Finding the words

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By Jamie Swinnerton

Tompkins Weekly

 

“Reach for your own words. Tell the world who you are and how you will make it better,” are the last words of the children’s book “The Word Collector” by Peter H. Reynolds. The book is about a young boy named Jerome who collects all kinds of words: big words and small words, words he doesn’t know the meaning of yet, sweet words and science words, and words with multiple syllables. Then, he shares his words with all of his friends. “The Word Collector” manages to capture the transformative power of words in only a few pages.

Now, a national nonprofit housed locally with something of an obsession with words wants to take this book and put it into as many hands as possible, from babies to adults, to eventually the entire nation. When Brigid Hubberman, the President and CEO of Children’s Reading Connection, found “The Word Collector” she knew she had discovered something special. Her nonprofit organization helps communities build cultures of literacy, and what better place to start than with words, the building blocks of language? The book is the centerpiece to the collective’s new initiative The Word Collector for All, and the pre-pilot program has already launched here in Ithaca.

Last Tuesday, July 17, the children of the Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP) at Southside Community Center were given the book for free and will be using the book to create more activities and projects around words. The books are free thanks to funding from an anonymous donor. Hubberman chose Southside in large part because of her connection to Dr. Nia Nunn, a professor in the education department of Ithaca College, a published author, and President of the Board of Directors for the community center. The message of the book fits in seamlessly with the work Nunn and the CUMEP team at Southside do at the summer camp. This year, Nunn wanted to introduce kids to the idea of a thesaurus, a book full of words and what they mean. When she told Hubberman about her thesaurus idea, Hubberman already had plans to introduce her to “The Word Collector.” The dynamic duo hasn’t stopped coming up with ideas to use the book to teach children the power of words.

“I wanted to have three very different places,” Hubberman said, explaining why Southside was chosen as the pre-pilot site. “So, not just have it be school-focused.”

There are two other sites that will be included in the pre-pilot stage: Downtown Ithaca Children’s Center which works with children from birth to age 12, and Beverly J. Martin School. Working with Nunn was another reason the community center became the very first launch for the program. Hubberman knows that Nunn’s connection to the CUMEP children would mean the books would have even more value coming from Nunn.

“The books are infused with relationships,” Hubberman said. “So, she’ll be with those books.”

Words and their power are already a big part of the CUMEP curriculum. At Tuesday’s launch during a regular morning at CUMEP, the kids learned about a variety of complex topics using simple words. While learning about families the kids celebrated foster parents, while talking about the Muslim faith and Islamaphobia the kids learned about Ramadan, while learning about wants and needs the kids sang through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and for the word of the day the kids learned about independence. Through words, the kids of CUMEP are learning about topics that might seem heavy, but through a strong base of words are more easily understood.

“Literacy has always been central to our practice here, particularly around the creative musical and poetic ways that we can play with words,” Nunn said. “Through that, we’re able to teach multiple dynamics of culture.”

 

After receiving the book, the kids of CUMEP were given post-it notes to write down words and exchange them with each other. In the days following the pre-pilot, the children will read through the book and choose their favorite pages. At the end of CUMEP on Aug. 2, the kids will perform what they have learned at camp, using the words they’ve collected. At the performance, the community center will be decorated with words draped around the center like prayer flags.

But the kids of CUMEP won’t be the only ones learning from The Word Collector for All. Many of Nunn’s graduate students work at the camp as well and were given free copies of the book. As Hubberman and Nunn create activities and programs using the book as a reference point, so too will the graduate students. The influence of the book and the program may stretch far into the future when these graduate students enter their own classrooms.

“I think one of my favorite things to do in life is to play with words and overlap, integrate, sometimes get ridiculous with words,” Nunn said, it’s one of the reasons she is so excited about the book.

The next step will be the county-wide pilot phase in October with other schools, as funding permits, a push for community word engagement, and a Word Collector Extravaganza with author Peter Reynolds. Hubberman has already met Reynolds when she was invited to Boston to talk to him about her idea for Word Champions as part of the Word Collector for All initiative. He has also found an even bigger name in the book industry that is interested in seeing this program grow. Scholastic Books, the largest publisher of children’s books in the United States, invited both Hubberman and Reynolds to their headquarters for a meeting. What was supposed to just be a small meeting of a few individuals turned into a much larger discussion. It is uncertain what role the publisher will play in the future, but Hubberman said Scholastic shares the vision and is committed to helping make it a reality.

Ultimately, Hubberman wants The Word Collector for All to empower everyone to think about words and what they can do, to become word champions.

“All the teachers, and the custodians, and the bus driver, and what if the lunch woman thinks about what words that she’ll say?” Hubberman said of the larger goal of the initiative. “Why wouldn’t everyone at a school see themselves in that way as we give children words?”

In a release about the initiative, Hubberman outlines the credible assumptions about the initiative, including “Each person can play a role in their personal, professional, and civic lives to ensure all children are surrounded and engaged with an abundance of loving and fabulous words.” If you want to share your words or help The Word Collector for All initiative spread, Hubberman can be reached at brigid.hubberman@childrensreadingconnection.org.

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