Ciara Joseph – People Ops at BookNook and Reading Guide Extraordinaire

I want to live a day in the life of a Reading Guide…

That’s what I found myself countlessly saying when I started my PeopleOps journey at BookNook.  I heard great things about our application that was created to support children’s reading. I was shown how it was being used in local schools, but needed to see it all happen in the flesh.  I had far too many questions. I was emailing and calling colleagues to find out more details about how our program worked, but still didn’t have a solid picture in my mind of what exactly a reading guide’s purpose was.

I wanted to live a day in the life of a reading guide. Just one day was all I thought I needed to gain a better understanding of what they actually did. That one day led to months of 45-minute sessions, genuine conversations, newfound respect for school officials, and a sad farewell.

My reading guide journey began in January. Buena Vista-Horace Mann needed a reading guide early mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Because we have a great employee volunteer program, I decided that this would be a great way for me to help out in our community. My manager agreed, and the next day I headed over to BVHM to shadow another reading guide. 

The minute I entered the school I was reminded of my own elementary school.

It smelled the same, the people there looked familiar, the sounds of laughter and mix of English and Spanish filled the halls and school yard.  I was taken aback by a feeling – or a thought – that this is where I’m intended to be. In this very same school, on this day, at this time, a voice in my head just said “This is where you’re meant to be.”  I didn’t understand it, I thought maybe I was just overwhelmed with the happiness I felt from others at the school and was just happy to be somewhere that felt good. I met a few teachers that day along with the school coordinator and office administrators. Everyone greeted me as “Maestra” (Teacher). I remember feeling uneasy, because I hadn’t gained that level of respect yet. Also, I wasn’t actually a teacher, I was just an HR person volunteering at a school. But, I went along with it. I greeted other teachers in the same respectful manner and spoke to those I met about BookNook and our purpose at the school.  

Serving as a reading guide came naturally to me. I’m an avid reader and was excited to see how our app tracked each student’s reading development. As a mom of a 10 year old, I was happy that I’d be reading with students that were around my daughter’s age. The students were all shy to meet me and had many questions about the previous reading guide and why they had missed sessions. I explained the circumstances and how I’d be reading with them until I hired someone for the position.  Never did I think I’d get to spend the rest of the school year working with them. While the months passed, I unknowingly started to bond with the students during our reading sessions and that was something too that I didn’t foresee.

My early mornings started with my daughter and I commuting on BART from Oakland to San Francisco. The greatest thing about these mornings were that we’d have enough time to grab a cup of lavender tea and a danish from Cafe la Boheme right before school started for the both of us. If the weather was nice, we’d take our time walking down the streets of The Mission District and then up the hills of Noe Valley until it was time for us to part ways.

I was very enthusiastic on these mornings, to say the least. Knowing that I was in the same vicinity as my child, could walk her to school, then teach at a school in the same neighborhood I was raised in, ignited something in me. It somehow seemed to satisfy a thirst for something I never knew existed.

When arriving to BVHM, I’d sign in for the day, then checkout iPads from the school’s lab room. I’d then head to the assigned classroom I was to teach at that day. On Tuesdays, I had the pleasure of using Mr. Frank’s classroom. I now realize that I don’t even know the teachers by their last names. Another great thing about the school is most of the teachers go by first names and allow their students to address them as such. Cool teachers, very cool!

Mr. Frank reminded me of an older cousin. Very down to earth, passionate about teaching and making a difference in the community, funny, and full of life. I’d see him often outside of the classroom, walking the halls and chatting with staff or giving advice to past students of his while keeping a smile on his face and having a few laugh out loud moments. It was apparent to me that Mr. Frank was definitely someone the whole school knew and adored.

On Thursdays, I held reading sessions in the ever so popular, Mira’s classroom.

Mira, was the teacher that kids would come in before school just to see. The classroom was inviting. There was a special zen about Mira’s room that made me feel naturally at ease the minute I saw the succulents that covered the window panes and the cotton braided rug laid out on the floor. Student’s artwork filled the walls along with posters that made me think, “Wow, this teacher is Woke!” -Woke is an African American Vernacular English expression referring to an individual’s perceived or continued awareness regarding social and racial justice issues.

I noticed the attention to detail she put into classroom rules and daily lesson plans that also filled the room. I enjoyed seeing how she translated plans into Spanish and hearing how she spoke compassionately to parent’s in their native tongue.

Though I didn’t get much free time to chit chat with both teachers during reading sessions, I was happy to have had a few good short conversations with them before and after sessions. They both spoke openly about their love for teaching and how rewarding their role was at BVHM. They spoke highly of their students and special events going on at the school. They were all around very welcoming and complete advocates for the youth. Seeing how they spoke to students and how they treated them and their family reassured me that I was in the right place.

My students were split into two groups. My first group started at 8:00am and I was joined by two fourth grade boys. Those two boys were usually my caffeine shots in the morning. They came in with so much character, and Tuesdays served as the informative, “tell me what’s been up” days. We’d share stories before reading, going around a small table, sharing what we did over the weekend or what’s been going on during the week. Our conversations would go from English to Spanish and I’d find myself resorting to English everytime I forgot how to say a certain word in Spanish. Each time, they’d help put me right back on track! Later in the school year we were joined by two more students who added a nice dynamic to our early reading sessions. My second group would join me at 8:45am and was a nice mix of students from different grades. They too kept me on my toes with stories we’d share and them letting me know what new fads were in, or what popular video games I should be playing.

I was surprised to see how natural reading was for them. I was happy to see them take the lead and volunteer to read first, stop to help another reader, or offer words of encouragement to their classmates. They came in each morning eager to read, eager to learn, and eager to teach and learn from one another. We spoke openly after reading sessions and shared our true thoughts on the material we read and the overall layout of the application. The students were never shy to tell me what they enjoyed or disliked about the program and I was happy to know they were comfortable doing so. While reading, we focused often on expression and comprehension. Students who at one point were reading almost robotically slowly started to express the true nature of the sentences they were reading. They started to sit higher in their chairs. Sharpening their voices, clearing their throat before it was their turn. Some even took on voice impersonations and narrated as if they were performing a show for all to see. This too brought a sense of joy to me, to see kids on their own acting while learning and gaining a new level of confidence while doing that. When we worked on comprehension, we focused on explaining the story in our own words and then pulling pieces from one another’s perspective of the story. We answered questions together and talked about parts we may have not understood, then would go back and reread the page together for more clarity.

Through the months I was able to closely monitor each student’s reading and leveling results. I was happy to see that all of my students were making progress and reading at higher levels than when they started. The reward I felt in being there just twice a week has been huge and has greatly impacted me. I’ve gained a better understanding of the importance of not only reading, but having a reading guide available when needed. It’s taught me the true importance of having teachers in classrooms, teacher’s aides to help when needed, and volunteers that can step in when teachers are out stretched. Though I was only at BVHM for five months, I left feeling like part of the faculty there. The students and staff left an everlasting impression on me and as the school year ends, I’ll be sad to no longer be there.

Yet, I’m hopeful for the future and looking forward to crossing paths with everyone there again and hope to be able to volunteer there some time soon.