When Richmond Men Read, Kids Listen

When Ron Shaw stood up to read the children’s book, “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears,” his audience — second-graders at North Richmond’s Verde Elementary School — stared, giggled and raised their hands to ask questions.

Shaw thumbed through the pages of the West African tale, reading the colorful story about a mosquito who tells a lie to an iguana and annoys him. By the end of the story, the youngsters tugged at Shaw’s leg, their way of thanking him for coming to their class.

Shaw joined about 15 others who gathered at Verde for the Real Men Read program, in which men from a variety of professions, many who grew up in Richmond, have signed up to read in classrooms once a month. The program, part of a national initiative, has entered its second year at Verde.

The volunteers, mostly African American, offer a familiar message: Reading represents the foundation for all learning.

“This is nourishment for the kids, and letting them know that men do read and reading is fun,” Shaw said. “I always have a very good experience with the young people and I’ve been doing this the last two years.”

This year readers have visited the same class each month, allowing them to forge relationships with the students, while teachers select the books to reinforce what the students are already learning. Organizers say the volunteers become instant heroes for the children, who may not have someone to read to them at home, and that the program shows boys that men in all professions read for both work and relaxation.

“This is my responsibility,” Shaw said. “We are supposed to serve our kids, and whatever is going to make it better for them, we need to do it. Reading is a gift, and we’re letting students know that it can be fun and exciting.”

The program at Verde, launched by Rev. Cassandry Keys of the Davis Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, intends to put more men into the schools and in front of kids, some of whom lack positive male role models.

“Hopefully these readers will become mentors and give them hope that they can have a future outside of their current environment,” Keys said. “If we can get them interested in reading in elementary, those habits will continue in junior high and high school.”

She said she hopes other churches will consider partnering with Richmond elementary schools to continue the initiative across the city.

This school year, administrators have committed to improving literacy after testing revealed that student lagged two to three years behind grade level in reading skills. The Real Men Read program represents additional support, and school officials say students are checking more books out of the library and want to read more.

In February, Verde students read 2.4 million words — up from 1.2 million the month before. In March, students read 4.5 million words. Teachers say the students are voluntarily reading more books and that classroom disciplinary actions have declined.

“This is really showing my students that reading is a part of your life,” said Merrill Pierce, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Verde. “They are just listening and there is no need for behavioral management. This year so many people have come together to make reading the focus of the school, and the kids are so into it. My students care about how many words they are reading.”

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