Trusting Young Learners

By Lori Oczkus

Instilling a love of reading through choice, agency, and time to talk about books

The students and teachers in Paradise have experienced a series of tragedies and challenges the past few years including the horrific Camp Fire which destroyed their school and entire town. On November 8, 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California raged through the beautiful town of Paradise, California ruining everything in its path. About 93% of the students in the school district lost their homes in the inferno. From that fateful morning when the Camp Fire’s flames ravaged the town, the teachers in Paradise heroically stepped into action and their lives were changed forever. The district set up makeshift classrooms in stores, churches, and schools in neighboring towns. Teachers scrambled to gather books and materials. Returning to school provided the recovering town with a sense of normalcy.

The community was still digging out of the tragic ashes to rebuild when Covid hit in 2020. Just like schools everywhere in the world, Paradise educators stepped up to deliver remote virtual learning. To meet the needs of the community during Covid Principal Ed Gregorio and a dedicated team spent long days at school masked up to pass out meals to families in need, provide moral support, and to create instructional packets for students.

Many families moved out of the area after the fire leaving about 42% of the school district’s original population. Two of the former elementary schools, Paradise and Ponderosa, combined in the rebuild to become Paradise Ridge Elementary which opened in August 2021. Paradise Ridge Elementary is a Title One school with around 75-85% of the students on free and reduced lunch.

The newly built school building, Paradise Ridge Elementary, houses a new library stocked with a wonderful selection of books run by a skillful library aide. Teachers continue to rebuild their classroom libraries post-fire. However, due to poverty coupled with the loss of their homes in the inferno, many students in Paradise still lack books of their own. When Bring Me a Book (BMAB) approached the school, the invited teachers were thrilled to participate to provide their students with books to take home.

What Book Abundance Makes Possible

Once the books were in the children’s hands, teacher Laura Taylor made the most of the books, finding ways to optimize their impact in the classroom. The kids, too, came up with their own ideas to celebrate the new books that entered their classroom.

Book Gifts

Teacher Laura Taylor gift wrapped every book.

The third graders filed into Laura Taylor’s classroom wide-eyed as they spotted two unopened “gifts” on each of their desks. Their teacher lovingly gift wrapped each of their recent BMAB selections.  On cue and all at once students joyously ripped into the colorful papers to embrace their new reading choices. They squealed with delight and blurted out comments as they eagerly shared their titles with one another.

“This is just like Christmas!”

“Wow! That’s such a good book for you because you love horses.”

“I’m not surprised you picked that one. Can I read it when you’re done?”

“My mom and I are going to have so much fun reading this together at bedtime!”

“I’m going to read these now, and I’m going to try and get the rest of the series next time.”

“I’ve always wanted this book, and now I finally have it!”

“Can we read them at recess?”

Lending Library

Laura Taylor reports that her students enjoyed sharing their books with the class after they finished reading them. She set up a designated shelf in the classroom for lending or trading Bring Me a Book titles.

Students brought the books back to class to give a short oral review of the title before it was placed on the classroom lending library shelf. This way all the students benefitted even more from the Bring Me a Book and Bookelicious orders. The students felt like they were helping pay forward the kindness that was shown to them by being generous with their books! Some students also donated their books for me to read aloud to the class.

Gallery Walk

The second graders in Mary Ludwig’s class stood behind their chairs ready to rotate around the room in a gallery walk featuring their latest BMAB choices. On cue students quietly milled around all the desks to page through their classmates’ book choices. Students wrote comments on comment sheets placed next to each book. They expressed interest in the titles and gave compliments for book choices. The gallery walk benefitted students by promoting a wider variety of book selections. Students looked forward to a gallery walk with every book order! They enjoyed “flipping not ripping” through each other’s brilliant book selections.

Cookbook Craze

When Jaime received his cookbook from BMAB titled, Super Simple Baking for Kids: Learn to Bake with Over 55 Easy Recipes for Cookies, Muffins, Cupcakes and More! He had no idea he would start a class cookbook craze! Once the other boys in the third-grade class learned about Jaime’s cooking choice for reading, they ALL raced to the library to hunt for more recipes. One of the children noted, “I didn’t know we could choose a cookbook to read.” Fortunately, the librarian had already curated a fun cookbook display. The third-grade boys proceeded to check out the entire collection. Mrs. Taylor, their teacher became the ultimate taste tester for the boys’ home creations which included brownies, cookies, pizza, and muffins! The cookbook craze in Taylorville (Laura’s classroom nickname!) began with a BMAB selection that set off cooking fun and cookbook reading for the remainder of the year.

Jaime’s book choice – A cookbook!

Impromptu Book Clubs

When faced with their second book order the third graders in Mrs. Taylor’s class came up with a brilliant idea on their own. Since the class read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate together, many of the students decided to select the author’s book The One and Only Bob as one of their BMAB choices. When the books arrived, the children formed their own impromptu book clubs. They choose to read in pairs and trios under trees on recess and at home. They organized their discussion groups and chose how many pages to read over the weekend and each night. Everyone felt included and empowered as they engaged in lively discussions about loyalty, love, and friendship through the adventures of Bob the dog. Children directed every moment of the reading including how to read (aloud, silently together in paired reading etc), when to read, where to read and what to discuss. The teacher marveled at the students’ ingenuity and independence. Captivating award-winning books like those written by Katherine Applegate, possess the power to inspire students to become joyful, self-directed readers. The impromptu book clubs at Paradise Ridge Elementary became a highlight of the third-grade year.

