Education majors are teaming up with faculty and residents of Fairhaven Senior Services to engage children in stories.
"Pete the Cat was walking down the street with his brand-new white shoes," began the reader, catching the listeners' eyes and attention from the first words.
The three-year-olds in the owl room at the Children's Center child care facility in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus were captivated. And it's no surprise: the reader - former special education teacher Charlotte Goodman - has decades of experience engaging with young children.
When the time came to ask questions about the book and about each other, nobody mentioned the walker stationed near Goodman's chair. The talk instead was about who liked to play baseball and the color of their shoes.
Across the room, Mary Sykes read to the group of youngsters crowded around her as university student Lauren Saxon held a caterpillar puppet. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," a children's classic by Eric Carle, recounts the many things a colorful caterpillar eats as it prepares to transform into a butterfly. As Sykes spoke, Saxon, a senior majoring in early childhood education, placed stuffed pieces representing a strawberry, a blueberry, and even a piece of pizza into the puppet. After she finished the book, Sykes engaged the children with questions and Saxon let each child hold the puppet.
"Do you like bananas?" Sykes asked. "What did you like about the story? Were you afraid of the caterpillar?"
Sykes and Goodman, both residents at Fairhaven Senior Services in Whitewater, come to the school every week to read to children as part of Bridging the Inter-Generational Gap, or Project BIGG. Residents Estelle Wiesman and Chuck Graffius, who read to the Pre-K classroom across the hall, join them.
Giuliana Miolo, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Simone DeVore, associate professor of special education, led the reading project, which started five years ago with the help of an Education Outreach Grant. The initial goal was to bring staff, older adults at Fairhaven and children at the Children's Center together for jointly planned activities according to DeVore, who added the reading program two years ago. Miolo joined the program last year to focus on engaging undergraduate research students in the project.
One of those students is Jennifer Rathsack, a senior from Plymouth majoring in communication sciences and disorders. Rathsack is partnering with Goodman, meeting with her weekly to coach her in reading and help her come up with questions to ask the children.
"We try to come up with predictive questions - like 'What do you think is going to happen next?' - to really engage the kids in the story," said Rathsack.
Rathsack said her favorite part so far was when Goodman brought a pumpkin to accompany a story about a farm.
"She likes having a prop when she reads," said Rathsack. "And it helps the kids relate to the story better."
The students are also carrying out undergraduate research projects as part of their work with Project BIGG. Rathsack is working with Laila Breidis, a senior majoring in early childhood education, and Saxon to study whether the children's perceptions of elderly people change as a result of the weekly interactions. Kate Yetter, sophomore majoring in communication sciences and disorders, is researching whether the engagement between the readers and the children is stronger when they read from storybooks or when they tell stories from their own lives.
"Does that look like me?" says Weisman, showing a group of four-year-olds a photo of herself as a six-year-old in overalls and cowboy boots in a PowerPoint projected on the wall. Yetter assembled the PowerPoint, which featured Weisman's childhood dog, Shep, and other animals and the crops raised on the family farm, as part of a summer undergraduate research fellowship with Miolo. Photos of fresh corn garnered the most enthusiastic responses from the children.
"It's corn on the cob! I love corn on the cob." Smiles abound as Weisman stops to watch Graffius talk to his group of children, settled around him in chairs.
"Did you get a standing ovation?" she asked.
"Well, sitting anyway," he said, chuckling, before turning to ask the kids what kind of cookies they liked best.