Reading Together Romania

Some time ago a good friend told me about Reading Together Romania, a great initiative started by an American lady – Mrs. Brandi Bates – who had moved to Romania in 1999 with her family to start the New Horizons Foundation (Fundatia Noi Orizonturi) in the Jiu Valley. Reflecting on her life in Romania, Brandi realized that it was the greater connection to simplicity and nature, and the increased amount of time she had to spend with her children (including some homeschooling and lots of Reading Together) that made the perfect combination to bring about this new initiative.

Reading Together Romania (Citim Impreuna Romania – CIR) is based on a simple concept that fulfills a simple need. It has been proven that children, in order to become skilled and devoted readers, need to be read to for 20 minutes a day, ideally starting at birth. Surprisingly for Brandi, she came to discover that this simple activity of reading aloud to kids is not common in all Romanian families, nor is it a common practice in the institutions that should be most concerned: schools and libraries. There lies the challenge : to convince as many persons as possible of the benefits of reading aloud to children, and to transform this simple activity into an assumed and integrated activity, in the home, schools, and libraries.

To find out more about this great initiative, I asked Brandi a few questions. Here are her responses.

– What is Reading Together and how did it come to life?

I think one of the things that make us truly human is when the good we wish for our own offspring is the same good, albeit to a less intense or intimate degree, we also want for the children of others.  Reading aloud, though I prefer to call it “Reading Together,” has been one of these goods for me.  My husband and I have been reading together with our children since our first was born 11 years ago. (Before our children were born, we read to each other.)   I have a keen memory of reading “The Night Before Christmas” (a poem by Clement C. Moore, this version illustrated by Jan Brett) to our daughter when she was 7 months old.    Was it an age-appropriate book for a 7 month old?  No.  Did she understand any of it, visually or verbally?  I don’t think so.  Does she remember it?  Of course not.  Was it a good thing to do?  Absolutely.

Following our 11 years of experiencing Reading Together with our children, often daily, I have never once doubted its pure goodness.  I have only increasingly become convinced of its manifold benefits, mostly for them, the children, but also for us, the parents, and then again for the good of all of us, a family.  A couple of years ago I started wanting this goodness for others.  And when I looked around my neighborhood, I wasn’t seeing that many others were experiencing what we were experiencing.

A dear friend once made the comment to me:  “I would love to read every day to my children, like you do, but we tire of the same 5 books over and over.”  Of course.  Who wouldn’t?  I had myself grown up in a book-rich neighborhood, where children would go to the library weekly and fill a shopping bag full of books, and return the next week for a bag-full of different books.  For free.  Where a child could buy a still beautiful book for 1 RON at a garage sale.  Or a teacher would give children books at the end of the school year.  Books flowed like water.  This I started to want for others too.

brandi-batesWe started with a box.  I asked a few of my mom friends if they’d like to go in together to buy a few children’s books – the beautiful ones, the expensive ones, the “books that love children” (“carți care iubesc copiii”) we called them – and share them together.  Wouldn’t this be better than each of us owning a few cheap, ugly books?  They were eager.  Then we started meeting weekly to trade these beautiful books.  And eventually we started sitting down together on a carpet in a circle and reading one of the books, all together, each week.

When I first started asking my mom friends to read a book to a group of children, the same thing would usually happen:  she would keep the illustrated book facing toward herself while she read (the children could not see the pictures at the same time the story was being read), she would read too softly, she would read in a monotone voice, she would read too quickly, and she would often not look up at the children until the book was finished.  Oftentimes the experience was as flat for the children as it had been for the inexperienced reader.  There was this sensation that the children were being read “to” or “at’ but not “with.”  With very little guidance, and a little demonstrating of how I had learned to read to children, these mom readers got better and better.  (Some of them are now among the best readers I know.)  And as the reading improved, so did the listening experience for the children.  They began to listen, I mean really listen, to even be enthralled, to really enjoy it, and to ask for more.   Children less than 1 year of age would sit together with teenagers, riveted to the same story for 20 minutes.  And they’d come back the next week.  If I’ve learned anything in the past 2 years it is this:  every child wants to be Read Together with.

-Does it have anything to do with schools, with the school curriculae? Do you want to connect it to a formal learning approach? 

According to a May 2015 ELINET Literacy in Romania Country Report, Romanian parents read together at home with their young children at half the rate of the rest of Europe.  And though I do not have a statistic for teachers reading together with their students, my experience tells me it is also lower than it should be.  “I don’t have time to read to my students,” is what teachers often tell me.

What these teachers mean is they do not have time to read a book, unconnected to the curriculum, unconnected to evaluation, to their students.  (And what I now know is that many of these teachers might not know the difference between reading together with their students, instead of reading to or at them.)  They do not have time to read for pleasure.  And then they bemoan that their students don’t like to read.  My response is, “You don’t have time not to read with your students.”  How can one expect students to take pleasure in reading if parents did not and do not, and if teachers did not and do not, provide a frequent pleasurable reading together experience for and with them?  Until we truly Read Together with children, for pleasure and with pleasure, we cannot expect our efforts to get children to read, and maybe even like it, to go very far.

