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Teens help spread the joy of literacy

The Brooklyn Paper
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In a small library at St. Francis Xavier Elementary School, 763 President St., surrounded by biographies and storybooks of every variety and just beneath a sign that read, “Books – the company your mind keeps,” teens met tweens as part of a program to promote literacy.

Teens Teach Reading matches up seniors from St. Edmund Preparatory High School, 2474 Ocean Avenue, with elementary school students in an effort to get youngsters excited about reading and writing, while providing them with a mentor who is close in age.

“They are having so much fun that they don’t even realize that this is part of the learning process,” said Joan Kowkabany, an English teacher and reading specialist at St. Edmund, who developed the program. “It’s a completely different interaction than when they are with a teacher.”

In September, the teens and tweens sent letters to each other introducing themselves and agreeing to be pen pals. Then in subsequent letters the teens would encourage the tweens to read, stress the importance of education, and answer any questions the youngsters had about high school.

“We feel, as teenagers, we have a better perspective on what they’re interested in, and we’ll help them learn and develop more,” said Alexandra Hardej, 17. “I really enjoy the program because it has given me the opportunity to learn and interact with younger children.”

Her tween partner, Armani Edgar, 9, reads a lot more since joining the program but admits that detective stories are her favorite. “I’ve learned to read books and understand them very well,” she said. “And I learned not to be shy.”

The teens would often send books over for their tweens to read. The most popular have been Encyclopedia Brown, a series of children’s novels about a boy detective who uses his superior intelligence to solve mysteries, and the Cam Jansen mystery series, which follows a girl detective who uses her photographic memory to solve cases.

This was the first time the teens and tweens had met in person after a semester of written correspondence. After happily chatting and sharing stories, it was time to get to work. They sat together in groups and read Aseop’s fables.

“My favorite fable was ‘The Lion is in Love,’ because it’s about a lion that falls in love with a human and she’s afraid of him because of his big, sharp teeth and claws,” explained Symone Henry, 9.

After examining the moral or life lesson presented in each story, the teens helped their partners write and illustrate an original fable.

“Working with little kids is a lot of fun,” said Giuseppi Badalamenti, 18, who was inspired to join the program because of how much a sibling had helped him. “My older brother taught me how to speak English because I only knew how to speak Italian growing up.”

The Teens Teach Reading program is in its third year, but this is the first time that the St. Edmund seniors had worked with a school other than St. Edmund Elementary.

“I would love not only to have it again, but for it to be a school−wide program and include other grades and have more seniors involved,” said Claire Kowkabany, whose fourth−grade class participated in the program. “It has had such a positive effect. They love it. They could not breathe coming down the stairs. They were so excited.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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