MARTINSBURG — Stepping into Amber King’s library at Berkeley Heights Elementary, visitors are greeted by plenty of colors, beloved characters and books abound. Despite adjustments made to learning this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, King’s room looks ready to welcome the next class just like any other year.

The biggest change, though, is the lack of smiling little faces excited for whatever topic that week brought.

“We’re trying our best to push through and make it as normal as possible,” King said.

Being as normal as possible is key, meaning King has worked to ensure the same quality of education is there whether a student be Brick or Click or whether learning is done inside the library, inside a classroom or outdoors. King has even gone as far as adjusting student- and family-favorite special events to a virtual platform, one wrapping up currently being the Storybook Pumpkin Patch.

Started last year, King encourages students and families to read together and to paint a pumpkin inspired by the book. Last year, roughly 80 families participated, those works of art being showcased in the library and during the fall festival.

“One of my goals last year in the library — we always try to have two professional goals each year — was to create parental involvement beyond book fairs,” King said. “This is my third year as the librarian. I’ve been at the school, this is my 22nd year. I taught kindergarten for 19 years here, and then I switched to librarian. I love kindergarten, but my passion is books and reading. They absolutely loved to come in here and just look at them all. We always do a fall festival, so we had them on display. I told the kids, ‘This is no contest.’ Everybody who participated got a book. I ordered them a book of some sort. I wrote every kid a ‘Thank you’ card for participating. It was amazing.”

Showcasing favorites like “Pete the Cat” and “Dogman,” King said she had a hard time pulling students away from admiring the paintings at times, laughing as she recalled the joy of last fall.

“They were so excited,” King said. “It was hustle and bustle all the time. I’d find them not going to breakfast, because they were coming in here to look at the pumpkins. At the end of the day, I’d have to encourage them, ‘Come on, they called your bus. You have to go.’ They just wanted to hang out.”

This year’s pumpkin patch is a little smaller but just as creative, as students and families have sent King photos of their creations since they can’t be together in light of the pandemic. King, in turn, is putting together a Powerpoint of all the photos sent in so the masterpieces are still shared throughout the school, each person receiving an email with the show.

Come December, King will be at it once again, adjusting fun programs accordingly after DEAR in December brought smiles to many faces a year ago.

“When I was back in school, DEAR stood for ‘Drop everything and read,'” King explained, bringing together “dear” and “deer.”

Families were encouraged to read together while wearing deer antlers to help celebrate the winter season, the students getting to color a deer-themed calendar every night they read 10-20 minutes. Fun pictures of families in costumer were sent to King, who eventually put everything together for a party to honor those who filled their calendar.

The photos were put together in a Powerpoint, one that was shown throughout the day, as well, and featured some surprised appearances from teachers, the resource office and Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Dr. Patrick K. Murphy. The photos were also placed on a big bulletin board to share with the school. There were cupcakes, a photo booth, a deer in costume and fun to be hand. Through a grant with Read Aloud West Virginia, each participant was also gifted books to take home.

“It encouraged reading with their families. It was something fun,” King said. “It was so much fun. We had a great time. I was just trying to get families involved and bring them into school and talk to them about the importance of reading with their children.”

Because the DEAR in December program is virtually based for the most part, there won’t be too much adjusting, though she hopes to find a way to celebrate together safely.

“To see the parents get involved is such a great thing,” King said.

Through all the adjustments and all the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to teaching library for students, King has been there to ensure the love for reading is still being instilled in her students, the true passion behind the teacher.

“Kindergarten, I got to teach them how to read,” she said. “Now, I get to teach them to love to read. That’s what I love to do.”

Classes remain once a week for 40 minutes, King going to individual classrooms or outside, depending on the weather, instead of all the little faces joining her in the media center. Like in normal years, King begins each class with a read-aloud time, where she shares a story with the class, emphasizing the need for children to be read to.

In normal years, students would then participate in “choices,” different activities King had out in which the students were allowed to partake in whichever felt right for the day.

“I would always have choices out,” she said. “They could do free reading. I’d always have a puzzle table out with a puzzle. There was usually some kind of creation station, whether it was bookmarks or whatever. They could go over and sit on the rug and watch a story on the smartboard. There was choices. We would check out in the mean time, but we can’t do that this year.”

Instead, with the 1:1 device initiative, King developed libraries within the online programs in the system. The students go into each week’s lessons, each centering around a different theme, and click on which book they’d like to have read to them. Books range from both fiction and nonfiction to encourage learning about the week’s theme, and students are then asked to complete a few activities. The final 10 minutes of the class are “free read,” where students go into another virtual library that features options of books to listen to. The virtual libraries allow both Brick and Click students to receive the same options and assignments no matter where the learning takes place.

“There’s nothing than can replace having a real book in your hand, but at least, they are being read to,” King said. “They may not be reading it themselves, but they’re being read to. A lot of the books have the words they can follow. They’re getting the content.”

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