School is out, but learning is always in
Retired teacher Alan Cook looks to help children develop reading skills with First Day Project
School’s out for summer, but Alan Cook is already thinking about the first day of class.
The retired educator is spearheading a grassroots effort to gift kindergarten students a new or gently used book when they start school. The First Day Project was started last year by Cook, a former principal at St. George Parish School and recently retired Director of Family Ministries at Central United Methodist Church in Stockton. In its inaugural year, he and his friends collected 300 new and gently used books, which he said were handed out to kindergarteners a six Stockton Unified elementary schools as well as All Saints Academy of Stockton. His goal is to make the first day of school special for even more kindergarteners this coming school year.
“Last July, I was reading about how Covid had affected our students’ learning,” Cook said. “I wanted to do something for the new kindergarten students to make their first day of school special. I had participated in the Rotary Read-in and saw how thrilled students were to have a guest reader in their classroom.”
He was amazed by the response to his First Day Project, which he had promoted on his Facebook page.
The gift was cheered at the start of the 2021-22 school year by kindergarteners at Wilson Elementary School and six other schools. The little ones were embarking on their school career for the first time, having been largely isolated at home during the pandemic.
Promoting the love of books
Julia Whitnall, a kindergarten teacher at Wilson, says instilling a love of reading in children is one of the most important things for child’s future success.
“I had read “King of Kindergarten” on the first day of school and that week I had also read them “Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready For Kindergarten,” she said. “The donated books were spread out for them to each choose one and they were so happy to see among the books a book I had read to them.”
A majority of students at the Stockton Unified campus are from low socioeconomic backgrounds and some shared with their teacher that they do not have a home library of their own.
“They were so excited to be able to take a book home,” Whitnall said. “With them being brought up during the pandemic, a lot of them missed out on experiences like going to the library so it was special to have them receive a book that’s brand new and all theirs.”
Donors have told Cook the feel-good book drive is an easy way to help out and they enjoyed picking out picture books for the cause.
“Many of the donors are retired or present educators,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the support. This year, I just started daily Facebook postings.”
His Facebook post on Monday read in part, “Do you remember as a child opening a gift which was a book? Looking through each page? Making up a story because you did not know how to read? Asking a parent to read the story? Well I hope you will bring this gift of receiving a book to Stockton Unified Kindergartners by participating in The First Day Project.”
Sandi Miyai, a program specialist at August Elementary School in Stockton, said the donated books had personal messages written inside the books.
“It was really touching, the kindergarten teachers and I were crying when we looked through the books and read the messages,” she said. “Things like ‘I read this book to my child at bedtime and it was our favorite. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.’ “
Miyai said she was able to grateful to be able experience both sides of the project.
“It started with a group text from Alan and, of course, I said yes because when Alan has an idea it’s backed up with passion and organization,” she said. “As a friend of his through church and just personally, I was helping collect books with others to be donated for his effort but then to be on the receiving end was just so special.”
She said it was exciting to the kindergarteners to pick out a book when they came to school. “It was the first time for many of our students to be on a school campus,” she said. “And our library had been turned in Covid symptom room, so they weren’t able to use our library. It was just wonderful and special for them to be able to have their own book.”
Reading creates a lifelong learner
As a gateway skill, reading helps create a lifelong learner, said retired teacher Diane Joaquin, who is one of the First Day Project’s donors. And as students learn to read, they read to learn. “The whole premise is that the more they read and are exposed to books, the better readers they will become,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how excited a kindergarten class would be to see all these books on the first day of school and get to choose one for their own. Hopefully their family wraps their arms around them and reads their book to them.”
Joaquin, who was a college classmate of Alan’s, said that Alan and his wife Jane, a retired children’s librarian, are passionate about making a difference in their community and she hopes the First Day Project will keeping growing.
If someone wants to contribute, Cook asks that they donate a gently used picture book or purchase a new one. “Write a note inside the book wishing them well on their kindergarten year,” he said. “Remember, the student gets to take home the book and it belongs to them. Hopefully, this will encourage them to have someone read the book to them and maybe they will save up and buy a book.”
Books can be dropped off at Mr. Otto’s Bookstore at 2310 Pacific Avenue on Stockton’s Miracle Mile on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The store also has a selection of new and gently used books for sale, specifically for the First Day Project. For more information, email Alan Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline to donate is July 22.
“I believe the Stockton community is a very caring community,” he said. “My dream would be to have every kindergartener in public and private school in Stockton receive a book.”