A child's education starts long before they enter a classroom, and The Indianapolis Public Library is gearing up to meet the educational needs of young children in new ways. Shael Weidenbach, IndyPL’s early literacy specialist, is launching Reading Ready, an initiative modeled after Every Child Ready to Read, an education program by the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association. Reading Ready follows Every Child Ready to Read’s five practices: reading, singing, writing, talking, and playing. Research shows that when caregivers nurture these early literacy skills, children are more successful in Kindergarten. By refreshing the Reading Ready brand, Weidenbach hopes to highlight the small things caregivers can do with young children to promote literacy and lifelong learning.
Reading Ready will unify The Library’s early childhood programs, such as “Bunny Book Bags” and “1,000 Books Before Kindergarten,” under one umbrella to make it easier for parents and caregivers to find and access programming. In addition, Weidenbach says this initiative will create equity for our youngest patrons.
According to the American Federation of Teachers, a child is 90% more likely to remain a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade if the child is a poor reader at the end of first grade. While studying for her Master's in urban education at Georgia State University, Weidenbach became passionate about equity. Throughout her career as a teacher and educator, she noticed disparities and felt working with the youngest of children would level the playing field.
“I gravitated towards the youngest children. I was fascinated by the ways in which they acquire knowledge,” said Weidenbach. “I loved all of those ah-ha moments, and I learned so much from them. It was such a fulfilling experience.”
Weidenbach said that children from differing socioeconomic backgrounds often approach assignments from different lenses. For example, while working on a painting activity a child from a high income bracket compared their painting to artwork in a museum, while another child compared painting to mixing food.
“The child said, ‘It’s kind of like when you mix your ketchup and mustard together and it looks all weird. But it still tastes good,’” Weidenbach said. “By talking and playing together, these children were broadening their background knowledge; building vocabulary to provide for a richer understanding of the world around them.” Weidenbach says equity will be at the forefront of her vision for Reading Ready.
An Evolving Vision
Weidenbach’s vision for Reading Ready is constantly evolving. She’s been speaking with librarians about their goals and learning more about library science.
“Our early childhood programs have three audiences: children under age five, caregivers, and educators,” said Weidenbach. “Reading Ready programs are designed to stimulate and engage young learners, while simultaneously benefitting the adults in the room – modeling reading aloud, showing how drumming a rhythm can help children hear syllables, demonstrating engaging simple games to play at home.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Library’s early education programs are currently virtual. She hopes to utilize the technical tools and strategies acquired during the pandemic when children can gather again.
“We are trying to figure out how to navigate things once our programming is in person, how this challenging experience can equip us in a way that benefits the community,” said Weidenbach. “There is a lot of science that shows screen time isn't healthy for young children, but disconnection and isolation are also unhealthy.” Weidenbach has studied ways to make virtual programming engaging. During programs on Zoom, Weidenbach encourages presenters to interact with the children and ask questions, turning a passive experience into a personal and dynamic one.
Partnerships to Increase Access
In addition to using technology, Weidenbach says partnerships with local organizations have been essential to broadening The Indianapolis Public Library’s reach.
“The pandemic has forced The Library to not only examine how we offer programming, but to rethink the accessibility of our programming,” said Weidenbach. “We’ve learned to partner with other organizations and meet kids where they are to better meet the needs of the wider community.”
For example, the Library delivered 2,000 preschool art kits to preschool students at Indianapolis Public Schools, Head Start, and the YMCA. The kits were sponsored by the PNC Foundation with a grant to The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation and included art supplies alongside tips for parents to help children use the tools for learning. IndyPL is also partnering with Early Learning Indiana to help develop Reading Buddies, an early literacy program at Day Early Learning centers that will bring guest readers into classrooms.
“We want to think about how children all around the city are accessing materials, and these partnerships have been helping us make our experiences available to more children,” said Weidenbach. “If they start kindergarten versed in these skills they are primed and ready to learn. Their success in school is much higher.”
Overview of Current Programs: