- Associated Press - Saturday, April 11, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Second-grader William Barton settled into the chair and began reading from Mercer Mayer’s “Happy Easter, Little Critter” to the volunteer teacher’s assistant in front of him. The Oak Elementary student read about the holiday picnic, the Easter candy and going to church as Judy Philabaum coaxed him along, asking questions, helping William with words and pointing out pictures on the page to help him understand the story.

All from 650 miles away.

With the help of Skype, Philabaum, sitting in her home in Coshocton, Ohio, interacted with William through a laptop in a corner of Heidi Samuelson’s classroom at Oak Elementary in Bartlett. Samuelson is Philabaum’s daughter, and the pair have teamed up each school day for four years to help Samuelson’s students with their reading.

“I love working with the kids,” Philabaum said. “Seeing their expression when you ask them a question, when they answer your question, how they react to the book. I try to help them put feeling in the book. I love it when they do that.”

The teamwork developed from a combination of Samuelson communicating with a friend in Pakistan via Skype and Philabaum’s waning days as a school volunteer in Coshocton, about 75 miles east of Columbus. Relatives had made their way through the early elementary grades in the Coshocton schools, leaving her with less of a connection.



At 75, arthritis in her knees and back made it more difficult to get around the three-story school.

With her mother’s experience helping students read, Samuelson saw the opportunity to connect the talents with technology to encourage her students, who call Philabaum “Mamaw.”

“One of the things that I really liked that she did,” Samuelson said, “was her helping the kids read the stories and then going back through asking comprehension questions and helping them dig into the story and get the meaning of the story so that they could then go ahead and take a test if they wanted to or write a little book report on it.”

Marie DeLockery, principal at Oak, said the interaction helps students beyond test-taking and the learning experience. Having someone work with them creates a personal relationship that encourages improvement.

“They are trying to meet the expectations of someone they care about,” DeLockery said of the connection. “They want to do their best.”

The sessions start about 8:15 a.m. with the mother connecting with the classroom via a laptop. Small talk about the weather and other casual topics starts the conversation. When it is time to work, students individually bring agreed-upon books to the station and read to an animated Philabaum, who occasionally cackles with laughter at passages. Both have copies of the same book, and as the student reads, Mamaw’s lips move slightly with the words recited by the student.

“She’s a lady who loves to read and help kids,” Anderson House, 7, said of the gray-haired, bespectacled grandmother hundreds of miles away. “She helps us a lot.”

Morgan McGhee, 8, added: “It helps me get my fluency in reading. I don’t have to read by myself. It’s more fun than reading by myself.”

Beyond having a comfortable chair at a computer screen and no more steps to climb, Philabaum said there is a sense of satisfaction connected with helping students learn. In some cases, students who could barely read words such as “me” or “and” are reading complete books.

“It keeps getting better,” said Philabaum, who readily acknowledges she has 21 “grandkids” in her daughter’s class.

As Philabaum finished her session with Barton and the final page of “Happy Easter, Little Critter” was turned, the grandmother gave one last bit of encouragement.

“I think you can take your (advanced reading) test now,” she said in a reassuring tone. “Good luck.”

___

Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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