2017-08-16 / Local News

Beth El member helping develop culture of reading in Lindenwold


FAMILY: Wife Stacy; Children Hannah, 20, and Rob, 18

HOBBIES: Reading and running

SYNAGOGUE: Cong. Beth El

CURRENT FAVORITE BOOKS: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt; “The Fixer” by Bernard Malamud

A Lindenwold High School English teacher, Larry Abrams has long wondered why some of his students, while obviously bright, show up for class unable to read and write at grade level, and—at this point in their lives—completely turned off by reading.

A casual conversation with a bright student several years ago presented one of the biggest clues. Asked what she was reading to her two-year-old child, the teen seemed caught off guard. She responded that her baby was too young to understand books.

Ever the teacher, Abrams explained the importance of early reading in developing literacy skills and how, at the same age as her child, his daughter was proudly reciting “Goodnight Moon” and other classics. Impressed, the teen nonetheless shook her head. Her parting words still haunt him: “Mr. Abrams, we don’t do that in my culture.”

“As Jews, we read to our kids; it’s just what we do,” said Abrams, who is the lay leader for Cong. Beth El’s Junior Congregation. “But in Lindenwold, a lot of our families don’t get it. They mean well, but they trust the schools are going to do everything to educate their kids.”

There are also financial considerations. In Lindenwold, where the median income is less than $39,000, and almost 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line, buying books is a luxury many can’t afford.

“If they have an extra $10, they aren’t going to spend it on books,” noted Abrams, who is also the track coach.

Once he had his epiphany, Abrams realized he had a mission. To create a culture of reading in Lindenwold households, he was not only going to collect books to distribute to young families but teach the parents how to read to their children: How to cuddle up with their young ones, use silly voices, ask questions about context and otherwise help them develop a love of reading.

To turn his idea into something real, his first tangible act last year was to post a flier around Beth El asking families to donate “newish” early readers and picture books. The response was overwhelming and BookSmiles began.

The first load sailed off the shelves during the high school’s Hispanic Heritage Night. Then in December, he offered them as “instant Xmas presents” during the school’s Breakfast with Santa event. Some of the books went home with younger students when high school students got into the act. Promoted as a public service, the older kids adore going to the elementary schools to read.

And the culture is clearly starting to change, he said. Young moms now feel comfortable showing up to Mommy and Me groups at the high school to learn how to model reading to their children.

With the youngest of his own children now in college, Abrams is now branching out, considering ways of replicating the success of the program in other school districts with similar socio-economic conditions.

“Every kid needs a chance in life,” he said. “The fact of being born into households that don’t value reading is something I will not accept. I will go out and sell it.”

For more information on donating books or about the organization, visit http://www.booksmiles.org. 

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