A literacy project is improving the three R’s of reading, riding and relationships in Maine School Administrative District 75, serving Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham.

It began in October, when longtime bus driver Don Sanders of Topsham conceived a plan to pair older elementary school students with kindergarteners and first-graders for reading sessions that kept them quiet, engaged and seated during bus rides to and from school.

The Bus Book Bags program was founded with a handful of books from Sanders’ personal collection and one busload of students from Williams-Cone Elementary School in Topsham. A short time later, Sanders was conferring with the school’s principal, Randa Rineer, who lent him additional reading material, first from her home library and then from the school library.

Soon, Sanders had a wonderful problem on his hands: He did not have enough fresh material to keep up with the demand of his young reading riders.

That is when Sanders turned to the Topsham Public Library staff and director Susan Preece.

“Clearly, Don did not have enough books to effectively supply this project,” said Preece. “When he told us what he was doing and asked for our help, we jumped all over this.”

Library staffers embellished a few large canvas bags with the Bus Book Bags logo, filled them with books and issued the program an official library card.

Children’s librarian Mariah Sewall is culling book titles from the library’s collections for the project.

“The partnerships these kids are forming with each other are amazing and not something typically seen every day,” she said.

Selecting the 90-odd titles for the bags is challenging but fun for Sewall, who keeps her finger on the pulse of what younger generations are reading.

Another thing Sewall is excited about is the opportunity to introduce children to nonfiction books that are not as popular with young readers.

“Children tend to love reading fiction,” said Sewall. “But I want them to know that the world is an interesting place beyond make-believe.”

Today the project has expanded to include readers from Woodside Elementary School, on nine bus runs, with the book bags constantly circulating among students. They are replenished with new titles every two months.

Sanders said that beyond literacy advocacy, the project is great for the leadership opportunities and safety features it affords.

“The younger kids love to interact with the older students, who serve as mentors,” said Sanders. “And it helps the little ones, who were unfamiliar with peer interaction or the rules of the bus – such as staying seated during the commute to school, which is a safety issue.”

Previously, Sanders had to keep checking the rearview mirror to watch for safety or other issues among young, active riders.

“The atmosphere on the bus changed almost immediately when the reading program started,” said Sanders. “It was much quieter and less chaotic because the students were sitting and either reading or being read to. It wasn’t less talking, just a different kind of interaction. The older kids would be reading quietly, which kept the younger kids seated and engaged – pointing at pictures and asking questions.”

The program is only offered a few days each week, allowing older book mentors a chance to interact with their peers.

“We don’t want to make this an obligation for the older kids,” said Sanders, who noted that while not every student can read during the commute, they can all play a role in mentoring younger students.

“One of our older students (has motion sickness) so he can’t read while riding, but he enjoys interacting with the younger children.”

Preece agreed, citing social interaction as another perk of the program.

“In this age of technology, we can spend too much time in front of a media screen,” said Preece. “This program offers children a nice break to talk about books and share about themselves. Oral storytelling is an important part of our human development. That’s how our ancestors shared stories.”

“One of the best ways to make a lifelong reader is to model reading behavior wherever you are. Thanks to Don and the rest of the Williams-Cone and Woodside bus drivers, there are 90-plus books on the buses to engage the kids in reading and learning.”

For more information, call Topsham Public Library at 725-1727 or go to www.topshamlibrary.org.

Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at:

[email protected]