An inside look at a Tail Blazers program at partner school Melody Elementary
By Lisa Sall
In the West Garfield Park neighborhood, everything outside is gray during this first week of March – gray skies, Chicago’s classic greystone buildings, and pedestrians bundled up in black puffy coats to keep out a wind-chill that feels like 6 degrees. The Cubs and Sox are in spring training, but spring feels much farther away than two weeks.
Inside Genevieve Melody Elementary School, visitors quickly shed their coats because the radiator heat makes it feel like summer. Hallways and classrooms are covered in colorful lessons of vocabulary, math, and self-esteem. The names of colleges painted on the walls provide inspiration for the students.
To celebrate Dr. Seuss’s 115th birthday, a teacher strolls the halls dressed as a surprisingly-stylish Cat in the Hat, but the four-legged celebrities today are Certified Reading Assistance Dogs, Woodrow and Dallas. Woodrow is a 9-year-old chocolate Lab, and Dallas is an 8-year-old Pitbull mix. Both dogs seem aware of the job they’re here to do. Woodrow works for treats; Dallas for kisses.
The SitStayRead team, made up of Book Buddy and Dog Team volunteers, makes their way to Ms. Alexander’s second-grade classroom. Ms. Alexander is a champion of SitStayRead, and she has invited the volunteers into her classroom for the past five years. She said she makes a big deal out of the visits so the kids know it’s a special treat. “It gives them a chance to get exposure to people who are different from them and to understand they can learn something from all different people,” said Ms. Alexander. She said she sees a big difference in student engagement and confidence after participating in SitStayRead.
Emily Shayman, the SitStayRead program leader, agrees she can see more confidence in the kids between the first session and the last. “Whether it’s interacting with new people or the dogs, at first the kids may be shy, uncertain or untrusting,” said Shayman. “By the end, they are energetic and happy to have us there.”
In the classroom, Woodrow, the chocolate Lab, quickly gets comfortable. He stretches out on his side with two 7-year-old boys lying next to him reading Not Today, Aliens! Today’s featured book is about dogs protecting museum art from aliens. It was written by second graders as part of the SitStayRead curriculum. The boys take turns reading, which becomes a lesson about sharing and self-control because they read at different levels. Damarion confidently proclaims, “I’m an A reader.” Ms. Alexander says the program really pushes the kids to want to read and write more, and helps students want to get better at reading with the encouragement and practice the volunteers bring.
In the opposite corner of the classroom, six small hands reach out to pet and hug Dallas, who happily gives kisses to all three kids. One of the students is a girl named Taneidra, who was terrified of dogs at the start of the program. Her first dog visit just a few weeks before was with Woodrow, and it took all her courage to sit near him. After learning about dog safety, she gained the confidence to pet Woodrow on the back. Today, Taneidra is eagerly reaching out her hand to accept kisses from Dallas. Ms. Alexander said this was a huge step for Taneidra, and her mother was excited about her participation in the program because she was so fearful of dogs.
Peggy Walden and Harmony Mallow, the owners of Woodrow and Dallas, enjoy the visits as much as their dogs and the kids. A friend of Peggy’s got her involved, “And now we’re hooked!” she said. Harmony learned about the program at doggy daycare. Dallas and Harmony just started volunteering last year, and Harmony said, “Had I known the program existed, I would have done it a long time ago.”
The creative energy and volume in the room builds as kids start brainstorming to write their own stories about visiting a museum with a dog. They gather pertinent facts for their stories. Someone asks, “Is Dallas afraid of dinosaurs?” All the kids agree the dogs would like bones, but they are unsure if the dogs would enjoy a dolphin show.
“It was nice to meet you.”
Ms. Emily announces it’s time to finish up the stories. Everyone gets quiet in anticipation of whose stories will be read aloud. Damarion and Taneidra are in the spotlight today. In Taneidra’s story, she takes Dallas to the workout museum to go on the elliptical.
Damarion writes he’s the boss at the dinosaur museum, where he takes Woodrow every weekend to chew on dinosaur bones. I ask Damarion what he likes about SitStayRead. “I like to read, and it’s more fun to read with a dog and give him treats.” At the mention of treats, a sleeping Woodrow suddenly pops his head up. “Woodrow is calm, and he likes treats. That’s what makes him a good SitStayRead dog,” says Damarion. At the end of our visit, Damarion confidently reaches out for me to shake his hand and says, “Thank you. It was nice to meet you.” And, it was nice to meet him, too.
Just as Ms. Alexander said, at the end of our visit we all understood we can learn something from all different people. Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best …
“There are so many things you can learn about. BUT …
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.”
Genevieve Melody Elementary School is located in the West Garfield Park neighborhood where 98% of students come from low-income households. Lisa Sall is a Dog Team volunteer with her Certified Reading Assistance Dog, Jinks. She graciously volunteered to write this story for us. Jon of Sall Pro Media generously took all the pictures featured in this post.