FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - It's an annual challenge for educators at the end of every school year. How do you motivate over 900 middle school students to be excited about reading over the summer?
Try having three, 300-pound New England Patriots linemen deliver the message.
The New England Patriots recently teamed up with Ahern Middle School to introduce "Read Between the Lines," a new program featuring Patriots offensive and defensive linemen to promote reading. On June 9, defensive lineman Damione Lewis joined offensive linemen Stephen Neal and Sebastian Vollmer for two highly energized school assemblies to promote the school's "Summer Reading Blitz."
Every student in attendance received a "Read Between the Lines" playbook and was encouraged to set their personal reading goals of at least two books this summer. When the students return to school in the fall, they will be asked to turn in their playbooks. If the 923 students collectively read more than 2010 books over the summer, a Patriots offensive and defensive lineman will return in the fall for another assembly to reward the students for accomplishing their goals.
Any student who reads at least two books over the summer will also be entered into a drawing for an opportunity to have lunch following the assembly with one of the Patriots linemen.
"Motivating kids to read is so important to their development," said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. "We hope that we can expand the program in the future, but it was important to us to kick off the program right here in Foxborough."
Never have fifth through eighth grade students been more excited about an assembly to promote summer reading.
Each of the Patriots players delivered a personal message about the importance of reading and the students could not have been more attentive.
Vollmer, a native of Kaarst, Germany, only learned to speak English six years ago when he came to the United States to attend the University of Houston. He discussed how glad he was to be able to tell the kids the importance of putting aside distractions and devoting time to reading.
"I think it's really important for the kids to read more, especially since TV and movies have taken over (in everyday society)," Vollmer said. "Most families have a TV at home and it is so much easier to just sit down and watch something instead of reading, so I think it's really important that somebody emphasizes that the kids should be reading more."
With only a week left in the school year, the students will soon be embarking on their own version of the offseason: summer vacation.
Stephen Neal related the kids' upcoming time away from the classroom to the Patriots' offseason workouts: the students must keep up with the reading despite not having their teachers around in June, July and August, just as the players need to stay focused and strong without their coaches present during the spring and summer as well.
Susan Abrams, principal of Ahern Middle School, expressed her enthusiasm for the program and the positive impact that the players had on the students.
"The kids were thrilled and it is very important that the world famous New England Patriots thought enough of them to spend their time telling them about the importance of reading," Abrams said. "I think it is so much more exciting and engaging than what we had before. It's interactive with important people leading the charge."
While talking about the program, Neal offered his own thoughts on what reading means to his family.
"I have three kids and I enjoy reading to them," Neal said. "My oldest daughter is 7 and she is starting to read books to me at night. Just seeing the enjoyment that she gets out of reading reminds me of when I was a kid and when I first started reading."
Sixth-grader Alex Mattie voiced his excitement regarding the possibility of enjoying lunch with a player and what he can do this summer to achieve his goals.
"We need to read books to bring them back (to our school)," Mattie said. "Whenever I have downtime, I will get a book out to read."
Fifth-grader Joseph Bartucca offered a simple game plan for how he can earn a meal with one of the Patriots next year.
"No video games and no TV," he said. "Just keep reading."