READ IN Week storytellers help schoolkids see university in their future

UAlberta student volunteers inspire a lifelong love of learning.


For Edmonton’s annual READ IN Week, University of Alberta graduate student Michal-Joan Jenkinson will crack the books and spread her love of reading to the next generation.

She’ll tuck a pair of Canadian children’s stories under her arm and have the same fun as last year—the first time she read to students at an Edmonton school. Unsure of how it would go in a classroom full of squirming kids, she knew it was a hit by the reaction she got.

“There was always at least one kid in class who started by sitting back and by the end of the story, there they are, leaning forward,” she said.

Jenkinson is one of many students from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) who takes time to read to local schoolkids during the week-long literacy event, which runs Oct. 3-7. Through its community volunteer program, READ IN Week has over the last 14 years placed 1,164 volunteer storytellers who have read to more than 53,000 children in English, Farsi, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian, in 516 school visits.

Overall in the same time period, the U of A community has volunteered between 8,000 and 10,000 readers including students, faculty and staff, said Renee Polziehn, professional development and community volunteer director for FGSR.

With its focus on literacy, READ IN Week showcases the U of A for youngsters in a way that makes post-secondary understandable and attainable, she added.

“For kids to imagine they could take their entire school and fit it into one university class is an unbelievable thought for them, but to also know their class is sometimes the same size is a way they can relate to the U of A. And then they see university as a possibility for their future.

“One of the school kids said to me one year, ‘Why do all these important people come and read to us?’ I think it shows what role models our own students are for them,” said Polziehn, who hopes to place about 100 volunteers in schools this year.

“I love giving them a new experience,” said Jenkinson, a master’s student in speech language pathology. “As grad students, we have specialized expertise and when you take that into a classroom, you give kids alternate pictures of who they can be.”

READ IN Week started 27 years ago in Edmonton by a local schoolteacher, partner school districts, libraries, literacy groups, universities and media partners for a campaign that sees volunteers of all kinds visiting classrooms to read storybooks.

As a leader in learning, the U of A has a commitment to sharing that experience with the larger community, said Randy Wimmer, dean of the Faculty of Education.

“Literacy involves the entire community and READ IN Week for the university further provides an opportunity for us to not only be individual role models, but also to provide a learning space for our diverse communities, to collectively inspire a lifelong love of learning for children and youth, second-language learners and adults.”

This year’s event kicks off at the U of A in Convocation Hall Oct. 3 with a celebration featuring performances from Indigenous dancers and drummers, and a reading by an Elder from Nokum Is My Teacher, reflecting this year’s READ IN theme: One World, Many Voices.

The book, penned by Métis writer David Bouchard and illustrated by Indigenous artist Allen Sapp, comes with a CD in both English and Cree. It tells the story of a boy and his Nokum (grandmother) and how reading can help him span both worlds.

The gentle story celebrates the idea of diversity, said Wimmer, who will be introducing the reading.

“The theme encourages readers as learners to listen to and tell stories in diverse ways,” he said.

“It shows everyone that different stories are equally important,” Polziehn added. “It’s a beautiful story and it doesn’t matter where you come from, you will relate to its wisdom.”