If Reading Together needs to be anything, it needs to be pleasurable.

Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain. You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure. Jim Trelease, autorul best-seller-ului „The Read Aloud Hanbook”

But so often it is turned into a bland and boring experience, if not somewhat painful, for the listeners.  Reading Together with children does not have to be this way, and in fact never should be.  When Reading Together with children, a child should never sit still because he or she has been told to.  When Reading Together with children is done right, both reader and listener enter a story together and are held spell-bound by the magic the story and its being shared together wields.

The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading.  It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud – it’s the relationship winding all three, bringing them together in easy harmony. Mem Fox

So often I see photos posted of adults reading to groups of children in Romania, and the children look bored to pieces.  This isn’t what Reading Together with children should be.  When Reading Together is done well, it is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.  Citim Impreuna Romania (CIR) was born to grow the beauty and benefits of Reading Together across Romania, from homes, to schools, to libraries, and beyond.  CIR is a Romanian-born national grassroots movement with the mission:   to educate and inspire Romanian children and  those who care for them with the beauty and benefits of Reading Together. (Cultivăm beneficiile și frumusețea cititului împreună în rândul copiilor și adulților din România. )CIR consists of Romanian children authors, illustrators, publishers and educators, a literacy specialist, an education specialist and me.  Our mantra is:  Citiți împreună. 20 de minute în fiecare zi.  Indiferent de vremea de afară și din interior.  De când se naște copilul și mult după ce va învăța să citească singur. (In English:  Read together.  20 minutes a day.  Rain or shine.  From birth to long after they can read to themselves.)  This is how you raise a reader (creștem cititori.)

– How does it work? What do we have to do in order to Read Together?

Currently much of our work (we launched in late February, 2016) has been public service announcements, seeking to educate and inspire, via social media.  We ran a Reading Dads photography contest in May for Father’s Day (and will do it again next year, so please save your pictures Reading Dads and Grandfathers!). We ran a pilot Summer Reading Program with our growing group of book-sharers and readers in Lupeni called “E vremea cititului.” (In 4 weeks 26 readers, aged 2 – 50, read 18, 518 pages.  That 7 month old that I once read The Night Before Christmas with read 2, 576 of those pages.)  We are looking for 10-20 partner organizations/libraries to run the program with us in summer 2017. (If you are interested or know a librarian who might be, please contact us.)   We are getting ready to launch a new initiative – Bebe Café – basically a Baby Book Club that doubles as a parent-to-parent support group, meeting weekly to share parenting experiences, and, you guessed it, to Read Together to our babies.  (And of course to share books to take home and keep reading together with our babies.)  If you are interested in running a Bebe Café please contact us.  And we are dreaming and planning our future where we’d like to work with hospitals, schools (yes, building pleasure reading into the national curriculum!), orphanages, and always parents and libraries.

Many specialists agree that every child in the world needs to be read with for 20 minutes a day, from birth.  If CIR is going to try to convince parents and teachers to do this, we need to show – let parents and teachers experience – just how pleasurable Reading Together is.  I personally hope to continue travelling and providing “trainings” on why and how to Read Together with children with groups of parents, educators, librarians, etc.

– How will you know when you have succeeded?

I will know that CIR has succeeded when:

1)  I walk into a children’s hospital floor and I see nurses and volunteers reading books together with child patients from the “hospital children’s library”,

2) when it’s hard to find a library anywhere in the country that does not have at least one weekly Story Hour for children,

3) when children travelling long distances across the country by train or bus are handed books to look at instead of, or at least alongside, an iPad, and an adult even spends some of the time Reading Together with them,

4) when kindergarten teachers who sit down to Read Together with their students can tell that most of the children are used to being read to,

5) when teachers forgo flowers every once in a while and ask parents to put the money towards building a quality classroom library of beautiful books any child would love to read,

6)  and when a child can find a still beautiful children’s book – a “book that loves children” – to buy for 1 RON at a garage sale/targ.  Then I’ll know that CIR has succeeded.

The very last thing I’d like to say is, “If you happen to be a parent or teacher or librarian who enjoys and benefits from Reading Together with children, please join me in wanting this for every child in Romania.”  How can you do this?  One easy idea is to go to Citim Impreuna Romania’s FB page and like it.  And then you can start to tell your friends, and ask them to tell their friends.  You can share CIR’s “commercials” on your own FB pages–  our FB page is populated with over 2 dozen “posters”…illustrations with quotes that educate and inspire Reading Together.  You can help spread the buzz.  The message – if it is one you believe in too – needs more messengers. Thank you! And Happy Reading Together!

(Thank you Roate Mare for the invitation!  It’s been an honor!)


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