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In a culture inundated by screens, a hamster named Humphrey might be the missing link that can rekindle a love of reading in Santa Barbara’s kids and their families.

Two Washington Elementary moms pitched an idea for a school-wide book club last year after forming a smaller one with just their daughters. They quickly realized the benefits of reading and analyzing stories with the children and wanted to expand the concept across all grade levels, connecting 5-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and everyone in between with the same story. The book they picked, The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney, is about a classroom hamster and his adventures after breaking free from his cage.

“There isn’t anything else in schools that connects the kids like this,” said one of the moms, Megan Bright. “Kids today are surrounded by screens and technology. Starting a [school-wide book club] gets all of the kids talking about the same thing and makes reading exciting again.”

The book choice came from a list by the national program One School, One Book. It provides elementary-school kids, their families, their teachers, and even other school staff like custodians and cafeteria workers with the same book to create a shared dialogue across campus and to encourage family literacy at home. The books on the list are simple enough for kindergarteners to understand but still interesting enough for 6th graders to stay engaged. 

“We do family math nights and regularly promote reading at home, but we’ve never done anything to promote family literacy quite like this,” Principal Christina Giguiere said. “This is about more than reading together. It’s about exploring character traits and talking about what they mean.”

The kids will read three chapters of the 15-chapter book each week from October 14-November 15. Every Friday morning, each class will play trivia games related to the books, and the winners will get a prize from Principal Giguiere. Many of the prizes come from area businesses like Chaucer’s Books and Kyle’s Kitchen, and others come from the Coca-Cola Company, which also helped sponsor the cost of more than 600 books for all teachers, staff, and the 601 students.

“This was originally parent led and parent driven, but they did such a good job of presenting it to staff that we plan to continue with the program every year,” Giguiere said. “I thought we would have to dip into the PTO [parent teacher organization] funds or the school budget, but they found a way to raise the money on their own.”

Bright and Shannon Schroeder, the other mom who helped set the program into motion, hustled to pull in the cash for the books, prizes, and classroom activities. Hippo Education, an online medical education company founded by Dr. Aaron Bright, Megan’s husband, and two area families were among those who contributed to the costs. 

“Some schools in Santa Barbara have more resources than others,” Bright said, “so I want to collaborate with other schools in future years and sponsor them or share books so other kids get this same opportunity.”

Adams Elementary, for example, did the One School, One Book program last year. Giguiere said next year, they plan on trading books with Adams so that both schools get new stories to read but won’t have to buy new books all over again. She hopes to expand the collaborative model with other schools in the district. 

Bright and Schroeder made sure all equity bases are covered with the new program. Spanish versions of the book are available to any students who speak the language with their parents at home, and moms and school staff recorded themselves reading The World According to Humphrey in English and Spanish on YouTube for any kids who struggle with dyslexia or would otherwise need to follow along with the audio version.

“Some kids just don’t have someone who can read to them at home,” Bright said. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, parent volunteers will come in at recess and read to the kids who are missing out at home so they get the same experience of reading together with an adult.”

The program extends beyond home reading and Friday-morning trivia; teachers are given grade-appropriate activities to incorporate the story into other subjects. Kindergarteners, for example, might be given a journaling question like, “If you could design a cage for Humphrey, what would it look like?” and they could either draw a picture or describe it through writing. Kids in 3rd grade and older who experiment with Ozobots, tiny robots used to teach students programming, might be asked to design a hamster maze for Humphrey with the Ozobot.

The Montecito Pet Shop on Cliff Drive even donated a hamster to the school that looks identical to the Humphrey on the book’s cover. The real-life Humphrey will be placed in a different classroom each week over the five-week course and will be raffled off to a forever home at the end of the program.

“Empathy, respect, and responsibility are the character traits the book focuses on,” Giguiere said. “Focusing on analyzing these traits in the book helps create a culture of kindness on campus. It’s more than just reading; it’s about developing the whole child.”

Bright echoed Giguiere’s sentiments and explained that nowadays, public schools are almost entirely focused on teaching kids to take standardized tests and don’t focus on developing their social-emotional needs.

“It really is no fault of the teachers,” Bright said. “They have so much on their plates and have so many requirements they just don’t have the time to focus on kids’ characters. The dialogue that will be created through The World According to Humphrey helps to highlight these kids as people and not just test-takers.” 

The kickoff assembly for the program is on Monday, October 14. The grades will be divided into 3rd-6th graders, or “big buddies,” and kindergarteners-2nd graders, “little buddies.” Each big buddy will be paired up with a little buddy, to read the first chapter of the book together to spark the excitement and get the program rolling. 

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