I had never heard of "Tikki Tikki Tembo" and "Froggy Gets Dressed" before I volunteered in a classroom. But these books were big hits with second-graders eager to hear about the Chinese boy with a 21-syllable name and the frog who forgets his underwear.
My lunch hours with the children at Boston's Blackstone Elementary School were a welcome addition to my Tuesdays. Weightier thoughts of work were somehow hard to come by once I got to the school a few blocks away.
Together the class and I discovered stories like the folk tale explaining why the Chinese now give their children short names instead of big long ones like Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo. (For the record, if they fall into deep wells they will be rescued much faster if their names can be said quickly.)
Because I like watching what happens when you put kids and books together, I was an enthusiastic volunteer. My employer made it easy for me by sponsoring the program and providing the books. I didn't have to teach reading - just convey how much fun it can be.
Elsewhere in America, though, volunteers are being used to teach vowels and consonants, verbs and nouns. And schools are learning that enthusiasm is only part of the equation. Training is the other.
For my informal visits to Blackstone, training wasn't necessary. I could do things the kids loved - like giving them a chance to wrap their tongues around the syllables in Tikki tikki's name - without fearing the consequences. I could read the oft-requested "Froggy" and let them erupt in giggles when they heard the word underwear, even if the article in question was really long johns.
We could have more serious sessions, too. I'll never forget the look on one little girl's face as I read a biography about Martin Luther King Jr. and she heard for the first time of the shot that brought his good works to an end.
But for anything more than reading aloud, training would be crucial. At a fourth-grade class I visited recently, students were reading at second- to sixth-grade levels. That's the difference between a picture book and one with chapters, generally speaking. Those kids are fortunate to have a teacher with 12 years of experience to sort out who can read what.
Using volunteers to teach reading offers useful one-on-one contact. And not all who sign up need to have been at it for a decade. But it seems essential that in a tutoring situation, only one of the parties be on a steep learning curve.
* Kim Campbell (email@example.com) is the Assistant Learning Editor. Amelia Newcomb is on vacation. Her column will return next week.