How Brussels Grows Young Readers
January 12, 2009
BRUSSELS, Belgium-Librarians have a vested interest in promoting literacy, and USAG Brussels librarian Linda Seibl is no exception. "I, of course, want folks to read so that librarians have jobs," she quipped. On a serious note, though, Seibl believes implicitly in the crucial role of literacy in fostering civil society.
In that regard, Seibl has long been concerned with several statistical trends showing declines in reading ability. "There are lots of reasons for this, but the core issue is that people are losing the habit of reading," she explained.
Seibl is no psychologist, but she strongly believes good reading habits, instilled early on, will stick with people. And "early on" means, literally, that. "The younger, the better," she said.
Seibl was therefore delighted, when, in January of 2008, a community member showed up in the garrison library and offered, as a volunteer, to run a youth reading program. Michelle Rothbauer was the wife of newly arrived USAG Brussels employee Patrick Rothbauer.
"Michelle approached me, explaining how she had run youth reading programs at her husband's previous postings in Wiesbaden and Vilseck. Her credentials were pretty impressive," said Seibl. But, more impressive than her credentials, Rothbauer clearly projected the very special child-friendly personality, which is critical to capturing the attention spans of really young children.
Rothbauer launched the program in mid-February with a "Make and Take a Craft" promotion. What do crafts have to do with reading' Rothbauer laughed, "It was a hook, pure and simple. Our target age group was the pre-school through Kindergarten group, and I wanted to get these really young kids to think of the library as a fun place they'd pester their moms to return to."
Some 15 small fry and 10 parents showed up for the first session, and evidently bit on her baited hook. "I think we won over the moms, who bring the kids here, and that let us get on with the real purpose of the program, which is getting really young kids hooked on reading."
The program has evolved into three Story Hours each Wednesday per month, with Rothbauer conducting the readings. Stories are the lead during these sessions, with a secondary craft related to the particular story.
"Michelle has been really thoughtful about these crafts," explained Seibl. For example, during Native American Heritage Week, the kids did paper cut-outs of the family in the story which we prominently displayed in the library."
The fourth session of the month is devoted entirely to a craft. "I try to strike a fine balance between getting the kids to grasp the joy of books while allowing for the shorter attention spans they have at this age," said Rothbauer.
Judging by attendance figures and a very steady and loyal base of patrons, Rothbauer seems to have achieved the right balance. Brussels Garrison commander, Lt. Col. Darin Conkright, has even stated publicly (and tongue-in-cheek), "I've gotten complaints about shortage of parking in the garrison on Wednesday afternoons caused by the Story Hour."
He added, however, "I can live with that."
What do parents think' Lisa Gaulke has been bringing 4-year old Thad to Story Hour since the program's inception. "He really enjoys it, and his interest in books, and reading and being read to has definitely gone up. And it's really a treat for me to bring him to the library and interact with my friends."
Karen Umlang has likewise been bringing 4-year old Kathrin to Story Hour since the program started. "Michelle has done a fantastic job. Kathrin loves going to Story Hour. It's so well-organized, and she enjoys the combination of stories and crafts, and the opportunity to meet her peers. And Michelle has a special talent for keeping the kids' interest level up."
Does the program achieve its stated purpose' "You bet," is Umlang's emphatic answer. "Because of the positive image of the library, which Michelle has created in my daughter's mind, I bring Kathrin to the library three other days a week. Since there are no crafts offered when I take her there, well, I think you have your answer."
Rothbauer has also spearheaded several other library young reader initiatives. She agreed to run the library's summer reading program for the 6-10 year olds.
"We had some 60 kids participate in this once weekly, hour-long, five week summer program," said Seibl. "Michelle broke the kids down into age-appropriate groups and organized other volunteers and our summer hires as readers. This was a hugely popular program."
Rothbauer also organized a special Reading Incentive program for the month of October, targeting elementary school ages. At the invitation of Brussels American School librarian, Carol-Ann Whipple, Rothbauer came to the school and briefed several classes about this program.
"The kids each kept a log of minutes read," she explained. "The minutes equated to a certain number of miles, and the miles were graphically shown on a large map of Europe we posted in the library, with each child having a cutout car named to him or her. And the children were able to track their progress in reading their way from one European capital to another."
As a special incentive, Rothbauer arranged for the Brussels Consignment Shop to fund several desirable prizes distributed by drawing, which only participating children were eligible for. "Hey, Michelle has shown that a few rewards can work," said Seibl, who described herself as "old-fashioned" and "not drawn to gimmicks."
"If a child will read for the chance to win a portable DVD player, well, I'm all for it!"
"This has clearly been a labor of love for Michelle," said Seibl. "Not only have the kids responded overwhelmingly to her enthusiasm, but she's been a terrific organizer."
Seibl has been particularly impressed with Rothbauer's attention to detail and solicitude. "Michelle's choice of Wednesday afternoons for Story Hour was no accident," she explained. "A surprising number of our parents have children in Belgian pre-K and K programs, and Wednesday afternoons are no-school periods. Michelle has deliberately brought them into the fold."
What of the future' "The bad news is a promotion is moving the Rothbauer family from Belgium," said Seibl. "The good news is that Michelle has laid strong community foundations for the continuation of the initiatives she launched. I'm confident we'll be able to keep these great programs going." Rothbauer is sorry to be leaving, but said, "Fort Belvoir has a library."