Literacy Under the Lights: 10 ways to bring the community back together

Returning to classrooms and community events after three years of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to rally communities in support of students’ literacy. Evidence from a recent Amplify research brief cites significant concerns about young children’s reading skills, suggesting a national literacy crisis that has grown more severe since the start of the pandemic. As schools look for ways to take action, it is vital to reimagine what supporting literacy can look like and to create enjoyable reading experiences for kids and families alike.

School districts and community volunteers have a unique opportunity to build excitement by partnering together and hosting events promoting literacy. Here in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, we combined our tri-county area’s love of football with our passion for reading by hosting an event that brought the two together: Literacy Under the Lights.

Inspired by the Crawford Central School District, as well as other school districts around the state of Pennsylvania and Remake Learning—a Pittsburgh-based network striving to transform education through a collaboration of community partners—Literacy Under the Lights took place on the football field at Greyhound Stadium.

Families with children of all ages were invited through school newsletters, social media, and community support to bundle up and bring books to swap. Upon arrival, families received a welcome bag and were greeted by football players and cheerleaders. Then they spread out on blankets to hear stories read by local volunteer readers, including area mayors, police officers, teachers, business owners, doctors, and a state representative.

Families also participated in a scavenger hunt and visited a book fair. There were literacy-resource tables that provided tips for grownups for successful reading at home; a “Leave a Book, Take a Book” book table; therapy dogs; and more. Thanks to a generous donation from the Lawrence County Community Action Partnership, every family also received books to bring home.

From the start, the Wilmington Area School District superintendent, Terence Meehan, completely supported this initiative. Not only did he and his family attend the event, but it was through his support and community connections that we were able to provide books for each family. Additionally, the district’s director of educational services (and varsity football coach) Brandon Phillian was instrumental in overseeing the football team and assisting with anything that was needed.

Finally, the Wilmington Area Elementary School principal, Allison Ciavarino, helped make our dream a reality. Principal Ciavarino provided the necessary communication among the many school partners and offered assistance and encouragement in bringing all of us together for a successful event.
Thinking about trying your own Literacy Under the Lights? Here is how you can get started:

10 easy steps to hosting your own Literacy Under the Lights

  1. Secure field and football/cheer (secure your location and theme)
  2.  Recruit readers and resource tables
  3. Partner with local colleges of education
  4. Funding is not required, but securing funding enhances the event
  5.  Market the event (invitation, RSVP link, social media)
  6. Select high-quality books to be read aloud
  7. Purchase books and determine book giveaways
  8. Acquire scavenger hunt items and raffle prizes
  9. Thank your volunteers
  10. Solicit community feedback

In an effort to remake learning, we looked to our own local education icon, Mister Fred Rogers, and what is now known as the “Fred Method.” Detailed in When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, the Fred Method provides a blueprint for building real-life “neighborhoods” where parents, educators, and neighbors work together on behalf of kids.

As Mister Rogers said, “attitudes are caught not taught.” By hosting Literacy Under the Lights, we sought to emulate this idea by offering a celebration of literacy and learning that brought our community together to “catch” a love for reading.

Jennifer L. Toney is a third-grade English Language Arts teacher at the Sharpsville Area School District in Pennsylvania, where she focuses on STREAMS-infused, digital and analog blended learning approaches to grammar and writing in a gamified literacy workshop. Twitter: @JENTONEY.

Tracy Andrews is a first-grade Language Arts teacher for the Wilmington Area School District in Pennsylvania. She has 33 years of experience working with children from birth to 6th grade. Twitter: @Tracyteach1.

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