A School's Special Place for Bookworms

Swansfield Elementary fifth-graders Catelyn Gamble, left, and Marina Chang explore the Ben Carson Reading Room, named for the Johns Hopkins doctor.
Swansfield Elementary fifth-graders Catelyn Gamble, left, and Marina Chang explore the Ben Carson Reading Room, named for the Johns Hopkins doctor. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

The small sky-blue room has a mural of trees and flowers, soft carpet and cozy beanbag chairs. But most important, it has bright shelves filled with new books for children.

In anticipation of Monday's grand opening at the Columbia school, parent volunteer Jennifer Mallo put the finishing touches on Swansfield Elementary's Ben Carson Reading Room last week. The room was created with an $11,000 grant from a nonprofit foundation started by Carson, a Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon.

The room, like its counterparts in 37 schools around the country, could not have opened without the support of community book lovers and the commitment of volunteers including Mallo.

"One of the greatest pleasures has been being able to buy all these beautiful, wonderful books and to hold all these shiny new books in your hands," said Mallo, a self-described bookaholic and mother of three young avid readers.

And the pleasure of holding a book and having time to read is what this room is all about. In the mural, there is an airplane flying, with a banner that says "Think Big." That slogan sums up Carson's philosophy of self-realization through the power of learning.

The doctor, who at one point was failing in school, credits his mother with helping to turn his life around by encouraging him to read instead of watching television. By helping schools open reading rooms, he hopes to pass along the secret of his success.

Amy Warner, executive director of the Carson Scholars Fund, said Swansfield was the first school in Howard County chosen to receive a reading room grant based on the "enthusiasm and support" of parents and volunteers, who will staff the room three days a week.

"We couldn't have created a room like this without volunteer effort and community support," Swansfield Principal Jonathan Davis said.

Children will earn the chance to spend time in the room by reading at home or at school or by listening to a parent or caregiver read. They will receive punch cards to keep track of the time they spend reading toward an age-appropriate goal, such as 150 minutes for a second-grader.

"Once they've met their goal," Mallo said, "they'll be able to come into the room." The child can pick a book or magazine and maybe a stuffed "reading buddy" animal or soccer ball and snuggle up for 20 minutes to read something wonderful, silly or mysterious.

If the child likes the book, he or she can mark the stopping place for the next visit or write down the title and author and check out a copy at the school library.

But this special place -- a former supply and resource room -- is different from the school library or media center, Mallo said. Children don't have to come here to get schoolwork done.

"It isn't curriculum-driven," she said. "It's for pleasure and enjoyment and whatever you are interested in."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company