BONNER – University of Montana Grizzlies athletes Anna Pershouse and Ryan Burke came to class early on Thursday to brush up on their reading assignment for Bonner School.

Sitting outside the superintendent’s office, the duo huddled up and paged through the colorful children’s book “Otis” by Loren Long.

It was the guest readers’ first look at the book, and the pressure was on: Each had a second-grade class to read to and engage with about the story of friendship between a farm tractor and an orphaned calf.

“It’s a pretty good book,” said Burke, a UM sophomore who is a wide receiver for the Grizzlies, after his first read-through. “This is going to be fun to be reading to the little kids.”

The UM students were invited to Bonner to help make the school’s participation in the national event, “Read for the Record,” all the more special, said Ashley Parks, K-5 principal.

“It is the one time of the year when millions of individuals come together to celebrate literacy and to support and promote early childhood education on the same day.”

Last year, more than 2.3 million young readers participated in the campaign that is organized by Jumpstart, an organization that leverages the power of community and adult-child relationships to build key language and literacy skills for children.

Each year, the goal is to get more readers involved, and on Thursday, Bonner helped out with 138 of its students.

Joining the UM athletes in the guest reader lineup were members of the Missoula Rural Fire District and Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen.

Having never read to youngsters before, what Burke and Pershouse lacked in experience was made up with their enthusiasm.

“Are we ready everybody? Are you a little excited about this? Let’s get started!” said Burke by way of introduction to Tricia Zimmerman’s second-grade class.

Within seconds, the classroom had settled down into the quiet thrall of active listening.

When the storytelling was over, the guest readers peppered their audiences with questions about the story and the importance of reading.

Burke told his class he liked the story “because it shows you can be friends with everybody – no matter where they come from or what they look like.”

“Do you have any Bobcat friends?” one cheeky youngster asked the Griz football player.

The question prompted laughter, and Burke said that yes, he’s even friends with a Bobcat, in fact one of his best buddies from high school is a Bobcat.

Tyler Stelling, 7, said he thought having the guest readers was a great way to start the day.

“I thought she was really good,” Stelling said in his review of Pershouse’s reading.

His classmate, Selena Spaulding, 7, agreed.

“I thought it was a lot of fun and I think it was really cool that a Griz person came and read to us because I am really a big fan of the Griz.

“I loved it, and this really inspires me to read more.”

Although Ibsen showed off his smooth reading and veteran page-turning skills, Pershouse confessed the unfamiliar spotlight was unnerving.

“It was nerve-wracking, but it turned out pretty well,” she said. “I liked how the kids really got into the story – they were animated listeners.

“And I feel really honored that I got picked for this. I think it is really important to support and encourage kids to like reading – I love reading, and I want everybody to find the joy of reading.”

“It was a blast,” Burke said of his time at the front of the classroom. “It makes me appreciate my second-grade teachers even more – reading upside-down and showing pictures at the same time is a harder skill than you would think it is.”

Having the guest readers and lesson plans that focus on the book throughout the week puts the focus on the importance of literacy and reading skills, Parks said.

“We know this is really important,” she said. “Research tells us that if a kiddo isn’t reading at a third-grade level by the time they are in third grade, they will be four times less likely to graduate from high school by the age of 19.”

“Reading is the most important thing we can teach our grade school students,” she said. “This is a good way to focus on the love of learning and to connect our students with people in the community.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at