Kids at the West Rock STREAM Academy are accustomed to hearing from authors. After all, until this year the inter-district magnet was officially called West Rock Authors Academy.
Until Tuesday, they had never heard from an author who also happened to be a professional football player.
They did on Tuesday afternoon when New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell scored a touchdown with the school’s more than 200 pre-K through fourth graders.
At a rousing assembly, Mitchell told them that reading is more important than football because it, unlike a pigskin, holds the magical key to fulfilling your goals.
Two years ago Mitchell, who was part of the Patriots 2017 Super Bowl squad, launched a foundation to develop and fund “Read With Malcolm” programs to inspire reading and improvement among below-grade readers.
He told the kids Tuesday that when he was their age he was afraid to read, because he did it so poorly. By the time he got to the University of Georgia to play football, he was reading at best at an eighth-grade level.
His story — which includes how he spent as much time teaching himself to read proficiently as playing football in college — is at the heart of a video that West Rock’s literacy coach Elisa Pitoniak saw on TV back in September.
She was so moved, she showed it to all the classes in the school. She used it to help the kids set goals like reading more books, different kinds, growing vocabulary. Just as Mitchell had done at a later stage in his life.
Then she lucked out to get Mitchell and his program to come by.
It was the perfect audience because West Rock STREAM, four years ago a governor’s “turnaround” school, has made strides. It posted the largest progress in getting kids to read at grade level. From 2015/16 to the most recent scores, the tally of kids reading at grade level leapt from 8 percent to 80 percent as measured on the Smarter Balance Assessment test, Pitoniak reported.
Last year the school received a federal magnet grant to shift to a STREAM (science/technology/reading/engineering/art/math) framework, and along with that, a name change. But reading remains at the very heart of the curriculum across the disciplines.
The school also benefits from a partnership with Teachers College at Columbia University, whose staff visits the school regularly and helps lead the teachers’ professional development.
Programs like Mitchell’s speak to the aspirational aspects of reading. Especially as Mitchell’s own first foray beyond football has been as as an author, drawing from his own life, to write a book about the magic of reading, The Magician’s Hat.
“When I was growing up, I was so scared to read in front of my friends. But I learned in order to succeed. Books changed my life. I’m here to talk about something more important than football: reading,” he told the kids, after magician Jeff Horton had warmed them up.
Need we say that this magician’s favorite card trick was with a library card?
All of this pleased Heaven McCrae-Brown. The fourth-grader said about reading and the presenter: “I like stories, the story line, the action, what goes on beneath the text. I love characters. I [just] love reading books. If he shares a passion of reading and sports, then I’m good.”
During Mitchell’s presentation in the ground-floor gymnasium, not a single football was thrown, not a word said about the art of wide receiving. Just reading as the passport to whatever each kid wants to be—the theme of the book, which he read collectively with his audience.
Still, as kids will be kids, and if you’re a fourth-grade boy like Terrance Reid, when a football player comes to your gymnasium ... guess what Terrance said he wants to be when he grows up.
“Maybe a football player,” he said while reading along with his teacher Amy Todisco.
Heaven McCrae-Brown held to her aspiration to be a scientist.