Many students chose the same title to read together.

School Outcomes: Surprises, Challenges, and Hope


Laura shared the following insights:

The books given through Bring Me a Book have been a springboard for books being checked out in our new school library. Because of the gifted books, the students go into the library and ask for other books in the series or by the same author. I see this as a real benefit because we can then purchase books that students really want to read if we don’t have them already. We want to have books in the library that are going to be checked out and are in high-demand by the students.

Both Laura and Mary observed that students improved their skills as they searched for appropriate books by round two. Children became more comfortable with the platform and learned how to search effectively. Ordering the second time around was much quicker because they were more aware of authors and series. Students were interested in building their book collections.


Mary’s second graders this year were reading at much lower levels since pre-covid. Some of them didn’t know their alphabet at the beginning of second grade. Placing orders took a long time because of the reading levels of the children and the amount of help they needed to choose titles.

Both teachers explained that students had difficulties with the first order. They often choose books that were way too challenging. They did improve in this area by the subsequent orders. Students learned to use the “sneaky peeks” into texts to see if the reading levels were appropriate and to hone their interests.

The teachers gave helpful suggestions for logistics for the BMAB program which centered around sending a printout of the student choices when the books arrive for easier sorting, ways to deal with out-of-stock books, and a letter for families.


In the aftermath of Camp Fire’s total destruction, amazingly, the school’s buddy bench at Paradise Elementary stood untouched by the fire as a lone symbol of hope, love, and friendship. The rebuilt school’s motto, We Will Soar, is a testament to the bravery and determination of this dedicated staff and community. We are honored that that Paradise Ridge Elementary is part of our Bring Me a Book family. Together we hope to help strengthen the love of reading and access to books in the school and the community so that all students may SOAR!

Lessons Learned: A Replicable and Sustainable Model for Other Schools

Book Activities at Paradise RidgeReplicable and Sustainable Model for Other Schools
Book GiftsWrap books that students ordered to create a sense of excitement around books that they now own!
Tip: Invite parent volunteers to help wrap the books.
 Buy dollar store materials or ask for donations.
Lending LibraryDesignate a shelf or table in the classroom as the lending library area. Students either donate books or indicate they’d like them back by writing their name in them.
Tip: Include a sheet in the back of each book for student reviews. Give books a number review 1-5 and tell why. Or make a bulletin board for reviews to be posted.
Gallery WalkStudents place books on their desks with review sheets. Students take a quiet gallery walk by circulating around the room for “book peeks”.
Tip: To cue students to move on to the next book you may wish to use a sound signal such as a bell or even music
Cookbook CrazeBring cookbooks into the classroom. Encourage students to check them out and ask parents if they may try some of the recipes at home. Choose a recipe or two to make in class.
Tip: Find cookbooks that reflect the cultures in your classroom.
Impromptu Book ClubsEncourage students to order some of the same titles that they are interested in and to form their own book clubs.
Tip: Try very informal book clubs in the classroom. Model ways to read together and set goals for pages read etc. Choose an author or series that students at your grade level absolutely love!

Making Space for Independent Reading: Guidelines for Bring Me a Book Schools

Review expectations for the project including deadlines for ordering books and for meeting with BMAB staff and the literacy champion. Provide a chart of dates and deadlines for participating teachers.

Encourage students to sample a wide variety of genres including cookbooks (consider poetry, how-to books, biographies, etc.).

Expand on classroom favorites authors or titles you’ve read together to guide choices on BMAB. (Example of Ivan book).

Share stories from the classroom with BMAB and also with the community.

Engage parents in participating classrooms by providing support for reading and discussing the books at home.

Look for promising organizations in the community such as the Rotary Club that may support the project.

Collect data including participant’s engagement levels throughout the project.

Gather data/information can be collected through surveys, observational notes, images/video, transcripts of student discussions, library check out rates, and reading proficiency results.

Check in for teacher satisfaction throughout the project.

Principal’s Comments

Ed Gregorio, principal of Paradise Ridge Elementary, supports his staff and students in developing independent reading across the school to promote literacy and grow a love of reading. Ed shares the following ways that administrators can support independent reading in the classroom.

The Importance of Independent Reading

“Very few practices can compete with independent reading in fostering engaged, life-long-learners.  With independent reading, student autonomy and choice positively contribute to each student’s motivation and desire to read.  Independent reading builds students’ reading comprehension and provides ample opportunities to build students’ content knowledge.”

Support for Choice and Independence

“Administrators need to provide teachers with reassurance that time spent on building students’ independent reading habits is time well spent. With an impacted instructional day, schools and teachers need to prioritize the key learning strategies to support student achievement. 

Independent reading is a key instructional strategy. I appreciate Bring Me A Book’s support in providing a platform for student choice in their reading, which positively impacts their motivation to read and, as a result, their learning.”

©2022 Lori Oczkus