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READING

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As he began his assignment in a kindergarten class, a volunteer wondered skeptically how much good could come of it. The answer soon became obvious.

May 14, 2000|ROBERT BROWNING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I said goodbye to my kids the other day.

As with most farewells, there were tears and hugs, even some laughs. It was sad knowing that I would never again see their sweet faces on a regular basis--if at all.

But time goes by, situations change, people pass through your life and out again--a lesson they perhaps just learned and one I certainly relearned.

I am not a parent. "My kids" are the 5- and 6-year-olds I read to for the last year at Magnolia Avenue Elementary School as part of The Times' Reading by 9 program. Kindergarten was over for them at the year-round school, so it was on to vacation and then first grade.

I discovered how rewarding reading to little children can be during my post-college, "what am I going to do with the rest of my life" days. I was considering a library career, so I got a job at the Whittwood Branch Library in Whittier to find out what working in the stacks is really like. One of my duties was reading during the weekly story time. The children's response to my offerings is one of my fondest memories of that experience.

Also, volunteerism had been on my mind ever since my minister used to preach it from the pulpit. So when Reading by 9 started, it seemed like a natural fit.

The program offers two choices for service: tutoring individual children or reading aloud to whole classes. I was willing to do either, but was assigned to read to a Magnolia class.

The Times provided training. A woman with extensive storytelling experience gave us many useful tips, such as changing your tone of voice to fit the dialogue and asking the children questions about the story as it unfolds.

So, armed with that knowledge and my own experience, off I went.

As with many suburbanites, the closest I usually get to the inner city--outside of downtown--is driving by on the freeway. I must admit that when I got my assignment, I thought about the teacher hit by a stray bullet in a South-Central school's library several years ago.

And my school is in the Pico-Union district, which tends to be accompanied by the terms "gang-infested" and "drug-plagued"--and more recently "Rampart scandal"--when in the news.

But what I found was a well-maintained campus of bright classrooms, energetic children, a bustling playground and dedicated teachers. In many ways, it was just like thousands of other schools across the country.

I also found more familiarity with English than I had expected. I had figured that my kids would probably be from poor immigrant families and not have heard much besides Spanish at home. I envisioned using simple books in which I would basically point to objects and give their English names.

Wrong.

These kids knew surprising amounts of English when the year began and a lot more when it ended. There were times when the teacher would translate a word or phrase that I said, but for the most part we communicated effectively in English. They certainly knew how to say, "I like it," about books I read to them, or "I love you" as I prepared to leave after a visit.

They also could recognize by sight some of the words in the books; and from the comments each made in a special notebook they gave me at our final meeting last month, I know they can write.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been battered repeatedly by stories about low test scores, dilapidated buildings, lack of textbooks, a high school being built on unsafe land. That is all true, but if my class is any indication, there's still a lot of learning going on.

And not just among the students. In a good pedagogical relationship, both teacher and pupil learn, as educators have been saying for centuries.

Besides getting a new view of inner-city life, I learned quite a few Spanish words and phrases, from Que es eso? (What is that?) to lluvia (rain) to Hasta la semana que viene (See you next week).

Some of my language lessons had their comical elements.

When I was reading to the class about Penguin Pete, a mischievous bird who lives in Antarctica, a couple of children kept pointing at the ice and saying (or so I thought) "yellow." Well, the only yellow thing in that picture of ice and penguins and sky was the birds' beaks. "No," I said, pointing to the bills, "these are yellow." But the kids were insistent. I finally turned to the teacher, Andrea Giacusa, who had been busy with other work, and asked if what sounded like yellow meant something in Spanish. She smiled and said, "Oh, yes, hielo means 'ice.' "

*

Then there was the time I decided to try reading a bilingual book about an English-speaking girl and a Spanish-speaking nina who become friends. I don't speak Spanish, but I generally know how to pronounce it.

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