When college students cross the threshold of a preschool, the way they interact with their surroundings changes completely. Instead of being just one of many class members, they become the center of attention, and instead of just listening, they become leaders.
After forming at the beginning of the semester, the cumbersomely named That Group That Reads to Children (And Does a Lot of Other Cool Stuff Too) has brought over 20 Wesleyan students into Middletown preschools to help teachers, direct activities, and, yes, read books. Group founder Dale Glasspiegel ’13 explained the drive behind the project.
“It’s one of those things that’s good for everyone involved: the kids, the students volunteering. The teachers will have an extra hand, and it helps the preschools,” he said.
Glasspiegel came up with the idea for the group after going to a preschool for a day with his Developmental Psychology class. He subsequently discussed the idea with the Office of Community Service.
“It was just the most fun I ever had,” Glasspiegel said. “I felt like a lot of people would be excited about it.”
And they were. That Group, as it shall henceforth be called, now works directly with seven preschools within walking distance of the University, including Head Start, Preschool Town and Country, Even Start, Christ Lutheran, and St. Mary’s.
After going through a background check, submitting a health form, and attending an orientation session at the preschool, volunteers are able to arrange their schedule however they like. Their main objective is simply to help out as much as possible, in any way they can. Consequently, the volunteers’ roles change constantly.
Kara Wernick ’15, who will be in charge of coordinating That Group next year, was able to take on the more dynamic position of assistant teacher at Town and Country.
“It’s beyond just going in an organized setting in which you’re just reading,” Wernick said. “I really wanted to engage with the kids beyond just being a special visitor. I wanted them to see me as a teacher, and when I go in they call me ‘Miss Kara’ the way they call their other teachers.”
The minimum commitment to That Group involves giving weekly reading or math sessions in the classroom, but Wernick and Glasspiegel both engage in the wide range of activities that occur on any given day.
Wernick provides another set of hands to organize the dozen or so kids in the classroom as they go from activity to activity, making sure everyone cleans up their messes, shares properly, and is on their best behavior. When playtime begins, Wernick is right there with them, bringing out PlayDoh, puzzles, and building blocks.
“It’s really what you want to make of it,” Wernick said.
Lisa Golebiewski, Head Start Unit Manager for the Adella Howell Child Development Center, said the volunteers are highly appreciated by both the teachers and the kids, who outnumber teachers 10-to-1.
“We’re very excited to have volunteers who can do little things like read quietly or do a puzzle or play catch or do dramatic play,” Golebiewski said. “The volunteers add more individualized attention, and our children tend to crave that.”
The environment also provides a place for volunteers to bring their own creative ideas and games into the classroom, allowing the volunteers to grow alongside the kids.
“You learn how children develop, you learn about how you can teach them and foster their development,” Glasspiegel said. “You learn what it takes to run a classroom, the different challenges you face on the day to day, the connections you can make.”
Wernick said the teacher she works with values her time and makes sure the experience is fulfilling for not only the students but also Wernick herself.
“She’s really grateful to have another set of eyes in the classroom, and she treats me as a colleague, but she knows that I’m there to learn,” Wernick said. “She’s supported my desire to learn what being a classroom teacher is like.”
Because he was interested in fostering numeracy, Glasspiegel introduced his own math games into the classroom with the approval of the teacher. He developed them as part of a class called “Math Cognition and Children’s Learning,” taught by Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Behavior Hilary Barth, in order to help children understand not only the number sequence, but also how numbers relate to each other.
“It’s best to go from concrete, using objects, to more abstract,” Glasspiegel said. “You have to get them to connect that ‘one’ is the same as a written ‘1’ is the same as the sound of ‘one.’”
Glasspiegel said that even when doing something as simple as reading a book, involving the preschoolers and making sure they’re enjoying themselves is an essential part of the job.
“Fun is necessary,” he said. “If they’re not having fun, they’re not going to pay attention, and they’re not going to learn.”
Next year, Wernick plans to expand the group so that it both gains more members and further integrates the schools and the volunteers. She hopes to bring in professors with relevant expertise for lectures and discussions, as well as establish weekly meetings for people to share their experiences, propose projects, and work on said projects together.
These new group activities would encourage the volunteers to consider their interactions with the preschoolers and their roles in the classroom. Ultimately, That Group aims to support Middletown preschool teachers in educating children.
“I think it’s really a win-win for all involved: for the children, the teachers, and the Wesleyan students,” Golebiewski said. “What I’d like to see in the future is more of it.”
Glasspiegel added that the group is in no way trying to implement any agenda in the schools; the volunteers merely want to help.
“We’re not here to revolutionize the classroom,” he said. “We’re not here to change anything about the way things are going. We’re here to assist in any way that would be beneficial.”