Kids stomp and shimmy as iSchool Professor Michelle Martin starts them off with a song. They build sandcastles, make Japanese fish prints, and squeal with delight as they wrangle blobs of slime larger than their heads.
This is not your parents’ story time.
This is Read-a-Rama, Martin’s program that uses books as the springboard for hands-on activities, winning kids’ enthusiasm as it promotes early literacy.
On this evening, the theme is “Read-a-Rama Under the Sea.” Students from Martin’s LIS 598 class (History of Children’s and Young Adult Literature) read books such as “Sea of Dreams” and “Surprising Sharks” to children — ages 4 to 11 — who move from station to station, trying their hand at various book-related crafts.
The biggest hit seems to be the slime, a ghastly concoction of shaving cream, contact solution, food coloring and other ingredients that congeal into a slippery mass that kids take their turns attempting to tame.
As the children dance, listen to stories, and get their hands dirty, Martin’s students are right there with them, leading the kids through the activities they’ve designed.
“It's great because it’s student-driven in terms of what kind of books they want to choose and what kind of activities they want to do, so there’s a lot of collaboration,” Ph.D. candidate J. Elizabeth Mills says. “The students work together and decide what they want to offer that fits the program’s theme.”
The reward, Mills says, comes from connecting with kids and watching their excitement levels rise as they participate.
“I think one of the really nice things about the Read-a-Rama program is the connection between books and activities, so the books are more than just this object that you’re reading. They’re actually this world that you can create,” she says.
The program is fast-paced, following Martin’s mantra of “100 percent engagement, 100 percent of the time.” It’s the second such event since last fall, when Martin arrived as the iSchool’s Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services. She began the program in South Carolina in 2001 as an outreach project for children’s literature classes she taught at Clemson University. In 2009, the program branched out to weeklong summer day camps that Martin led in Clemson and Columbia, South Carolina, until she moved to Seattle and the UW in 2016.
The program partners with churches, libraries, and community centers with high populations of low-income children, who often suffer significant academic “slide” during summer months, and among schools with low reading proficiency levels.
This year, Read-a-Rama, Martin’s non-profit, has partnered with Compass Housing Alliance, which offers housing to formerly homeless families, and Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Read-a-Rama will offer two weeks of camp in July for children at Compass and Mary’s Place, a downtown Seattle homeless shelter. Martin plans to have more widespread camp offerings next summer.
Allison Bengfort, a pastoral intern at Gethsemane who will serve as camp staff this summer, sits among the children at Compass and adds another voice to Martin’s sing-alongs.
“I like how she does the music stuff,” Bengfort says. “I’m a music teacher, so I really appreciate that part. The students doing the readings are doing a really good job engaging the kids and asking them questions, and the kids are yelling out their answers, which is really fun.”
While it may look like fun and games, Martin has serious goals. She wants to establish Read-a-Rama as a national model for full-immersion literacy programming. To that end, she plans to seek a grant to start a national training program for designing and implementing Read-a-Rama programs.
In the near-term, she plans to branch out to serve not only kids at Compass, but elsewhere in Seattle – promoting literacy among kids from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and all ethnicities. Above all, she wants the camps to be inclusive and to serve kids whose families typically can’t afford summer camps.
“Ideally, I’d like sites that mix kids from all aspects of the community,” she says. “In six summers of programming, we’ve never turned away any child from not being able to afford camp, and that will continue to be a goal,” Martin says.