The goal of Animal Protective League's “Sit Stay Read” is to help children forget their limitations as they interact with dogs by reading to them aloud.
Three puppies brought by Animal Protective League volunteers one Monday afternoon to Pleasant Hill Elementary School settle in for an hour of being read to in the school’s literacy lounge.
The puppies chosen for that day’s session of APL’s Sit Stay Read literacy program sit close as students in Jami Patterson’s fourth-grade class take turns reading to the dogs one-on-one in 10-minute intervals.
Cradled by the volunteers as everyone sits in lounge or beanbag chairs, the pups doze off and on during the numerous readings of the short story “Happy Birthday, Dr. King!”
The cozy comfort that the dogs, volunteers and kids enjoy seems to promote complete honesty.
“You know what? Can we start in the middle of the story since you guys have all read it before?” volunteer Kate Hein asks a student settling in for a turn to read with her and Chili the puppy.
“It’s putting the puppy to sleep. I don’t know what it’s going to do to me.”
The goal of “Sit Stay Read” is to help children forget their limitations as they interact with dogs by reading to them aloud. The volunteer program tries to improve the students’ literacy skills, get them excited about reading and foster their love of animals.
APL became involved in Sit Stay Read in 2005, when then-Addams Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Sandy DeNotto read about the program in a Chicago newspaper. DeNotto contacted APL, who then asked volunteer Nancy Hunter if she’d be interested in coordinating something similar between the shelter and Springfield schools.
Hunter and her friend, Mary Watts, took shelter dogs to Addams once a week that first year.
“(DeNotto) noticed a difference in her children’s fluency and oral reading skills as a result of the program,” Hunter says.
The following year, two more volunteers were added to the program. In 2007, the program began for the fourth-grade class with four volunteers at Pleasant Hill, which is the only Springfield school participating.
At Pleasant Hill, sessions start at 1 p.m. Mondays. Volunteers first choose APL dogs that will be taken to the school.
“We have volunteers that pick up the shelter dogs. We just take who’s available at the time and who the staff thinks will be good with kids,” Hunter says.
The staff picks dogs that are docile, housebroken and have a good stomach for travel.
Treats and toys are gathered for the three dogs headed to Pleasant Hill on a recent Monday. (Typically, students get 15 minutes with a dog when four canines are used.)
“We usually try to rotate the dogs ’cause the kids will pick up on a repeat. They don’t want to sit with the same dog week after week after week,” Hein says.
As the kids become comfortable and relaxed around the dogs, they’ll ask questions about the dogs’ breeds, ages and how APL got them. The volunteers subsequently can answer their questions about which dogs in the program were later adopted.
A former teacher in Carpentersville, Hein instructs and corrects students who read with the dogs she sits with. Things were no different for Hein one recent Monday afternoon during the reading of “Happy Birthday, Dr. King!”
The story is about a boy, Jamal, who learns the significance of what Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks did for American civil rights.
Jamal brings a note home from the principal because he fought with another boy over who would sit in the back seat of the bus. Jamal’s Grandpa Joe is angry with him because, as he later explains to Jamal, as a young man living in Montgomery, Ala., he experienced the mandate of blacks having to ride in the back of city buses.
“Would you think you can go home and get a note from the principal it’s no big deal?” Hein asks a student reading with her and Chili. “If I took a note home from the principal, it was a big deal. But my mom worked at the school, too. I was really in trouble.”
As a student holds Chili, the puppy whines.
“Nothing’s wrong. He’s probably getting restless. He can’t read, so all he can do is hear the same words over and over,” Hein reassures the student.
When the students’ 10 minutes are up, Patterson delivers what seems to be her standard line: “OK, guys. Say, ‘Bye’ to your babies.”
Patterson says the program has helped students who are shy and don’t want to read out loud.
“A couple of them were scared of dogs. Before we started, they’re like, ‘No. I can’t do that.’ Now they’re one of the first to jump in line,” Patterson says.
The ultimate goal is to make reading fun, and Sit Stay Read creates a fun reading environment for her students, Patterson says.
“Students often read for a grade, and this a fun way to encourage reading and include all students at all reading and ability levels,” Patterson says. The dogs love the students “no matter what,” she says, and many students gain confidence after reading to the four-legged classroom visitors.
“I have seen improvements from every student,” Patterson says.
Patterson’s students are assessed each Monday after they read aloud to the dogs. They return to class to read for fluency with Patterson and are assessed each week for one minute on their fluency and reading rate based on words per minute. Sit Stay Read warms up the students so they can do their best reading for Patterson, she says.
The students at Pleasant Hill appreciate the animals so much that the class brought in pennies, nickels and dimes to buy the APL dogs Christmas presents. They collected enough money to buy 35 items, including blankets, toys, collars and treats.
“They wrapped them individually and even watched some of the dogs open them. They were delighted,” Patterson says about the students.
Plus, the kids don’t mind vacuuming the rug after the dogs and volunteers leave a Sit Stay Read session.
“Sometimes, you can come out here on a Monday and you’re having a bad day or the dog’s having a bad day or the kid is having a bad day or the teacher is having a bad day,” Hein says. “But when we all get together and we do this, it’s like, ‘OK. They’re with a buddy.’
“The kid feels better. The dog feels better. It has a lot of overflow to it.”
Tamara Browning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DID YOU KNOW?
APL cares for sick, injured, abused and abandoned dogs and cats, and tries to find the best possible permanent homes for them.
APL’s reading program Sit Stay Read has exposed APL dogs to teachers and students at Pleasant Hill Elementary School who potentially could adopt the animals, fourth-grade teacher Jami Patterson has found.
“Our principal’s daughter even adopted one of the dogs. This has been a very (rewarding) program that encourages reading, makes reading fun and brightens my students’ day,” Patterson says.
FOR MORE INFO: Visit www.apl-shelter.org