Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that prove to be the most brilliant.
As parents we want our children to have all the resources they need to succeed. We know that it is important to read to them when they are young and to encourage them to read. Reading is possibly the most important skill to learn; the way our education system works, we learn to read so that we can read to learn. Unfortunately there are many kids who struggle with reading or who, since they are not exposed to books that interest them, never catch the “reading bug.”
Tracy Musser, a school bus driver for the Penn Manor School District in Lancaster, Pennsylvania came up with an innovative way to get kids reading. It started with a simple desire: to help a couple girls meet a goal: to earn more Comet Cash, rewards certificates which can later be traded in for more tangible rewards during a school assembly.
Musser knows “her kids” pretty well and has been known to sometimes look over projects for them. In doing so, she noticed that some of the children on her bus had issues with things such as spelling and thought that they might benefit from reading more.
“So for some reason the idea just popped into my head,” she said. “What if I put books on the bus, and get them to read? And for each book that they read, they get one of these Comet Cash? So in the kids’ minds, they are looking at it that they get Comet Cash; at the end of the school year they will be rewarded if they reach that goal. I was looking at it as it could help with behavior as well.” She thought about those spelling issues she had seen. “So I figured reading helps with fluency, vocabulary, communication skills. [There’s] just a wide range of what just reading a book can help with. That’s actually how the idea came about.”
Since the district encompasses 113 rural square miles, bus rides can last up to 25 minutes. While some kids use this time to read, Musser is quick to point out, “My kids are able to take the books with them. They don’t have to read them on the bus.”
Though it sounds as though it would be chaotic, the unique system she put in effect works well. Depending on the day of the week, kids can take out and return books kept in bins under the front seats of the bus. There are no records of who has what; it all works on the honor code which has so far been successful. Musser introduced the kids to the “bus library” last November and though she says it was hectic at first, everyone quickly adjusted to the system. She has a few rules: Kids may only look through the books at the scheduled times. No one may be out of their seat when the bus is moving. The books from the library cannot interfere with school work; they are considered “pleasure reading.”
Any parent of a reluctant reader would not be surprised to hear that at first, the kids seemed to be more enthusiastic about earning “cash” than reading books, but Musser noted this changed somewhere along the way. She says there is genuine enthusiasm about new titles with multiple hands shooting up when a new book is offered. When she gets a popular book, she says, “They love it. The expression on their faces when they see the new books, it’s just — it’s priceless.”
She has funded much of the project herself, purchasing titles at thrift stores and has also received donations. ( A Facebook page, PM Bus Library has recently been set up to provide more information about the program and how to donate.) Realizing that she might not choose the same books the students would, she asked a library aide at the elementary school for advice about which series and genres are popular with kids today. Musser emphasized that it was important to her to have a selection of books “that they actually do like and want to read.” As would be expected, the titles the older readers are interested in are more expensive and harder to come by secondhand. She says that graphic novels are particularly popular right now.
There has been much interest in the project and district officials are looking into expanding it as early as next year. Musser is supportive of that goal, saying “I would like to see that almost every child, if not every child, has the opportunity to experience this project.” She calls herself “the pilot person” for the project and says that she will sit down to discuss the process with any other bus drivers with an interest.
Musser said, “In my mind this is kind of a small idea. I never expected it to go as far as it did.” It may be a small idea, but it has the potential to yield big results.
Photo courtesy Penn Manor School District.