Chris Ohling admits it: Reading doesn't excite him.
"I'm lazy," the Crews Lake K-8 eighth-grader said.
He's definitely not a fan of his two-period daily intensive reading block, which he's required to take until he achieves grade level on the FCAT reading exam. It gets in the way of taking a physical education elective, where he'd much rather be.
But a smile crept across Chris' face as he huddled in the kindergarten wing of his school, 5-year-old Ethan King beside him, so they could read together.
They were both part of an initiative aimed at helping the school's struggling older readers improve their abilities, while also exposing the school's youngest students to early literacy skills. It's a project that came together through teachers brainstorming for ways to find meaningful, academic ways to pull their two schools — Shady Hills Elementary and Crews Lake Middle — into one.
"I like it," said Chris, 13. "When you're reading, they can understand what you're saying, and it gives you a good feeling."
Ethan, who had wrested his partner's book from his hands so he could read it himself, said simply, "I like Chris." He then returned to the pages of Shades of Black, with Chris helping with the big words.
Intensive reading teacher Natasha Salagaras said her students are "way below their level," and generally feel uncomfortable reading aloud.
"They never got their confidence to achieve," Salagaras said.
Her students picked elementary level books they could read without problems, but they still felt nervous about the prospect of possibly making a mistake. After seeing the little children listening intently, hanging on their words (not to mention on their shoulders), the middle schoolers realized they could do this.
The kindergarteners didn't judge them. They clamored for the chance to be near them.
"They're very excited to have them come and read to them," kindergarten teacher Maureen Murray said. "Everybody wants to do it."
Seventh-grader Katherine Luckson said she's "really far behind" in her reading level, and found that reading to the kindergarteners helped improve her confidence and skills, such as word identification. It also forced her to overcome her shyness.
Sitting in the kindergarten hallway, Katherine held up the book In My Garden so 5-year-old Alynna Worth could see — just like a teacher would — and asked several questions about the story.
"It's pretty nice," Katherine said, between books with Alynna, who shyly nodded in agreement.
When Crews Lake first became a K-8 school this fall, some parents worried about having their little children in the same school with near-high schoolers. The give and take between the kids in the hall, though, was patient, calm and cheerful.
Chris laughed as Ethan demanded to read, punctuating his narrative frequently with "What's that?" Chris said he has an older brother who would "always pick on me and stuff." So his approach with Ethan was "to do things he didn't do."
"It's real fun," added eighth-grader Andrew Ambrogio. "I think they look up to us."
Thirty minutes passed quickly, and the students had to return to class. Katherine grabbed hands and guided a couple of kindergarteners to their room, while seventh-grader Cloe McTeague waved. "Bye, guys," she said. "You did awesome."
Back in their own upstairs classroom, the students reviewed the session with Salagaras.
Most of them were pleased. They felt better on this second time around, less nervous than the first time out. They enjoyed the kindergarteners' attentiveness and interest.
When one boy expressed annoyance that his assigned student wasn't the best listener, his classmates joked that could have been him sometimes, too.
Salagaras urged the group not to let such things get them down. Whether it seems like it or not, she told them, the kids are listening and learning right along with them.
"It's working both ways," she said. "It's an awesome process to watch."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.