In the classroom: Local teachers team up to give the gift of reading

J.K. Rowling once said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” It is a quote that local English Teacher Jessica Rash embraces.

“Helping students find a book they enjoy is like a puzzle that I can’t put down,” Mrs. Rash said.

For the past five years, Mrs. Rash, who teaches sixth grade English classes at Milford Central Academy, has gifted students with books before they embark on their long-awaited winter break.

This year, she has a new goal. With the help of seventh grade English Teacher Alex Paquette, she hopes to raise enough books to gift one to each student in the school — about 1,200 books. Books can be donated through Friday, Dec. 14th at Milford Central Academy, Fur Baby, Red Bandana and the Grotto Pizza in Milford.

“Ms. Paquette approached me a few weeks ago about trying to get enough books for the entire school, and I was all for it,” Mrs. Rash said.

“I planned on doing a drive just for the 6th grade again, but, with her help, I thought we could get enough to make a larger impact. So, instead of getting 400 books, we need to get 1200 books.

“It is important to me that my students have books at home and at school. The more access to books they have, the more likely it is that they will find one they enjoy. I chose to share my passion of reading by gifting books.”

One book started it all

The idea came to her during her earlier years as a teacher.

“When I started out, I taught at private school and my class sizes were extremely small,” Mrs. Rash said. “Since my class sizes were so small and every child in my class celebrated Christmas, I gave them handmade ornaments.”

“I didn’t know my students very well in the time it took me to begin my position before winter vacation began,” Mrs. Rash added. “However, I gave my students some challenges for the vacation.

“One of the challenges was to read a book,” Mrs. Rash said. “One of my students approached me and said she did not have any books at home. I found out later on that she did have books at home, but they were too young, too old, or not hers. Either way, my heart broke a little. I had to do something about it.”

She decided to buy books for her students instead of making handmade ornaments.

“I went to thrift stores and raided my home library,” Mrs. Rash said. “I was able to scrounge up enough books for each of my students to have a book to keep before vacation. When I gave this student her book, her face lit up. It was thrilling to see someone so overjoyed for a book.”

She said that’s what continues to inspire her to give her students books every year.

“When I saw her face and my other students’ joy, it was like a fire was lit,” Mrs. Rash said. “I realized that I could make an impact, even a small one, in every student’s life by giving them a book.”

“As years went on, I realized that some students weren’t impacted as heavily as readers, but they were impacted by the generosity,” she added. “I teach for a lot of reasons. I teach for that light bulb moment, to see each student grow, to see them apply what they’ve learned, to learn how to be a leader, but also to see them find joy in reading.”

The amount of students in her classroom per day eventually soared from just a few students to anywhere from 60 to 90 students as she transitioned from one school to the next in her career. To accommodate the changes, she decided to take a different approach to her holiday giving.

“My class sizes were extremely small when I first started out as a teacher,” Mrs. Rash said. “My largest class was eighteen students and my smallest was five students. It started to increase over the years as I started switching schools. I have 90 students at Milford Central Academy. I just couldn’t afford to give every student a book. . . last year I started my first book drive to ensure that every student would be able to have a book for the holidays.”

Mrs. Rash said the process wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be.

“I started putting the word out on social media and email that I needed middle school books to give to my students,” Mrs. Rash said. “I already bought 50 on my own, but I needed about 40 more at the time. I quickly got more than that, so I changed my goal. My new goal was 400 books. That would give me enough for the entire 6th grade and a few other classes.”

Each week, she received more donations. She even had to take a cart to the school office a few times to pick up book donations.

“By vacation, every sixth-grade student, life skills students, and English as a Second Language students had a book to keep,” Mrs. Rash said. “We had a few left over that went into our winter raffle for positive behavior.

“I had donations from teachers, friends, family, community members, students and parents. My fellow 6th grade ELA teachers also put the word out and got donations from their friends, family, and even college professors. It was amazing. I was blown away at the generosity.”

Mrs. Rash said their plan now is to get the word out as much as possible.

“We plan to put out flyers to the community, social media posts, and emails,” Mrs. Rash said. “Ms. Paquette made donation boxes and contacted local businesses to house them. We have donation boxes in Milford at Fur-Baby Boutique, Grotto Pizza, Red Bandana, and the MCA school library.

“I created a donation letter that we sent to local businesses as well as literacy driven businesses in surrounding communities and states. Ms. Paquette also made the flyers and made copies for students to take home at MCA.”

The teachers also reached out to local radio stations and newspapers to further their mission.

“Our general idea is that there is a direct correlation with our coverage to the number of donations we receive,” she said.

Even though the process has been tough at times, Mrs. Rash said their hard work has been paying off so far.

“We’ve gotten one anonymous donation of 70 books, a monetary donation, a teacher donation of book coupons from Scholastic and 20 additional books, three bags of books from a parent from my last school, as well as donations from the community at our local drop off points,” Mrs. Rash said.

“We are so thankful for all the donations we have and will get as well as the support we have from local businesses allowing us to have a drop off location with them. We are also so grateful for all the support on social media with donations and sharing our posts.”

She said help has been coming from all different angles.

“Ms. Paquette and I worked together to get as much coverage as possible,” Mrs. Rash said. “We were able to get lots of support on social media, including a post from Milford School District with our flyer as well as lots of shares from that post and our own.

“I have gotten several responses to my emails some in regards to donations and others with more connections. I have received emails from Governor Carney’s office, Secretary Bunting, BookSource, and Delaware State University.”

Through it all, she never imaged that one simple idea would impact so many lives years later.

Giving students the gift of reading is a priority for me,” Mrs. Rash said. “When I started teaching, I never thought I would have this opportunity. Every teacher wants to impact their students but with the help of Ms. Paquette, my colleagues, family, and community, we can have a lasting impact on our students, even the ones who aren’t in my classroom.

“Getting the community involved and impacting so many has been a dream. Now when the students get their books they see the generosity of the entire community and not just their teacher. This endeavor takes a village.”

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