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A Win-Win Situation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With tongue rings, exposed navels and some unusual hair colors, the teenagers at Owensmouth Continuation High School in Canoga Park don’t look like ambassadors of literacy.

But there was 16-year-old Maria Jorge, early Monday morning, removing her tongue ring so she could enunciate the words “perplex” and “diabolic” to elementary school students who, she believes, need proper pronunciation to improve their vocabulary.

And Laura Ettleson, 17, in jeans and white midriff top, reading books about Clifford the big red dog to kindergartners in such perfect cadence that boys and girls giggled and wiggled in their seats, asking her “pretty please” to come again and read more.

And Jazmin Sanchez, 16, whose streaks of purplish-blue hair match her fingernail polish, emphasizing alliteration in Jonathan London’s “Froggy Gets Dressed” to rivet a classroom of second-graders and prove that reading is fun.

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Unlike some adults who might tend to be judgmental, none of the little kids minded how the big kids looked. None cared if the teenagers were pregnant or had been kicked out of school for fighting or busted for using drugs or got failing marks on their report cards.

All that mattered was that the big kids read them a story.

Monday and Tuesday, the 16 teenagers in Shari Sack’s storytelling class spread pro-reading messages to about 700 students at Justice Street Elementary School in West Hills and Hart Street Elementary in Canoga Park.

In the two years that Sack has taught the class, more than 200 teenagers in Los Angeles continuation high schools have read to 7,000 elementary students.

“It really turns the kids on to reading,” said Sack, referring to the youths who tell the stories as well as the kindergartners through second-graders who listen.

Literacy researchers praise programs that focus on reading aloud. They cite studies showing that children who are read to regularly read more and better than those who are not.

Stephen Krashen, an education professor at USC who has conducted several literacy studies, said some research shows that children achieve measurable vocabulary gains after hearing an interesting story that contains unfamiliar words.

“There is no question that storytelling . . . [is] good for encouraging reading,” Krashen said.

But Sack, who has a bachelor’s degree in speech communication, believes the benefits go both ways. And like a circuit-riding preacher, this Los Angeles Unified School District library services instructor has visited 17 continuation schools in the San Fernando Valley to teach her class titled “The Arts in Storytelling.”

Sack believes the ancient oral tradition of using words, voice and imagination not only inspires literacy but also helps unite people of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds.

‘Why Would Little Kids Want to Hear Me Read?’

And the teenagers in continuation schools are a diverse bunch. The district has 43 such campuses, set up to meet the needs of troubled students--those who have been convicted of crimes, suffer emotional troubles or have discipline problems. Enrollees can also be drug users or teenage mothers, or have special needs because of illness or difficult circumstances at home. Others simply choose continuation school for its smaller enrollment and independent studies.

They come from poor, middle-income and rich families. Students range from the academically gifted to those who are failing. They are introverts and extroverts. They like rap, pop and alternative music.

Beaten down emotionally by the burdens of adolescence--and adults who automatically categorize continuation school students as troublemakers or failures--many of the teenagers lack confidence, motivation and the belief that they can succeed, officials say.

Even principals and students themselves doubted Sack when she promised that within in a month, she could have such teenagers reading and serving as role models to younger students. In the process, she added, the students would enjoy books, learn public speaking and gain confidence.

“Why would little kids want to hear me read?” Sack says students ask her all the time. “Why would they look up to me?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” is her standard reply.

For about an hour a day over five weeks, Sack teaches students about posture, eye contact and voice modulation. The class practices reading children’s books in front of their peers.

At first, teenagers slump in their chairs, she says. Their eyes are downcast. Voices quiver.

Eventually, the tension is eased by smiles, laughs and encouraging nods from classmates.

Then, after weeks of preparation, there’s the dress rehearsal. During one such dry run, on March 24, Vit Zelich, 17, was on a roll. He chimed and rhymed Shel Silverstein poems with such delight that even Sack, a mother in her 30s, giggled like a girl.

‘You Should All Be Proud of Yourselves’

When it was her turn, 11th-grader Megan Rust grabbed everyone’s attention, including that of a girl primping with mascara and cucumber hand lotion, through her suspenseful tone and sound effects--the sniffing and sneezing sounded convincingly real--during her rendition of Jon Scieszka’s “The Stinky Cheese Man.”

Ettleson earned a hearty round of applause as well. Sack complimented the teenager on her deep, commanding voice.

“Thanks,” Ettleson said, nonchalantly. “It’s from all the cigarettes.”

The class finished the final practice, and Sack offered her last words of advice before the big day: “Bring a bottle of water. No chewing gum. And take your tongue rings out.”

Last week, they did just that when they visited the two elementary schools. Like a proud mother, Sack beamed and gushed as her students, pierced navels and all, sallied forth on the clear Monday morning to meet their audiences.

“Do you guys realize how much progress you’ve made?” she asked in the outdoor student eating area at Justice Street School, where her future Aesops gathered. “You should all be proud of yourselves. I am proud of every one of you.”

Like nervous actors, most students rehearsed and groomed themselves. Zelich, for instance, removed his chin stud “because it’s not something the kids are used to seeing.”

Some of the youths chewed fingernails, cracked knuckles and twirled hair. Others soothed nervous friends.

“I can’t do it,” said Laura Gonzalez, stomping her foot.

“Yes, you can,” Ettleson reassured her.

And Gonzalez did. Beautifully.

Edwin Rodriguez, 17, fretted aloud about how the students would react. “They’ll tell you straight up if they don’t like it,” he said.

He needn’t have worried.

“They liked me,” Rodriguez said afterward, his face bright, his steps light with pride. “I had fun.”

He wasn’t the only one bursting with pride. Owensmouth Principal Marshall Hall basked in the success. “It’s amazing,” he said.

Justice Street Principal Philip Shaffer invited the students back. Any time. “Our students like seeing the older students reading,” he said. “It gets them excited about reading.”

Afterward, many of the newly christened storytellers said their experience would inspire them to read for pleasure on their own. For some, it would be the first time, but for others it would renew a hobby abandoned because of its “uncool image” in middle and high school.

“I liked reading to the kids,” said Alberto Nunez, 16, who presented Bruce Degen’s “Jamberry” with such drama that afterward he was hungry for strawberries. “It made me think more about reading. I like Stephen King stories.”

Ettleson said preparing for her session made her eager to go home and read material on a topic that intrigues her--serial killers.

“It’s interesting to get inside their heads and find out . . . [what’s] wrong with them,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum was 5-year-old Andy Theodore, who said he so enjoyed listening to Ettleson’s presentation that he had decided to read a lot of books when he grows up.

“I like Pokemon books,” he said. “I like silly books. I want to read like the older kids. They are good readers. They are fun.”


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