SOLON– As a reading resource teacher in Iowa City, Ann Bell was working to entice young readers to pick up books. She asked herself, “What would they like to read?”
She listened to her students.
One look around the classroom of any Iowa City school will reveal more than a little black and gold. This is Hawkeye country after all.
She decided to write books for the students about sports, specifically University of Iowa athletes. Bell contacted Fred Mims at the University of Iowa about the project.
Mims, an associate athletics director for student services and compliance, helped guide the project through NCAA rules and connected Bell with some Hawkeye athletes for a behind-the-scenes look at practice and training, as well as game-time. The athletes contribute photos to the books by documenting their seasons.
Her first book was a big success and had young fans begging for more. Now her group, Reading with Our Future Fans (RWOFF), offers dozens of book titles to schools in an effort to engage young readers.
Today RWOFF has books for every University of Iowa varsity sport, from football to field hockey, and has added titles for non-Hawk fans highlighting athletes at Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and the University of Michigan.
Karen Pregon, a Reading Recovery/Title I teacher at Lakeview Elementary, called the books, “highly motivating because they are about sports figures that our students hear about and cheer for on a weekly basis.”
So far, there are about 50 booklets at Lakeview with storylines from all three state universities, so Cyclone and Panther fans can follow their teams too.
Pregon said, “We are looking to bring books to all the first-grade classrooms, ideally at least one per student. They will get to take the books home to keep after they are used for instruction. The goal is to build the home libraries of beginning readers with motivational books they can and want to read.”
She said, “(the books) depict athletes as positive role models, showing them as studying, exhibiting good sportsmanship, and demonstrating how hard work is needed to be good at anything.”
She added, “all sports are represented for both male and female athletes. All students can find something to relate to when they read these books.”
“(The books are) leveled, starting out with simple, one sentence per page text, and building to more advanced reading levels. The same book title is written with varying degrees of difficulty, so as students’ reading skills increase, they advance through the books and teachers can meet the needs of all students in their classrooms,” Pregon explained.
And once she gets kids connected to reading, they won’t quit.
Pregon said the books make her job easier because she can reach reluctant readers.
“Readers love these books and are eager to reread them over and over again. They look forward to sharing books with their brothers, sisters, moms and dads, grandparents and other sports fans that they know,” she said.
The school has been given about 50 RWOFF books so far. As a non-profit group, RWOFF accepts donations to defray publishing costs and is working with local Realtor Chris Mottinger to bring the books to Lakeview through business donations.
Designed with four levels: emergent, beginning, transitional and independent, all of the RWOFF books are written by Bell and illustrated with photos taken by student athletes.
Bell started the organization with a $28,000 loan from husband Michael L. Bell in 2008. Bell’s daughter, Christi Youngquist, works as a Director of Operations for the family affair.
Youngquist is a self-described bookworm, and a Solon High 2003 grad who said of her Lakeview Elementary teachers, “I couldn’t have been blessed with better teachers who cared about each student’s success and went above and beyond to get us to reach our potential.”
She called Fred Mims the group’s champion at the university and described RWOFF as a “fun community-service project for the student athletes that get them involved by helping young students who look up to them.”
She said they’ll try to raise $2,500 for 1,000 books in Solon. Christi said that since 2009, they have given almost 8,000 books to sports fans. “All income goes to give more books away,” she said of RWOFF.
Christi said the group has used books sales, different communities, local businesses, and company match programs to raise money for the group. “We have also received from Solon generous help from the Octagon club, and a few other businesses around town,” she said.
The group has placed books in the University of Iowa Hospital Clinics, some doctor’s offices, and in schools in Ames, Mount Vernon, Cedar Falls, Monticello, Independence, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
Author Ann Bell’s motto for her book series is, “Meet the children where they are.”
And she is doing just that, but she’s also started them on a journey to new worlds of the written word. And that’s something to cheer about.