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Ferragut: Fargo South High School's Sustained Silent Reading program is keeping kids interested in reading

Ferragut writes about the benefits of the Sustained Silent Reading program at Fargo South High School.

James Ferragut
James Ferragut
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“It seems inevitable that the magic of the written word will fade.” Those are words from best-selling author, columnist and businessman Harvey Mackay. To which I say, “Not so fast, Harvey." Not if we can help it.

Several years ago Fargo South High School embarked on a mission to develop our students' ability to understand and appreciate the written word. The program is called SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) and is a FPS District program goal. Each South student in each and every class is required to spend 15 minutes of SSR every day, five days a week.

That's 75 minutes where our students are quietly reading with a book in their hands. The students keep a reading log that includes book title, pages read and brief plot summary. The class teacher or para validates, stamps and collects each student's SSR log every week. This is a serious, no excuse, program. Teachers keep and track those logs as though they were exam finals.

The discipline and execution of SSR falls into the competent hands of two South High educators: Principal Todd Bertsch and Vice Principal Greta Evenson who, with their focused dedication, keeps SSR on the front burner.

An added asset is school librarian Elizabeth Smithmeyer, who shared with me the following information about SSR's impact on student readership:

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South High students checked out over 5,000 more books than last year. Smithmeyer notes that while students are reading more, she is also seeing a shift in content from fewer adolescent fiction to more history and historical fiction books. I also know from my four years of experience as a special ed para at South that Smithmeyer's program called “Book Talks” has accelerated the increase student readership.

As she explains: “Book Talks are presentations given to students in their classrooms. They are specifically designed to include the current subject of each class.” It works (with variations) no matter what the class is studying. Smithmeyer will bring a dozen or more books related to that subject. She hand picks each book, presents a brief but engaging summary. It's as if she has read every book, which knowing her, she probably has.

If students don't pick one of her recommended books, she'll immediately take those students to the library to help them find a related book. One-on-one attention from the school librarian? For my money that's like having a VIP backstage pass to your favorite concert.

The “Book Talks” are designed to find books that interest students while enticing them to read from different genres or time periods. She estimates that she does 100 book talks each year.

It doesn't end there. If you were to walk the halls at Fargo South you'll find framed posters on the walls promoting new, relevant books. If you glance up at the large electronic hallway monitors, you'll see recommended book covers, full color, full screen.

My guess is that Fargo Public Schools are further ahead of the literacy curve of other public school systems in the country, thanks to programs like SSR. So when you get a chance, thank the teachers, paras and the FPS administration for their commitment. All of us are fighting to keep at bay the tempest that is tomorrow.

James Ferragut is a special ed para-educator for Fargo Public Schools and a longtime contributor to The Forum's Editorial Page. Email him at jferragut50@gmail.com.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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