Literacy initiative thrives during pandemic

When The Citadel moved to a remote-learning model in mid-March due to the coronavirus quarantine, most of the outreach programs at the Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics had to be temporarily halted. But social distancing requirements did not stop former Service Learning Director Conway Saylor and Community Engagement Fellow Mike Akers, ’19, from coming up with a way to ensure that The Citadel continued to make an impact in the community and that cadets were able to complete their community service requirements.

Their idea—Story Time with The Citadel, a library of videos produced for kids by students, faculty and staff sharing their love of reading through the books they chose to read.

“Basically, we were brainstorming about what was needed and how we could help during the pandemic,” said Saylor, a 30-year professor of psychology who headed up the college’s service-learning program until retiring in June.

For Akers, whose work as a community engagement fellow in the Krause Center focuses on Title I schools, the Story Time program was an obvious choice.

“Story Time was a natural fit for us because we have cadets and students who have close relationships with children of the Charleston area who greatly benefit from reading assistance,” said Akers. “When The Citadel went to a virtual platform, our number-one concern was how to continue to provide tutoring to children in need while we were under a stay-at-home order.”

With the pandemic interrupting the academic year and South Carolina struggling to keep up in literacy education, Story Time became a much needed resource for students and educators as they tried to continue the academic year online.

“Written language sounds different and is more complex than spoken language, so the more we can read aloud to our students, the more they can understand the structure of language and the way it flows and the way it’s connected together,” said Britnie Kane, Ph.D., an assistant professor of literacy in the Zucker Family School of Education.

According to Kane, reading aloud to children helps with comprehension and language skills. A strong foundation in reading sets the course for students as they move from learning to read to reading to learn. “There’s actually evidence to suggest that culturally we tend to stop reading to kids in early elementary school, but that it might actually be beneficial to read out loud much longer than that because language continues to develop,” said Kane. “The structure of it continues to get more complex as kids read more difficult texts.”

Literacy education is integral to the Zucker School curriculum. The Citadel Summer Reading Program, a summer camp that pairs graduate students with young students reading below grade level, has been helping Lowcountry families for more than 40 years. The school also offers a Master of Education degree in literacy education and a graduate certificate program for teachers who seek literacy teacher certification.

Cadet Christal Altidor, a senior psychology major from Florence who serves as a peer leadership undergraduate study partner in the Krause Center, has made four Story Time videos. When the quarantine was announced, Altidor was on spring break in Houston at roommate Cadet Sydney Williams’ home. With the help of Williams, who became her producer, and Williams’ mother, who unearthed some children’s books, Altidor was ready to read.

“Typically, I go to James Simons Elementary School and Charleston Development Academy to help kids with their homework, and that experience really transitioned well into reading for Story Time. It was like I never left,” said Altidor, who wants to be a social worker when she graduates. “I want to work with children as much as possible, so that’s my motivation for reading for Story Time.”

The Story Time library continues to grow and includes classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are and The Three Little Pigs. It also includes Huevos Verdes Con Jamón and Buenas Noches Luna—the Spanish translations for Green Eggs and Ham and Goodnight Moon.

Sara Fernandez Medina, Ph.D., who teaches Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages, was searching for an internship alternative for her students and a way to help the Spanish community when she discovered the Krause Center’s Story Time initiative.

“We have a high number of Hispanic kids in the community who don’t speak English,” said Fernandez, “so I said, let’s do this in Spanish.”

In addition to Spanish, one cadet read a story in Chinese. Thirty volunteers participated in the Story Time effort, and more than 40 videos were published. In the 2019-2020 academic year, students, faculty and staff logged 27,468 hours of community service through the Krause Center for an economic impact of almost $700,000.

“Service learning is the heart of what we do in the Krause Center,” said Akers. “Story Time allowed us to continue our mission, and we hope that it will become an enduring resource for families long after the pandemic is over.”