Newburgh book clubs boost kids’ love of learning

May 03, 2013

Newburgh, NY -

Newburgh Book Clubs

(Left) Mount Saint Mary College education professor Janine Bixler helps a student write a poem during a book club at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center. (Right) Mount teacher candidate Philip Stewart of Wurtsboro, NY strums the blues on his acoustic guitar, as a young student recites the poem she wrote. Looking on is Mount professor Janine Bixler, who helped create the Saturday book club at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center.

It might seem improbable that students enjoy spending their Saturday mornings in a classroom. But thanks to Mount Saint Mary College education professors like Janine Bixler and 22 dedicated student volunteers, local kids are doing just that – and getting excited about literature.

Mount “book clubs” are offered at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center as part of the college’s Collaborative for Equity in Literacy Learning (CELL). College volunteers help their young students to explore books that reflect various cultural backgrounds and interests of the Newburgh community, explained Bixler, director of CELL. Children actively share their own ideas and stories as well.

“We’ve had some great discussions with the books,” said Bixler, who is devoted to sharing the joy of learning and enhancing the natural gifts of her students.

“The goal is to create lifelong readers, instead of those who only read because they have to for school.”

Fr. Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, president of Mount Saint Mary College, serves on the board of directors of the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, where the aim is education and recreation.

Recently, three Mount Saint Mary College master’s candidates – Zachary D’Alfonso of Newburgh, NY; Philip Stewart of Wurtsboro, NY; and Brian Morgan of Poughkeepsie, NY – further spread the love of literacy to youngsters through music and art.

After discussing how music resembles poetry, and using the blues as an example, Stewart strapped on an acoustic guitar and invited students to write poems and draw pictures of a time when they felt blue.

Each boy and girl read his or her poems with Stewart’s musical accompaniment, while peers clapped and sang along.

“Never stop reading and never stop writing,” Stewart told them.

Bixler pointed out that Mount volunteers hone their teaching skills by participating in the book clubs. This and other activities provide urban youth meaningful contact with college students and faculty.

D’Alfonso agreed.

“Our music idea worked really well,” he said. “Now we can refine it and put it into our classrooms. [CELL book clubs] gives us a great opportunity to work with kids.”

The master’s degree students said that the Mount had prepared them well for teaching in the lively Newburgh Armory classroom.

“I speak very highly of the faculty of the Mount’s education program,” said Stewart. “Specifically, Dr. Bixler is an excellent influence. She leads by example and models good teaching and professionalism.”

Morgan noted professor Dolores Berlinghoff, with expertise is behavior management, as a major influence. D’Alfonso added that assistant professor Patricia Ruff aided him greatly in his evolution as a student.

Mount Saint Mary College’s nationally accredited education program is distinctive in that fieldwork is embedded in coursework, starting in sophomore year. The program earns high marks in preparing well qualified teachers and administrators for New York State licensure.

In addition to the graduate students, Mount undergraduates interested in service learning projects have co-taught the Saturday book clubs. The club for Conversations to Inspire Reading Children’s Literature with Engagement (CIRCLE) lent several books for use in the program, and club members have facilitated some of the discussions.

Newburgh Literacy

Prior to presenting, the college students prepare their sessions with faculty.

(Right) Nicole Zazzero of Brewster, NY (seated) reads to local children while Rachel Sleeter of Hyde Park, NY prepares for the book discussion to follow.

Other students volunteers who have led Newburgh Armory book club sessions: Chelsea Armitage of Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, a history major; Nicole Armocida of Franklin Square, NY, a history major; Nicole Aruilio of Carmel, NY, an accounting major; Lindsay Bordonaro of Yorktown Heights, NY, a history major; Julianna DeBellis of Poughkeepsie, NY, a literacy and childhood education graduate student; Sarah Favata of Northvale, NJ, a history major; Lauren Fiorentino of Belle Harbor, NY, a social science major; Nicole Golder of Smithtown, NY, a Hispanic studies major; Joseph Henain of Hopewell Junction, NY, a biology major on the pre-med track; Donte Howell of Baldwin, NY, a math major; Katie Kelder of Olivebridge, NY, a history – political science major; Steven Phillips of New Hyde Park, NY, a history major; Amanda Sakac of Warwick, NY, an information technology/education major; Rachel Sleeter of Hyde Park, NY, a history major; Rachel Springer of Old Bethpage, NY, an information technology/education major; Katharine Tischer of Port Jefferson, NY, a math major; Kira Tutko of Washingtonville, NY, an information technology/education major; Samantha Venditti of Mahopac, NY, a social science/history major; and Nicole Zazzero of Brewster, NY, a history major.

Other Mount education faculty who have participated in the CELL program are Reva Cowan, David Gallagher, Jane Gangi, and Matt Hollibush. Additionally, English professor Peter Witkowski recently lent his skills to the program.

Bixler is working on a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience project with assistant professor Rebecca Norman and three undergraduate students (Zazzero, Kelder, and Asma Neblett of Port Jefferson, NY, a communications – journalism major) involving literacy and the Armory book clubs.

Community outreach is only one component of Collaborative for Equity in Literacy Learning. The program also focuses on research and professional development. The recent 20th annual Mount Saint Mary College conference on literacy, featuring author Joseph Bruchac as the keynote speaker, is a prime example.

Another goal, led by Gangi, is to recommend multicultural literature via annotated bibliographies for elementary and intermediate school Common Core State Standards.

Bixler’s work on the CELL program and her excellent teaching skills were recently recognized with the Mid-Hudson School Study Council’s Educational Leadership Award. The award cites superior educational leadership and accomplishments in educational environments, an advanced sense of creativity in meeting the needs of students, and growth of professional communities.