Story time with a twist. High school students link up via video to read to youngsters

With miles of separation between them, students at two schools shared a book on Thursday morning.

More than a dozen boys and girls filed into the library at G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School, where they found a projector and new faces. Two students from Braden River High School connected with the elementary school over Skype, an online application for video chatting — and now reading.

As part of the WeeRead program, Manatee County elementary schools have a standing invitation to connect with volunteers at Braden River High, connecting students with technology and books.

“It’s basically the same thing as reading aloud, you just add more inflection, and it’s fun to watch their faces change as you read,” said Madigan Hogan, a student volunteer.

She joined Ashley Cendere, a fellow student, in reading “I Am Not a Chair!” on Thursday morning. Throughout the story, jungle animals mistake a frustrated giraffe for a chair, and the giraffe eventually finds courage to speak out and stand up for itself.

Young students delighted in watching animals sit on the bewildered giraffe, and the surprise ending left everyone with questions.

“Why is the giraffe sitting on the turtle?” a student asked.

“I think that’s pretty silly, considering he got mad when people thought he was a chair,” Cendere responded, inciting laughter among the young students.

Both volunteers said it was a fun and interesting way to help elementary students expand their vocabulary.

“It exposes children to reading and that’s great, because if you start them early, they’ll be lifelong readers,” Hogan said.

The importance of reading is often imparted by teachers and other adults, but the WeeRead program connects students with new mentors, said Kate Travis, the media specialist at Rogers Garden-Bullock.

“It helps them to see, oh, it’s a cool kid from Braden River High School reading a story to me,” she said. “It helps them to see that everybody reads.”

At least 20 students are currently volunteering for the program, and each receives training on inflection, sound effects and the importance of holding pictures up to the camera, said Jessica Reid-Spears, the media specialist at Braden River High.

She launched the program at Freedom Elementary and Virgil Mills Elementary last year, after attending a workshop and learning about the idea.

“The older kids get a sense of confidence in their reading, and they get to share reading with the younger kids,” she said. “And for the younger kids, it gives them role models who are teenagers.”