At the Jail

For a couple of years now, I have been going over to our county jail every other month or so, to talk to the parents there about the importance of reading to their kids. Our library district has a branch in the correctional facility & serves the inmates with books, information requests, and a law library collection, which includes digital and print reference materials. The supervisor of the jail library is dedicated to providing the inmates with as much of a “public library” experience as she can. She tries to schedule some of the same programs there as we offer at our public library branches—storytellers and writers’ workshops are always popular. When I started scheduling “Every Child Ready to Read” workshops for parents at our branches, she invited me to consider bringing that program to the jail as well.

I was definitely nervous at first; it’s a completely different environment than I was used to, and it can be intimidating. But I am so grateful now that I have this opportunity. I go over in the evening after dinner, and usually present to 2 different groups, one after another. Each area has a multi-purpose room that is used for things like classes or Bible study. The inmates are signed out of their day rooms and come to the multi-purpose room for the talk. One of the jail library staffers is always scheduled to be there with me and they are the ones who provide the signup sheets to the deputies and handle any other logistics. Some visits I speak with the women, some visits I speak with the men–more often overall I speak to the men; there are just more of them.

So what do I say? When I first started, I brought my regular “Every Child Ready to Read” presentation. This talk is all about building the 6 early literacy skills in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. But I found, after the first few times, that the parents who chose to attend had kids of all ages–sometimes all the way up through high school and college! I felt bad about them committing their time to me and not walking away with something relevant to their kids’ situations. I went back to the drawing board and talked it over with colleagues and came up with a new talk, one that would apply to all ages of kids and teens.

My talk is called “Build a Reading House!” I tell the parents up front that kids who are read to become better readers; kids who are better readers do better in school; kids who do better in school have more choices in life. I tell them I will give them 3 ways they can make a difference in their kids’ lives.

*Fill your house with things to read and things to write with: children who grow up surrounded by books, magazines, paper, and pens are more likely to become better readers. We talk about all the different materials kids can read–not just books but magazines, video game guides, catalogs, comic books. I remind them that they can use their library to fill their house with books for free! I tell them that readers are writers and writers are readers, so having paper and notebooks for their kids to use is very powerful.

*Read to your kids, read with your kids, read *near* your kids: parents who read are great models for their children. (I make a real point of telling the dads that their kids don’t see nearly as many men reading as they do women. I tell them that children whose daddies read to them do better in school than kids whose daddies don’t.) When we take time to make reading part of our day, kids learn that we think reading is important. This can motivate them to read more. (And I go back to the first part and say, reading more is important because the more kids read, the better they get at it, the better they get at reading, the better they do in school…) Read to your little ones. Read the same book as your big kids–read what they have to read for school. Remind your kids that you read every day to cook a meal, follow directions, understand road signs, and learn new things.

*Talk to your kids about books, stories, and ideas: When we talk with our children about a book, we help them to better understand what they read. This helps them make connections between their books and their life, and builds their thinking skills. When they understand what they’re reading, they are more motivated to keep reading. (I say AGAIN: Keeping reading is good because the more kids read…) Talk to your babies, even when they are too little to say anything back. Sing songs and say nursery rhymes. Ask children questions that don’t have one-word answers, to help them practice their thinking and their words. Ask big kids open-ended questions about the books they are reading for school. I remind them that talking to their kids about books doesn’t have to wait until they are out–they can start during their next visitation, before they even go home.

That’s it! I have made several handouts that emphasize these points and give them tips and tricks to help them remember. I have a bunch of props–the more visual this talk is, the better. So I have the STOP sign from my daughters’ dress-up box, a DVD case, a restaurant menu, a sheet of newspaper comics. I bring an Eyewitness book to show how cool non-fiction can be and a Barbie book to show there are books about everything their kids love. I bring an issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids. I bring a chapter book and remind them that there’s information about the book on the front flap, that they can read to get an idea of what their kid’s book is about, so they can ask questions about it. I bring pictures my girls drew in preschool that their teachers wrote comments on. Anything I can think of that might illustrate a point, I try to bring with.

My groups are usually a mix of those who are paying attention and really interested, and those who are just happy to get out of the day room for an hour. This is okay. I usually have several parents who are eager to share stories and ask questions, and that is awesome. Tonight a guy raised his hand at the end and said he had two kids, who were 1 and 2 years old. “What’s the best method to use with them?” he asked. I said, “The best method for reading? Just sit down with them and open a book and look at it and read it together. That’s what you can do. It DOES makes a difference.”

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2 Responses to At the Jail

  1. This is a wonderful article. In our Wisconsin public library system we work with the county jails in our service area, as several other systems do. May I have your permission to share your “reading house” ideas (with attribution to you)in a newsletter article or about-to-be-launched blog on our system website? I think your concept is simple, but profound, and can make a lasting impression. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Melissa says:

    Marcia, I’m pleased to know that your library also reaches out to library patrons in the jail system! Certainly you may pass along the Reading House ideas, thanks for asking. I would love to hear more about what your library does at the jail!

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