Connecting with children: ‘Bookleggers’ group encourages kids to read

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Jan Knutson shares Beloit Public Library books with Todd third graders in Rachelle Brown-Clardy’s classroom. Knutson is part of the Book Leggers Program which introduces more challenging books to students.

With over three decades of experience as a teacher, it’s safe to say that Jan Knutson really loves teaching kids.

So after she retired, she was looking for ways to stay active in the community and remain connected with children.

“When I was in the classroom, one of my favorite things was to read to kids and find good books that they liked,” Knutson said.

So Knutson decided to get involved with the Bookleggers program at the Beloit Public Library, a program that takes people into local third grade classrooms. They present books to the kids that they might not otherwise read.

The over 20-year-old program began as a way of connecting kids who might not otherwise be able to make it to the library to the books available, said Jeni Schomber, head of Youth Services for the library. It also helped expose students to new books, both fiction and non-fiction.

“We try to pick things that are actually not necessarily the most popular, because if they’re going to be reading, they’ll be drawn to the most popular anyway,” Schomber said. “So if ‘Diary of a Whimpy Kid’ is what’s most popular, we might find an older title that’s similar to that. It’s kind of like it, but a little outside of their comfort zone.”

The way it works is volunteers from the community or library staff have a backpack of at least six titles with multiples of each title, depending on the classroom size.

Books are typically chosen based on the classroom’s reading level, with a few changes, Schomber said. So, some will be slightly below and some are slightly above a third grade reading level.

“We have a lot of kids and we want to make sure we’re reaching each of them,” Schomber said.

From September to April, volunteers go to different third grade classrooms in the school district, Our Lady Assumption and Townview Elementary with the same books and give a book talk. This may involve telling a bit about the book, providing a little research or reading a chapter from the book. The backpacks are left for the entire month so students have time to read more than one title and can even read them with classmates.

Knutson said one of her favorite moments during her time in the program was when she gave a book talk on a book about the Titanic. She said students enjoyed hearing the local connection that someone from Beloit was on the ship.

“They all like the Titanic anyway, but then when they can relate to someone close by … I like to think that it makes it more fun and more alive for the students,” Knutson said.

However, if certain books aren’t being read, volunteers might switch them out or change how they present the books to students, Knutson said.

The program culminates with a special field trip in May: The library uses grant money to bus kids to the library for a book talk, tour and a little time outside the classroom.

She said the program was a great way to connect with kids and encouraged anyone to volunteer.

“Come and see what a difference it can make just by presenting books to kids, getting them fired up and getting them excited about reading,” she said.

For more information about the program or to volunteer, call the library at 608-364-2905.

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