Lifelong love for books influences student's career choice in education
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a little girl, Jaime Ellenberger loved to get lost in the imaginary worlds created by books.
“Growing up, I remember specifically reading books with my grandma,” she said. “I loved reading ‘Because of Winn Dixie’ and Junie B. Jones books. The Nancy Drew series is always something that stuck with me and I remember reading those books up through high school.”
Having just completed her sophomore year studying childhood and early adolescent education, Ellenberger is sharing her love of reading with the young children of State College and applying what she is learning in the classroom to her position as a literacy mentor for America Reads at Penn State.
“A friend from my hometown came to Penn State and told me about America Reads,” Ellenberger said. “So I looked it up and it was perfect.”
A federal program created in 1996 by the Clinton administration, America Reads is a nationwide initiative aimed at providing reading and writing tutoring to students in pre-k through third grade. Twenty years later, the federal grant still exists and continues its mission by employing college students through the federal work-study program.
“Penn State was the first university to hire an America Reads student and over time, we have evolved to look at literacy in the broader sense,” said Emily Wolfe, coordinator of America Reads at Penn State. “It’s not just reading and writing anymore. We have environmental literacy, science literacy, health literacy, math literacy, adult literacy. We serve everybody from infants to adults, and partner with many different community organizations.”
One of those partners is Schlow Library, where Ellenberger was placed as a literacy mentor in the spring of 2015. In her first year with the library she created “Elementary Explorers,” a literacy program geared toward elementary-aged children who visited the library.
“It started out as a book club but it wasn’t structured like a typical book club where you read a book and then come in the next week to talk about it,” she said, explaining that different kids would attend each week so the set-up of a traditional book club didn’t work. To make the club more welcoming of new children, Ellenberger changed gears.
“Now it’s more of a ‘drop-in’ book club,” she said. Instead of focusing on one book, children can openly discuss their favorite books and characters or any books they are currently reading.
“We talk about anything related to books. Then after the discussions, there’s a book-related activity we complete,” she said. “We’ve constructed bookmarks, created character profiles of their favorite literary characters and I’ve even had them construct their own books.”
In addition to “Elementary Explorers,” Ellenberger also assists with other children’s programming such as “Lego Club,” “Block Party” and “Stories and More!”
“‘Lego Club’ is really cool,” she said. “Initially kids just came in and played with the blocks. It was kind of free-range. I added another component to it to get the students to think outside of the box.”
Before starting their creations, children must now select a random “challenge card” from a box and construct the object on the card.
“I created different cards that say things like ‘musical instrument,’ so whoever gets that card has to build an instrument out of the Legos,” she said. “I also have theme cards and they have to make something related to that theme, like ‘under the sea.’” Other cards ask children to spell out their names, create a pattern, build a structure that uses every color only once or something that uses only a specific number of Legos. As the children build their structures, Ellenberger asks questions about their structures.
“I’ll ask things like, ‘What animals live in the sea?” or “How do these animals survive in the sea?” she said.
Because of growing interests and emphases on science and math, Ellenberger also has incorporated STEM activities into her programming.
“The library has these really cool science kits with different materials that we use,” Ellenberger said. “There’s one that deals with motion where children have little cars and have to make ramps and then determine how fast the cars go depending on how many blocks they used.” Children also get to experiment with circuits and float-and-sink activities, she said.
Learning from experience
When Ellenberger first enrolled at Penn State in the fall of 2014, she, like many other college freshmen, was not sure what she wanted to study. She registered for classes through Penn State’s Division of Undergraduate Studies to explore her options. By the following spring semester, she started working at Schlow Library and it wasn’t long before she found herself visiting the College of Education to declare her major.
“I really liked the atmosphere of the library and interacting with the kids,” she said. “That same semester I took EDPSY 014 with Dr. Stevens and that really helped me make the decision to be an education major.”
The course, which introduces students to different types of instruction and classroom management techniques, helped Ellenberger with the work she was doing at the library.
“It was really relevant to what I was doing at the library,” she said. “I was able to get hands-on experience on how to handle a room full of young kids and try different techniques with the different programs.”
During her many experiences at the library, Ellenberger has had to mediate situations related to children and sharing.
“I’ve definitely learned about how to try to regulate things among the group,” she said. “During our Block Party activities, everybody wants the big blocks but there are only so many so I spend a lot of time working with the kids so they understand how they can all work together and share resources.”
Ellenberger also faces the challenges of working with children who do not speak English, something her current English as a Second Language classes are helping her overcome.
“It can be very difficult,” she said. “I started this position before I started taking ESL classes and I really struggled.”
One time, Ellenberger was working with a “quiet” child and trying to encourage him to interact with the other children when she learned from his mother that he had just moved from China to State College the week before and did not speak any English.
“At first, before taking ESL classes, I felt stuck and I didn’t know how to engage the students,” she said. “It can still be difficult but now I know to do things like have something visual to help the ESL kids understand and to communicate with them.”
Ellenberger is also grateful for the experiences she gets from her CI 295A: Introductory Field Experience for Early Childhood Settings class. The class, which requires students to complete 60 observation hours at a preschool, has influenced the way she interacts with children at the library.
“It’s a lot of hands-on learning,” she said of the course. “It is not just sitting in a classroom and being told ‘OK, this is how you respond to this situation and to this situation.’ You actually get to experience it and practice that.”
Working at the library allows her to continue to put what she learns in CI 295A into practice, she said, an added advantage that many of her peers do not have. The library also gives her the opportunity to learn more about working with children.
“Dr. Duerr, my CI295A professor, said ‘Children are our greatest teachers,’ and that is something that I try to keep in my mind,” she said. “I may be in the teacher role, but I’m learning a lot from the kids as well.”
As much as her classes have helped with her work at the library, Ellenberger’s work with America Reads and Schlow Library have helped her as a teacher-in-training.
“I think they go hand in hand,” she said of the connection between her education classes and her job with America Reads. “Things that I pick up at work really help me in my classes and things I learn in my classes easily translate over to my work.”
The training she receives through America Reads and Schlow Library have taught her how to be more of a professional, she said, which helps when she is communicating with parents, her peers and even her professors. It’s the training that reminds her that she is in the right field.
“It has had a big impact on me and what I want to do,” she said of the training and experiences she receives. “America Reads has us watch a lot of TED Talks that talk about education and that alone has really helped me both at the library and in my education classes.”
Finding her niche
After becoming an education major and taking more classes in the discipline, Ellenberger says she can see that she has changed over the past year.
“When I first started, I know I was really shy and quiet, and I didn’t really ask questions,” she said, recalling her first semester as a literacy mentor. “My confidence has really grown and I definitely feel more comfortable with the kids and doing the different programs with them. After working there, it didn’t take me too long to decide that this is what I want to do.”
Despite Ellenberger’s reserved nature, Wolfe saw something in her that she doesn’t see in a lot of other students — a genuine love for books.
“When we started talking about books, she just lit up,” Wolfe said about her first meeting with Ellenberger. “So I knew Schlow would be a great placement for her.”
Schlow Library also has benefited from its partnership with America Reads. Having Ellenberger there to work with the children has allowed the library to expand its educational programming, an option that was not previously available due to staff limitation, said Anita Ditz, head of children’s services at Schlow Library.
“Jaime has smoothly blended with our staff and we enjoy having her here,” she said. “We only wish we could have her working with us year round.”
Although she won’t be working at the library during the summer, Ellenberger likely will continue her America Reads placement there throughout her career at Penn State — another two years — a plan that sits well with her.
“I love it there,” she said. “I get to work with some wonderful people and I love interacting with all of the children. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”
By Jessica Buterbaugh (June 2016)