When your school receives a delivery of 280 stuffed teddy bears, and one of them is yours, you know you're having a good day.
On Monday, Pecos Elementary School teacher Nadia Valenzuela distributed stuffed bears to the entire school, a gift from author Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr, who visited the school in January.
“Want to trade a bear for a pizza?” a teacher jokingly asked a group of students dressed in red uniform shirts, nuzzling their new bears. “No way!” they returned in unison, a happy chorus of glee.
Valenzuela, in her 15th year of teaching at Pecos Elementary School, was delighted when Swanson and Behr followed up their January 2023 visit with the gift of the Build-A-Bear stuffed bears, one for each student.
“It was a total surprise,” Ms. Valenzuela said. The bears are welcome companions for students as they practice reading.
According to the New Mexico Public Education Department, learning to read by the end of third grade is critical for future success in school, including rates of high school graduation. Reading out loud to a bear is an opportunity to practice skills, plus the bears are fun.
“They're so soft,” students repeated, pressing their faces to the camel-colored fur. The bears' paws had red hearts, and each wore a white T-shirt with cobalt blue trim.
In January, Swanson and Behr visited Pecos Elementary to give a free hardcover book to every student, a partnership with First Book in a nationwide tour called Busload of Books.
First Book is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides free books to students and educators in underserved schools. Swanson and Behr spent the past year traveling the United States, giving away books to Title I schoolchildren to promote reading and creativity.
Valenzuela applied for and arranged Swanson and Behr's visit to Pecos, the only school in New Mexico to receive free books at an assembly in January. Behr and Swanson visited one school in every state.
At the Pecos school-wide assembly, students were invited to “build a story” and contribute in real time by answering the author and illustrator’s questions — “What happens next?” and “How does the story end?” Building a story together teaches the writing process.
In the last week of school, Swanson and Behr gifted the bears as a tangible reminder to continue reading and writing over the summer. Much like the “read to a dog” program that encourages student literacy, students can read to their plush bear.
Yoltzin Sanchez, age 11, planned to read her bear "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" so she could pretend her bear is a character in the book. She was also looking forward to reading her bear a chapter book about owls.
Janet Montes, a fifth grader at Pecos, named her bear Twinkie and guessed her sister Fernanda Montes, who is in kindergarten, would name her bear, “Bear.” Fernanda Montes could not be located for confirmation.
Alison Fuentes said her bear Goldilocks would keep her motivated to read over the summer. She plans to seat belt Goldilocks next to her when her family drives to Oklahoma next month.
“I don't want him to fly out the window,” she said, the plot of a potential story unfolding in real time.
“Safety first,” she said. Fuentes grinned at her made-up adventure. The possibilities for imaginative twists and turns are endless when you have a supportive bear with a big attention span and a permanent expression of interest.
Of course, Fuentes also plans to read her bear Goldilocks the book that Swanson and Behr gave her at their January visit, "Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom," the selection for second to fifth graders. Pre-K, Kindergarten and first graders received "Everywhere, Wonder," a picture book about the power of close observation to ignite story.
The Pecos community doubled when each student received their new bear. Sometimes you only need a friend to inspire your creativity and spark a lifelong love of reading.
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