Gill’s Four Winds School looks to revitalize student engagement with reading initiative

Becca Danielsen, English language arts teacher and co-director of Four Winds School in Gill, with some of her curriculum’s new graphic novels and associated work.

Becca Danielsen, English language arts teacher and co-director of Four Winds School in Gill, with some of her curriculum’s new graphic novels and associated work. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 09-27-2023 10:23 AM

GILL — Years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, many students are still suffering from a lapse in their motivation to learn.

Observing this firsthand in her classroom, Four Winds School Co-Director and English language arts teacher Becca Danielsen knew she had to make a change.

“I feel like, for a couple years, many educators, myself included, have tried to have this, ‘Let’s just get back to normal’ mindset,” Danielsen said. “Now that it’s been a few years, I’m like, ‘That’s not working. I need to try something different.’”

This year, Danielsen hopes to revitalize student engagement by revamping the way her middle school students read. The most major change will be a shift toward graphic novels as more visually stimulating reading materials. Another strategy will be taking students on walking trips to the Carnegie Public Library twice during the school year, creating an opportunity for students to choose what they read. Angela Rovatti-Leonard, Montague’s children’s librarian, hopes that Danielsen’s reading initiative “can be a stepping stone” toward children loving to learn again.

Danielsen said she noticed a considerable drop in how much students were reading after COVID-19 forced students to adjust both their routines and their mindsets. She responded by organizing a graphic novel fundraiser on Facebook, which she said raised $500 in three days. She used the money to buy fun and beautiful, yet educational, works of fiction for her students to read, such as books from the New York Times bestselling “Hazardous Tales” historical fiction series by Nathan Hale.

Purchasing another graphic novel, Victoria Jamieson’s “All’s Faire in Middle School,” was a particular effort by Danielsen to help ease new students into the classroom. The coming-of-age story follows Imogene, an 11-year-old homeschooler, who enters public school for the first time and struggles to fit in after being raised within an unusual “renaissance faire” culture.

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“I’m hoping it will just be identifiable for them,” Danielsen said.

Students’ trips to the Carnegie Public Library in Turners Falls, which will take place once in the fall and once next spring, will give students the chance to choose for themselves what they read.

“I’m sure you remember being that age and how good it felt to start taking some responsibility, start making some decisions and start taking some control in your life, especially after your whole childhood of having to basically do everything the adults around you tell you to do,” Danielsen said. “With a lot of different things at Four Winds, we try to have student buy-in and ownership.”

The lasting impact, Rovatti-Leonard said, is that students become “more apt to stick with it and to enjoy the reading that they’re doing.”

“It plants a seed where it’s not the heavy handed, ‘You have to do this,’” Rovatti-Leonard expressed.

It also allows students to learn how the Montague Public Libraries work.

“Basically, I’d give them a little tour of the library, explain services that are part of having a library card and being part of the library … and just make sure we’re welcoming here,” she said. “They might not use all of the resources the day they’re coming, but we want them to know that as patrons, there are a lot of things they can use on other time they’re not with the school.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.