SPOILER ALERT!!! This column has nothing about He Who Must Be Hyped. No tally of how many millions of copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have sold in the time it took to read this sentence. And nothing about unbearably cute children who haven't slept since Friday, when they got in line at the Barnes and Borders a Million to get their copy and have been reading nonstop ever since -- pausing only to e-whine about the newspaper meanies who spoiled EVERYTHING by printing early reviews of the book.
If you're still with me, you'll be glad to know that some kids instead have been consumed by the tale of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons, who set off from their Michigan home on a hilarious road trip that turns deadly serious when they reach their destination -- it's Birmingham, Ala., and it's 1963. Then there's Peppe, an Italian boy in New York's Little Italy, who is ashamed of his job lighting street lamps until one night when he illuminates the whereabouts of his lost sister.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 and Peppe the Lamplighter might not be getting the breathless attention of Harry's final adventures, but as part of the reading list of a unique summer learning program, they may be casting the same magic on children: the love of reading.
"I just want to be smarter and smarter," says La'Monta Harris, 10, a student at William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore. "I think I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I go to the library, and I like to read about science. And I've read about sports and adventurers and heroes, like firefighters and stuff."
Paca is one of 12 low-performing schools in the city that are host to an intensive six-week program designed to boost reading, writing and math skills over the summer, a time when kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to lose ground, setting them up to lag farther and farther behind more affluent students as time goes on.
This summer, the Baltimore public schools contracted with a well-regarded nonprofit called BELL, Building Educated Leaders for Life, to offer a full-day, five-days-a-week program to prevent the summer backslide. As part of the program, kids are encouraged to read -- especially BELL's recommended books, which feature diverse characters and authors -- for a half-hour or full hour every evening.
The first thing you notice in the BELL classrooms at Paca is that this is no ordinary summer school, the kind attended by sullen students under threat of not advancing to the next grade with the rest of their class in the fall.
All the BELL kids -- about 2,000 at the 12 schools -- are there voluntarily. They take reading, writing and math classes in the morning, then participate in "enrichment activities" in the afternoon, which seem like a lot of fun but are also reinforcing what they learned in the morning.
"It breaks the misconception that school has to be boring," said Sharayna A. Christmas, manager of the BELL program at Paca.
In Adelia Carter's room -- and in the hallway as well -- first- and second-graders were learning about physics. Yes, first- and second-graders, not high school students. Actually, they think they're building roller coasters and racing toy cars around a circuitous track, but if they were to read the board, they would realize they're engaged in "the study of force, motion, matter and energy." In other words, physics.
"Miss Carter! Miss Carter! Look!" Jasmine Gamble shrieked, pulling her teacher into the hallway. There, the 7-year-old and a classmate had finally gotten a marble to loop-the-loop a makeshift "roller coaster." (The trick: a bigger push at the start, and a smaller loop.) They still hadn't gotten the marble to roll through the rest of the course, but there's still almost two weeks left to the program. (Hint: Don't use such tall chairs for the final hump.)
"It's a real hands-on approach," said Carter, who, like some of the other instructors at the program, teaches in the district during the academic year.
The students are called "scholars" in the BELL parlance. "We want them to know we believe in them," said Carole Y. Prest, BELL's executive director for the Mid-Atlantic region.
And they're expected to live up to the title -- there's no dumbing down here, even among the youngest kids who will enter kindergarten this fall. Forget "A" is for apple and "C" is for cat; in the BELL classroom, the kids were learning that "D" is for dentist and "P" is for pediatrician.
For Emma Snyder, a former teacher now working on a graduate degree in creative writing, the summer program was a way of getting back to the classroom, which she had missed, but one that offered more flexibility and improvisation.