Munching on sandwiches and cafeteria mac and cheese, the fifth-grade girls of Stanley Elementary School get down to business.
Every Thursday, they gather in the principal’s office of the Tacoma school for a lunchtime book club.
Their current reading selection is “The Lightning Thief,” part of a series of fantasy books by Rick Riordan about Percy Jackson, a 12-year-old who discovers he is half human and half Greek god.
Alisha Wood, the adult volunteer who started the club, asks student Kaitlyn Bodie to recap chapter one.
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“Don’t be nervous,” Wood coaxes. “You got this. What do you know about Percy?”
“He’s 12 years old. He vaporized his teacher,” Kaitlyn says.
“Who else do we meet?” Wood says. “Can you guys help her out?”
They can. They have obviously read this book — more like devoured it — and soon they are adding layers of plot and character. Later this month, the girls will attend a performance at the Pantages Theater — an adaption for the stage of “The Lightning Thief.” They are eager to finish the book in time so that they can compare the stage version with the original.
Even those who say they were once-reluctant readers love coming to book club.
Angel Vaetoe says she didn’t always enjoy reading.
“I got in here and it’s helped,” she said of the club. “Miss Wood inspired me to read.”
We get to talk to Miss Wood about everything.
Stanley fifth-grader Kaitlyn Bodie
Club member Spiritual Lester said taking part helped her read more fluently. Ra-Shauna Lilly said she likes finding out about new books through the club.
But Kaitlyn sums up the feeling of many of the members: “It’s fun. We get to talk to Miss Wood about everything.”
Wood, a secretary in the school district’s downtown administration building, is married to Mann Elementary teacher Brandon Wood.
She grew up in the 1990s in the Hilltop neighborhood, where Stanley is located. She recalls a neighborhood with much more urban blight than exists now.
Wood never attended Stanley. Her mother enrolled her at the old Wainwright Elementary in Fircrest and drove her there every day.
Wood said she decided to volunteer in her old neighborhood because “I wanted to be an example for the kids. I believe it takes a village to raise a child.”
After attending an employee-training workshop taught by Patrick Johnson, director of equity and achievement for Tacoma Public Schools, Wood spoke to him and said she wanted to volunteer in a school. He gathered reading materials and suggested she take a look at Stanley.
The club was launched after Stanley Principal Cindy Tone-Johnson visited Wood’s office downtown.
Tone-Johnson said she had a group of fifth-grade girls on the cusp of adolescence who needed a strong role model. She says they got a great one in Wood.
Tone-Johnson added that Wood has “unbelievable skills.”
“She comes prepared,” Tone-Johnson said. “She has lessons, journals, key questions.”
In January, Wood received a Gold Star Community Partner Award from the school district for her work with students.
In addition to running the book club once a week, Wood has started tutoring a club member who was struggling to read at grade level. Other club members were already book lovers when they joined, but say being part of the club has fueled their passion for books even more.
“I go home and I read all day,” said Amara Justice. “I like to read fiction books and action books.”
She listens to our problems.
Stanley fifth-grader Spiritual Lester
Angel said, sometimes when she is home watching TV, she thinks about what Wood told her about the importance of reading. That is when she turns off the TV, runs up to her room and opens a book.
Tone-Johnson said the school club is about more than academics.
“It’s a direction, to help our girls form a relationship,” she said. “They form connections and talk about life and the real world. It’s a very mature relationship and something we can’t offer as a teacher or principal.”
“She listens to our problems,” Spiritual said.
“We talk about life,” Wood said. She relates the story of a book club member who had an encounter with a class bully. The girl remembered what Wood said about bullies: that there could be something going on in their lives that no one knows about. The girl persuaded the bully to talk to their teacher about what was wrong.
Another time, club members were discussing school cafeteria food. They said the rice was undercooked. Wood told them it was OK to tell the cook about the problem — politely.
“They are empowered by my presence,” Wood said. “That’s what I wanted to happen.”