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Watertown City School District will embrace one book to promote communitywide literacy

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WATERTOWN — The Watertown City School District will launch a districtwide literacy event called One District, One Book to engage the community in the life lessons of Humphrey the hamster and the coming-of-age story of a boy setting off to live in the wild.

“Everyone in the district will get the books,” North Elementary School Principal Irene V. Wilson said. “Students, teachers, the school nurse, custodians, cafeteria staff, everyone will be talking about what Humphrey’s lessons were for the day’s reading.”

The program will be showcased to parents and students at the Literacy Night on May 8 at Case Middle School.

“We’ll have a small introduction and the executive of the program, Gary Anderson, will come and talk for a few minutes,” Assistant Superintendent Mary-Margaret U. Zehr said.

On May 12, the program will officially launch during school assemblies. The students will get their books and reading will officially kick off. Students will read through June.

Mrs. Zehr said the premise of the campaign is to have one community embrace the same book at the same time and promote a culture of literacy in each home. The district will provide each student with a book, and parents will be asked to read one chapter a night with their children.

One District, One Book is a campaign organized by the Virginia-based nonprofit organization Read to Them. The organization’s goal is to encourage the public, particularly parents of young children, to read often and to promote community literacy.

Mrs. Zehr said the books were chosen through the organization’s recommended reading list. Children in kindergarten through fourth grade will read “The World According the Humphrey.” The book series is about a hamster named Humphrey who learns to read and write. The smart hamster learns in the classroom and every weekend goes home with a different student.

“The story about Humphrey has a lot of life lessons that are given in the book. Everyone who has read this book said they loved it,” Mrs. Zehr said.

Students in fifth and sixth grades will read “My Side of the Mountain,” the survival adventure of 12-year-old Sam Gribley. The book follows Sam as he decides to leave his life and family in New York City. He runs away to the Catskill Mountains to live by himself with only a penknife, a ball of cord, $40 and some flint and steel.

Mrs. Zehr said it was difficult to choose the right book for the older age group, but once the book received the recommendation of the school librarian, there was no other choice.

“The content is just so much deeper than other books we looked at,” Mrs. Wilson said. “It’s an adventure and a survival story.”

All five elementary buildings in the district will engage in activities at school. Mrs. Zehr said this will help the entire community to become engaged in learning.

“It is our hope that an at-home reading program will improve literacy skills by improving listening comprehension, increasing vocabulary, providing fluency models, promoting conceptual understanding and creating positive attitudes toward books,” Mrs. Zehr said.

Mrs. Zehr said 2,288 kindergarten through sixth-grade pupils will participate in the program. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County and the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library will also be community partners in the project.

“This is more than just a school project; it’s a community project,” Mrs. Zehr said.

It will be up to each classroom to decide what to do with the lessons. Mrs. Zehr said the teachers have jumped into the challenge of coming up with creative and interactive lessons with a lot of enthusiasm.

“Each classroom can do something different. Two teachers will be starting blogs students can interact with on the district website,” Mrs. Zehr said. “The kids really need to let go a little, and this will be a nice opportunity.”

Mrs. Zehr said with every staff member at the school reading the books, the students could be confronted with trivia while getting their lunch in the cafeteria or while walking in the hallways.

She said that by having the parents read with the children, they can explore the life lessons that Humphrey and Sam Gribley face.

“Maybe there is a similar situation going on at home, and reading the book together can open up dialogue about it,” Mrs. Zehr said.

The reading project won’t be for grades or state-mandated curriculum, Mrs. Zehr said; it will be a way for teachers and students to reconnect with creative fiction.

“There has been so much push for nonfiction reading in the Common Core modules,” Mrs. Zehr said. “This is a good opportunity to encourage reading for the love of reading.”

Information about the program can be found at: www.readtothem.org.

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