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Connecting Families Through Reading

 

For many, reading to your child is as natural of a part of their early development as is learning to use a spoon and tie their shoes. Those precious storytimes spark the imagination, increase cognitive ability, develop language skills, and create an emotional connection.

But what happens to that opportunity when a parent or family member is in another state or on the other side of the world serving in the military?

Cruze family reading a book

Cassandra, Noah and Eli Cruz are ready to read a story. 

United Through Reading was founded 30 years ago to foster relationships through the intimacy of reading for military families that are separated by deployment or military assignment.

“This is an opportunity to make a connection, while promoting literacy,” said Alex Malone, District 49’s Military Student Transition Consultant.

D49 began the program in January and has already helped more than 40 military families record books.

“When family members are on deployment, they are missed. This program fills a gap in their lives,” Malone said.

Participating D49 elementary students are provided with a free Kindle which has the United Through Reading app. The Kindles are paid for through IGNITE, a Department of Defense Education Activity funded grant.

A family member (parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin, sibling) can download the United Through Reading app to their smartphone or tablet and record themselves reading a picture book, a children’s book or a chapter book. The video is sent to the student’s Kindle app where the child can watch a family member read the story. The student can also follow along with a free hard copy of the book.

Then, the child can record themselves reading some pages, a chapter or an entire story, and send the new video back. The reading video exchange can continue until the book is finished, or with new stories.

If needed, Malone is available to help record the first video. Family members can come to his office where he sets them up in a comfy chair next to bookshelf full of possibilities. The video is sent to the family and it is loaded into the app.

“I tell them this is a connection, not a performance,” Malone said. “They don’t have to read the story perfectly. It’s OK to be nervous, to struggle. What is important is that you are working at it, continuing to move along. Kids can see parents sounding out words, which can help them.”

The family can set their own goals to read a certain number of stories or chapters. The program has a list of suggested books and ebooks. Or the family can read their favorites.

“One person recorded a holiday book,” Malone said. “We’re encouraging a positive attitude toward reading, even if it’s not perfect. It’s more about the connection than the books. The student can see mommy or daddy reading and learn.”

Capt. Hall reads a book

Capt. Michael Hall is reading "Chasing Space" by Leland Melvin.

 

Air Force Capt. Michael Hall has two children at Meridian Ranch Elementary, Marcus a fourth-grader, and Maxwell, a first-grader. He recently recorded his first book for his boys.

“Reading is important to our family,” Hall said. “I wasn’t a strong reader when I was young. When I was older, I started to see its importance. I was a late bloomer. We wanted to encourage our kids, give them a head start.”

Marine Corp Staff Sgt. Ernesto and Cassandra Cruz have two children, Noah, a first-grader, and Eli, a kindergartener, at Springs Ranch Elementary.

In the past, Ernesto would read stories and record videos on a smartphone. But he would have to record them before he left for assignments because the video files were too large to send, according to Cassandra. This meant the boys listened to the same stories over and over.

“We just came up with that idea on our own,” Cassandra said. “When you’re in the military you have to come up with different strategies to keep your family connected. We just didn’t know about this program. This will be great.”

Staff Sgt. Cruz, currently in Illinois, will be able to record himself reading a story and send it to his children via the app. He can record and send as many videos as the boys would like. Noah and Eli picked out Star Wars and Black Panther books for him to read.

“This is a lot easier than prerecording videos,” Cassandra said.

Malone said, “It doesn’t have to be mom or dad reading. You define your family. The only requirement is that it is a kindergarten through fifth-grade student in D49 and is part of a military family.”

The Kindle isn’t just for reading. Students can download other educational apps to help with other classes like math.

“Tablets are provided, along with additional educational resources to further promote and share the love of reading and foster connection,” said Mary Velasquez, District 49’s IGNITE project manager. “We feel very fortunate to be supporting those families who serve us.”

This is the fourth year District 49 of the IGNITE grant, which is providing opportunities to focus on college and career readiness through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs.

“We want to expose and excite our elementary students to STEAM opportunities,” Velasquez said. “But we noticed reading and literacy gaps. The United Through Reading program will help us foster a love for reading.”

“It’s educational and emotional,” Malone said. “For the family, it can be a special private moment. Sometimes there is a heart tug. I had a captain reading, “Wherever You Go My Love Will Find You.” He got choked up. He was thinking about his kids. Making that connection through reading was touching. His kids are going to hear his voice.”

“I was almost in tears listening to a father read to his daughters,” Velasquez said. “There are such strong emotions connected to their words as they read.” 

For more information or to participate, contact Alex Malone at (719) 495-1149 ext. 1022 or by email at con-amalone@d49.org.

 

The Military Student Transition Consultant is a full time, highly specialized education professional embedded within District 49, able to support students, parents and school personnel on a daily basis. The MSTC is trained, supported, and managed by MCEC®. This position has been made possible by the generous support of the Department of Defense Education Activity through the 2016 BRIGHT Initiative.