In the hallway, gathered around a tiny round table on Monday afternoon, Helen Hansen helped her group of Paxson Elementary School second-graders bring to life the story of “Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid.”

Just down from them, reading partners Lars Thorne-Thomsen and Bryce Halden sat at a large table – because they are fourth-graders – and discussed the finer points of the book “The Tiger Rising.”

In all of the first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade classrooms, young minds were hard at work improving their reading skills and nurturing their imaginations in the school’s “Walk to Read” program.

Some of the other students hunted out quiet spots to read on their own, while others gathered in large circles to hold a mini-book club and discuss characters.

“This is about getting kids what they need, when they need it, when it comes to reading,” said Kelly Chumrau, Paxson principal.

How it plays out is a bit more complicated, and it’s a program that takes a lot of synchronizing of schedules.

On most days of the school week, at a given time in the day, the first- through fourth-grade students walk to find the group of kids in their grade who read at their own level – or who are working on the same challenges.

The pods, groups and partnerships are identified by the teachers, who know the strengths and weakness of each child, Chumrau said.

“Some kids need to work on comprehension or decoding, while others are working on increasing their vocabulary,” Chumrau said. “The groups are flexible, and the teachers are responsible for how and when they move.”

***

Hansen, who is a retired college professor, volunteers at Paxson five days a week, 20 hours a week through Missoula Aging Services’ Foster Grandparent program.

On Monday, her small group of second-graders practiced their reading-out-loud skills, working on pronunciation and comprehension.

Around the circle, the kids read aloud from the book, one after another, picking up where the last reader left off. When it was a shy girl’s turn to read, she shook her head in misery and said she couldn’t.

Hansen replied cheerfully: “OK, I’ll read with you.”

And with that support, the little girl confidently belted out the words to the story.

So fun and so successful was the moment, Hansen said enthusiastically, “Let’s all read together!” which the children did to their delight.

“I’m always amazed at how smart these kids are for their age,” Hansen said.

Of the Walk to Read program, she said: “I think it is just fantastic. The children are divided up in smaller groups, so each child is given as much individual attention as possible, and the groups are broken up by need.”

“What really amazes me is how dedicated the teachers are, and how focused they are in making sure the kids are getting a quality reading experience,” she said.

With 20 students in each of the second-grade classes, and 30 students in the third-grade classes, Hansen said she knows – and sees – the teachers working extremely hard to deliver all of the instruction every day.

“They do so much,” Hansen said. “If there weren’t volunteers, I don’t know how it would all get done.”

***

Parents, grandparents, community volunteers and University of Montana students are among the many volunteers who pitch in to help.

Over time, the transformation in the students’ skill is astounding, said Rae Brown, a fourth-grade teacher.

“Some of us, we find our voice,” Brown said, and then looked over her small group of students who were busy discussing the book “Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher.”

“Don’t we?” she asked her students, to which they all nodded or shouted “Yes!” with conviction.

“I have learned how to read with emotion,” explained Mabel DeGrandpre, who previously was too shy to read aloud.

“I discovered that I like reading out loud and I can be different characters with my voice,” chimed in Eliot Woods.

Out in the hallway, Thorne-Thomsen and Halden were happy to share their discussions about “The Tiger Rising.”

“It’s got some heavy feelings in it,” Thorne-Thomsen explained. “The story is about a boy named Rob who meets a girl and finds a tiger in a cage.”

“His mother died and he is not talking about her death at all, but then once he finds the tiger, it helps him talk about his feelings,” Halden added.

Both of the boys said they liked the Walk to Read program because it is a way to be with other kids who are in their grade but not in their class.

The reading always ends with a project each week, they explained, which is usually a fun assignment.

“I love reading,” Thorne-Thomsen said. “It’s a lot more fun than movies because you get to imagine what the characters look like and sound like – and the movies do that for you.

“And you can sit down in a nice quiet place and travel to wherever the book takes you.”

“You can read longer than you can watch a movie,” Halden said. “And you can take on the character when you take on the book.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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