Driving Kids to Read

What started as Ted Chaudoir bringing a box of his daughter’s old books onto his Southern Door school bus has grown into much more than he could have imagined. Chaudoir and school reading specialist Missy Bousley will appear at the Oct. 22 school board meeting to discuss ways to continue and expand the program. Photo by Katie Sikora.

When Southern Door Schools bus driver Ted Chaudoir decided to clean out the books in his daughter’s old bedroom, he had no idea what kind of impact it would have.

“[My wife] told me I should bring them to Goodwill, but I thought why don’t I bring them on the bus and see if the kids are interested first?” says Chaudoir.

Chaudoir brought the box of his daughter’s children’s books, containing nearly 80 titles, on the bus last spring largely as an attempt at crowd control.

He encouraged the elementary school children on his bus to pick out a book when they boarded, sit down quietly, and read it. He told them that if they liked the book, they could take it home, with the option to return it if they wanted to.

By May, nearly all of the books were gone.

“I came to Missy Bousley [Southern Door’s reading specialist], and I said ‘I got this thing on the bus – and it seems to be working – and I need books,’” says Chaudoir. “She almost spontaneously combusted in front of me.”

To Bousley, whose job is primarily to find ways to get kids to read and read well, Chaudoir’s approach and its effectiveness were nothing short of stupendous. She took a ride on Chaudoir’s bus to see the books in action, and she was amazed.

“I had no idea it would have the effect it would have at all,” says Bousley. “It’s absolutely incredible to see it.”

Chaudoir says the books took off with elementary school children of all ages, with the younger kids interested in story-driven picture books, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders interested in books about things like space, trains, and robotics.

“It’s more factual, more subject specific, but they are interested,” says Chaudoir. “Middle school, they’re too social and they’re too busy dealing with interactions among themselves. But elementary, which is the age you really need to get involved with reading to begin with, they seem interested.”

Working together, Bousley and Chaudoir rounded up enough books to get him through last school year, as well as 125 new books for this year. But Bousley wasn’t content with simply re-stocking Chaudoir’s bus.

“Right away she looked at this as a bigger thing,” says Chaudoir. “She said, ‘Why don’t we offer it to all the bus drivers?’”

So they did. So far, six of Southern Door’s 16 bus drivers are on board with putting books on their buses. Bousley, Chaudoir, and his wife are working out a way of distributing the books where the bus driver won’t have to get up and change out titles in the middle of a route.

“A lot of times a kid will holler to me, ‘Teeed! A different book!’ And I say you’ve got to wait until I make a stop,” says Chaudoir.

This school year also presented Chaudoir with a new challenge: eight, new, four-year-old children on his route who could barely sit still, much less stay interested in a book for a half-hour bus ride.

“That’s really like herding cats, four year-olds,” he says. “So I knew I needed some other help somehow.”

So Chaudoir figured out a new approach to his system. Rather than asking the four-year-olds to read, he asked the middle school and high school students on his route to read to them. Much to Chaudoir’s surprise, most of them said yes.

“In education they call that peer mentoring. I just call it preventative medicine,” says Chaudoir. “When a high schooler will sit with a young one and read to them it really benefits both of them. The older child realizes the fact that they’re really appreciated, and the kids love the fact an older kid will read to them.”

But it’s not just the kids that are reading and being read to that are benefiting from the books on the bus. The other children getting a ride to and from school get a quieter drive, where they can potentially get work done or at least not get stressed out before and after school.

“[Drivers] have a big responsibility, more than you would think, not only of getting kids to school but creating a good atmosphere on the bus,” says Chaudoir. “I want kids who need to do homework to be able to do homework. But you can’t do that on an unruly bus.”

And of course, Chaudoir says, anything drivers can do to increase Southern Door kids’ love of learning is a plus.

“As Southern Door employees…we’re concerned for the success of our students. They’re our kids, our relatives’ kids, our neighbor’s kids. If we can provide a benefit like this it’s a win-win,” he says.

Chaudoir and Bousley will be presenting their ideas for how to continue putting books on buses at the Oct. 22 Southern Door School Board meeting, looking for input and possibly funding ideas for how to keep the pages turning.

In the meantime, Chaudoir would like to encourage anyone who’s sitting on some extra children’s books to consider donating them to his bus.

“There’s probably tons of people that were in my position, where the kids are grown and out of the house…and they’d bring them to Goodwill. But there’s a need right here,” says Chaudoir.