Spring break in the LAB: ISJL program promotes literacy during vacation

Dave Miller with LAB students in 2017

A major part of Jewish involvement is working to better the overall community, and the Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life is working on developing initiatives that can be replicated around the region.

This month, the Institute’s Community Engagement department is holding the second Literacy Achievement Bonanza during Spring Break.

The day camp-style program features literacy-based activities designed to foster a positive relationship with reading while improving literacy skills. Designed for first through fifth grade, LAB will be held at Jackson State University from March 12 to 16. The Institute partners with Jackson State to produce the program.

Community Engagement Fellow Rachel Glazer said the program provides something for the students to do during the break, “reinforcing literary skills,” but “in a fun way,” including scavenger hunts, relay races, reader’s theater and art projects.

She said that last year, students would come back the next day looking for a new book, having read the entire book from the previous day. Last year, they arranged for some books that would be on their summer reading list, to let the students get a head start.

Dave Miller, director of community engagement, said that in addition to the elementary school students, a second set of students is helped through the week — “it reinforces skills for education majors and future educators at the university level” who participate in the program.

Many of the education students “don’t have prolonged opportunities to work with students like this, in this context,” Miller said. The program teaches how to run activities and “how to connect academic standards to fun activities.”

The program has 30 students per grade, for a total of 150. They are split into groups of 15, led by an education major. The majors are matched with a certified teacher who mentors two instructors.

Last year, about 100 volunteers participated in running the program, including representatives from Hillels around the country.

There is a $25 registration fee for the program, which includes snacks, lunch, an afternoon snack and a free book every day.

Miller said a lot of the students are on assistance programs, which provides for meals during summer and winter breaks, but not for Spring Break.

Also, “Spring Break is one of those times when there are almost no programs offered, because it is a week,” he said.

The day runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with six content areas. There is a spelling bee at the end of the week, and guest speakers.

Miller said the week is “rigorous… allowing their brains to grow while having fun.”

The ISJL staff has developed 270 plans from which the instructors can select. Because of that, Glazer said the program is portable and can be easily replicated in other communities, echoing the standardized religious school curriculum developed by the Institute and now used in around 75 congregations. “This is something we can package and send,” she said.

Last year was the pilot year, Miller said. “This year we are refining and growing,” and next year the plan is to make it available to other communities.

“Even though the content is secular, a synagogue can host it, or a JCC,” he said.

While the program is entirely secular, Miller said it reflects “living and executing our values,” aligning Jewish values to work in the general community.

The department does two additional literacy initiatives. Our Reading Family is a six-week program in conjunction with the Jackson library system, and Read, Lead, Succeed is a literacy intervention program.

The community engagement department also has a peer mediation program throughout the state, Talk About the Problems, and social justice modules for congregations to replicate.