It was during winter holiday break around 3 a.m. when the idea came to Devon Frazier-Holston, a fifth-grade teacher at Robinson Elementary School in Fairfield.
She sat up in her bed and began drafting her idea. She even created a flyer.
“I remember looking at the clock waiting until 6 a.m. to send the email to my principal,” she said. “I didn’t want to send it too early.”
Her idea, I See Me, is a book drive where books written by African American authors or have a main character of color are donated to the school.
There is a reason why Holston wants the focus on black authors and characters.
“If our children can see themselves in the books they read, it will increase their comprehension and make them more engaged in the book they’re reading,” she said. “When you see books like ‘Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House’, and they read and it has some of the slang or southern dialect that they’ve heard their grandmother say, I’ve heard them giggle and laugh and say, ‘oh my mom says that.’”
The books also serve as positive portrayals, she said.
“On television there are so many negative examples and on social media,” she said. “My hope is that in these books, they’re able to see more positive characters that look like them.”
The goal is for each of Robinson’s 301 students to have at least one book to take home with them to read during summer break. They currently have over 300 books.
The book drive is for the entire school, kindergarten through fifth grade, but Holston said more books are needed for kindergarten through second graders.
“I want to ensure that each child has a book on their level that they can read,” she said. “I have a lot of books for upper grade and a ton of third grade books.”
Holston decided to extend the book drive to May 15 hoping to get more books.
To donate books, dropped them off at Robinson Elementary School – 301 61st Street Fairfield – or purchase books at Barnes & Noble at the Summit and leaving at the store to be picked up.
The school has collected books from bestselling authors to local authors like Nia Mya Reese, the 9-year-old bestselling author from Birmingham.
Reading Is Fundamental
Holston said she was shocked to discover that many of her students did not have books at home.
“You do have students who have books at home, but a large majority of my children didn’t,” she said.
Holston, who taught third grade before becoming a fifth grade teacher a couple of years ago, said she read a statistic that said students who do not read on a third grade level by third grade are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
“I remember standing there looking at my students the next day, feeling chills,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘they’ve already decided my children’s future based on their reading level; I can’t let that happen.”
She made sure her students had materials to read. She built a classroom library, collected books for her class but wanted to do more. To build comprehension, she began Reading Response, where students were required to read to an adult for at least 20 minutes a week.
Holston, a product of Fairfield school system, also knew that reading helps to steer young people away from crime.
“It would kill me to find out that one of the students I touched ended up in the criminal justice system,” she said. “I would wonder ‘what could I have done differently to ensure they don’t become a statistic?’”
Real Men Read
Holston has also enlisted males to help read to students.
“A lot of times our boys see books in the hands of women,” she said. “A lot of our students come from single-parent homes. So if they see books it’s in mom’s hands, or a teacher’s hand. I ask the men to read and mentor to the kids.”
Men from various backgrounds – doctors, lawyers, accountants, truck drivers, former professional athletes, radio personalities – read to children and show them that no matter what career they choose, reading will be part of it.
“The boys look forward to it every year,” Holston said. “This year the boys walked into the auditorium, and I remember thinking ‘gosh they’re too loud.’ I remember something inside of me saying, ‘stop and listen.’ What I heard was, ‘Ooh, I want to read with him, I want him to read with me, I’m going to go with him.’”
Reading is for life, she said, and students love to read.
“I have students who come and ask to borrow books in my classroom,” she said. “The Accelerated Reader program makes the kids excited to read. When they are sitting on the sofa (in the classroom) or in their little chairs and I hear them giggle because they’ve read something funny, I know they’re engaged in what they are reading,” she said.
Holston said she just wants to make a difference in the lives of her students.
“I love teaching at Fairfield and I love the kind of students I teach,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m impacting my community and that’s very important to me.”