serve as her group’s reading nook.

Mentor Emily Sloat, who recently earned a degree in education from Western Governor’s University, said of the program, “It’s been fun. We’ve gotten to do a lot of creative things and they read a lot of books, which I really like. It’s given me new ideas for teaching reading and art.”

Sloat said the children also have enjoyed it. “A lot of them are really into it, especially the craft. They really like the books and the arts,” she said.

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