Lawn chair learning

Marcy Pennella, kindergarten teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, reads to six-year-old Harper Mullins in Mullins’ front yard.

 

What does the end of the story hold for the coronavirus pandemic? No one knows. But for two local educators, that’s not stopping them from keeping young readers engrossed in good books, even if it means finding creative social distancing solutions.

Former librarian Lois Loy and kindergarten teacher Marcy Pennella have been spending some of their free time reading to young kids in the community. While they may have different approaches, their passion is the same: helping young kids become better readers.

It’s something Loy did for 40 years before retiring three years ago from Jouett Elementary School. Pennella just finished her 20th year as a teacher. This year was her first year as a kindergarten teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, although she taught second and third grades in previous years.

“I do it because I can’t stay away from children,” Loy said. “Being around kids helps you stay young. And after you do it for all those years, you can’t just stop.”

To practice “no contact reading,” as Loy calls it, she has the person she’s reading to sit inside their home, near a door or window and she sits on the front porch, close enough so they can hear her, but far enough away to stay safe from the virus.

While she’s focused mainly on reading to others “on a small scale with the people she knows,” her reach extends to local public schools, her Sunday School class at church and to elderly friends who live alone in their home. So far, she’s amassed a following of five families and 10 adults.

Pennella prefers to sit outside with students “lawn chair to lawn chair.” The lawn chairs are, of course, six feet apart.

During their time together, Pennella reads to her students and they read to her, too. She likes to read books that she wouldn’t normally read in the classroom. Most recently, she picked a Curious George book that had multiple stories. After handpicking three choices, she then allows the student to choose the story to read aloud.

Afterwards, she reverses roles and listens to the student read aloud a book from their school learning packets. While the books are rather basic, it allows Pennella to assess the student’s preferred reading strategies and skill levels. It also brings joy to the child.

“Even though they’re reading about “boring” things like cats and vans, they love it,” she said. “They are ecstatic because they can read the entire story and master entire sentences. “What we’re trying to do is keep the student busy — not bored,” she said. “The mere practice will help in the long run.”

Pennella chooses to read to her students in-person primarily because of their age. To her, it seemed like the most effective and efficient route for accomplishing the task.

Originally, she considered using Zoom or another online web conferencing software but decided against it.

“If you can imagine, with that age group, it’s a lot like herding cats,” she said. “Plus, it’s really nice to see them.”

She also really enjoys hearing thoughts about the pandemic through the “eyes of the child,” she said.

During her visits, she often hears students say the same thing: “Mrs. Pennella, I’m bored and I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said. The kindergartners tell her all the time all they want to do is “hug their best friend,” which for most young students, means their teacher. She said that, while they don’t understand what’s going on [with the pandemic], they share the same sentiment as many adults and wonder when it’ll all be over so life can get back to normal.

With no end in sight, Pennella is prepared to continue helping her students learn and grow during the summer, although she feels she “didn’t get closure,” she said. “It feels like something is missing.

“It’s been a strange year,” she said. “In a way, I feel like we’ve been cheated. Many of us [teachers] do. But especially since this is my first year teaching kindergarten. We missed out on kindergarten graduation and field trips.”

Pennella is offering tutoring to her students as well as other students who would like a little extra help with reading before the new school year starts. To learn more, parents can email her at pennelma@lcps.k12.va.us.

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