October 15, 2014
Backstage.com | by Briana Rodriguez
If children are the future, it’s time to invest, and SAG Foundation’s BookPALS is making it easy for actors who want to help.
“All they have to do is show up,” said director of NY BookPALS’ Maria Cabezas. “They learn some tricks to further engage the students in the classroom, and then we look at some books. The volunteers always walk away [from training] with at least two or three books. We give everything to them; they just have to be willing to volunteer their time.” And your morning or afternoon will be well spent reading to dozens of children. As the program’s website points out: “Who better to bring the magic of stories to life than performers?”
BookPALS draws on Columbia University’s Teachers College philosophy for how children learn to read and write to ensure all the different methods they use to grasp information—from visual to auditory learners and beyond—are recognized in a way that makes reading stories fun. BookPALS has also formed a relationship with Urban Arts Partnership, one of the top arts and education programs in the country, to work with the various learners.
“It’s really to help children love books,” explained Cabezas, who recruits, trains, and places actors looking to be a part of the program. “We teach [actors] to use character voices while reading, and one of the little tricks we have is to look at the action verbs in a picture book; if the mouse is rowing in his boat, you ask the students how they would row their boat. We want the actors to bring a physicality to the readings and make the read-aloud an interactive experience.”
It becomes a flexible enrichment opportunity for all involved, teaching actors to manage a classroom, as well as work with special needs students, while giving them a chance to bring out all the silly voices they’d rarely get to use onstage or onscreen.
Actors are placed at a specific school and have the freedom to volunteer once or make monthly or weekly visits to three or four classes of different grade levels. Working in partnership with the teachers, books are chosen to complement what’s being taught in the classroom for maximum engagement.
With budget cuts and libraries closing all over the country, programs like BookPALS have become a vital service, and notable actors who have participated include Betty White and Elijah Wood.
The program holds new reader orientations to equip volunteers with the tools needed to interact with students in classrooms all over New York City, San Francisco, Florida, Los Angeles, New England, and Arizona. While Cabezas said this month’s orientation is at capacity, there are more opportunities to be a PAL and get hands-on with children’s education before the year is over.
“That’s what’s unique about us,” said Cabezas. “We’re on the cusp of what’s happening in the New York City classroom.”