Reading Mentors Program: SMC students volunteer at local library

“The Giving Tree,” “The Rainbow Fish,” and “Captain Underpants” all sparked their attention. Never before have you seen kids so elated over books. Sparkling eyes and a smile, the children’s faces lit up as they scanned each page of their favorite books.

Santa Monica College students and SMC Philosophy Professor Steven Kaufman have established a Reading Mentors Program in conjunction with the Santa Monica Library Fairview Branch. The program was developed for kids ages 4-12 as an outlet for them to read and discuss literature with student mentors. The intention is to delve deep into the books, discussing the philosophy and morals behind the stories, which is the exact objective in Kaufman’s Philosophy 24 class, Philosophy in Children’s Literature.

The library already had similar group discussions for select age groups, but nothing in the fashion of a wide age range of kids coming together for the same goal. Kaufman assigns service learning projects in his Philosophy class, but his inspiration for this program actually came from his 2-year-old son, Vincent, who also joins the group some Saturday mornings. Having a kid changed his life and stemmed his motivation to look deeper into children’s literature.

Developed in October, the program has held four sessions to date and 10 students have grouped up to mentor a total of 22 kids. The students are divided up into age appropriate groups according to grade and are provided 1-2 student mentors. Every Saturday, the students and the children meet from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The Santa Monica Library already has a built-in established community, so they didn’t have to reach out to neighboring schools. “Parents take their kids here after soccer practice, or in the morning to get some books,” said Kaufman. “This way they can do some engaged, shared reading.”

In Kaufman’s Philosophy 24 class, students volunteered to participate in the program and what started off as a small group is already building. In fact, the children's attendance has more than doubled since the program had its first session.

Stacy Nunez, English major, works with kindergarten students. Although they are still learning how to read, she says the underlying messages in the books are still able to sink into their subconscious. The values and themes the kids learn through the readings are designed to help them in their everyday life. “We’re reading The Rainbow Fish and you could either see it as sharing and a sense of community, or having to give up something of yourself.”

The students are studying children’s literature, and while the ideas may seem quite simple, they have to discuss the different themes with the kids. Although the writing in the books is often sugarcoated for children, the kids have been very blunt about what they have read, said Eliot Oppenheimer, Communications major. “They tend to see right through it, but sometimes it slips by.”

Eliot’s group is reading Puff, The Magic Dragon and it’s about how you shouldn’t let your fears stand in your way. “Puff is actually this boy’s own imagination and coaxing him out of his own shadow and how an imaginary friend can actually be beneficial.”

In his service learning requirement, Kaufman is not only having his students volunteer, but he is challenging them to think more critically. The students are supposed to get out of their comfort zone and think about more than just themselves. It is a give and take relationship, he described. “It’s not just passive, it’s actively engaged. Students will start off by reading a page, then the kids will read a page, then they discuss.”

Not all students were initially thrilled about the service learning requirement, like Michelle Ravensky, English Literature major, however she and others found that in the long-term they actually enjoyed it. “You build a relationship with these kids and it’s hard to break it, especially since I work with kids as a swim instructor. I already have that established relationship,” said Ravensky.

Erica Cuyugan, Library manager, loves the energy when you walk in. “I love seeing a room full of kids in different age groups all talking excitedly about books.” This program isn’t something she’s seen while working for eight years in the library system.

While they won’t receive credit, Kaufman said that some of his students are already thinking about coming back to the library to volunteer in the winter and in the spring semesters.

“It’s about creating the generation of our future in teaching these kids to become better people and better leaders,” Kaufman exclaimed. “If you give them the opportunities, then they will thrive.”

If you’d like to find out how you can volunteer for this program, you can contact Professor Kaufman or the Santa Monica Library-Fairview Branch.

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