By Kristy MacKaben
For the Mirror
Reading just got a lot more fun for some first graders at McAuliffe Heights at Irving Elementary School. Twice a week, Brianna Stoehr-Parrish's classroom has a special visitor - Cricket, a certified therapy dog.
From left, Grace Kennedy, Brianna Nolan and Jayce Hettinger read to Cricket, a certified therapy dog, at McAuliffe Heights at Irving Elementary School in?Altoona.
Cricket, a 14-year-old bearded collie, does not do much. She barely moves and doesn't make a peep, but her presence on Wednesday and Friday mornings means a lot to first graders involved in the Response to Intervention reading program. For 20 minutes, groups of five first graders take turns reading to Cricket, who lies calmly among the children.
Cricket's lack of response is kind of the idea for the project, which Stoehr- Parrish says is "like an experiment."
Reading to a dog like Cricket is non-threatening for kids because Cricket doesn't judge or point out mistakes. She simply listens and provides comfort to the students, who can pet or snuggle gently with the dog as much as they like.
"It's fun, and Cricket's just so sweet," first grader Lucas Berkheimer said.
Cricket's owner and handler, Richard McDonald of Duncansville, is on hand to monitor the dog and make sure the children stay on task.
"It's supposed to build confidence and get kids excited about reading," Stoehr-Parrish said.
The program started as a suggestion from Shelly Beaver, a parent of first-grader Emily. Beaver works at HealthSouth, where Cricket is used as a pet therapy dog through the Recreation Therapy department. After reading an article in a parenting magazine about boosting kids' reading skills through pet therapy, she approached Parrish with the idea.
"Because Mrs. Parrish embraces parent involvement and has a very imaginative and fun approach to teaching, I approached her about bringing Cricket into class for the purpose of improving first grade's reading skills, as has been the focus of first grade all year.
"Mrs. Parrish embraced the idea and asked me to set up visits with Cricket."
Stoehr-Parrish then sent a letter, along with a permission slip, to the homes of the 15 students she chose to participate. Some of the students are in another first grade classroom with teacher Jenna Muccitelli. During reading period, the students who work with Cricket come to Stoehr-Parrish's classroom for 20 minutes.
The program started in January, with a hiatus in February, and was re-instituted in mid-March.
There is no charge for Cricket's visits, which is welcome in a time of education budget cuts. McDonald and his wife, Patricia, have been raising dogs for almost 40 years, and they love being able to give back to the community.
"Cricket has always had a great temperament, and she loves kids," McDonald said.
When Cricket was first brought into the classroom in January, there understandably was excitement. All of the students wanted to read to Cricket, though Stoehr-Parrish decided to initially choose only three reading groups for the program.
Stoehr-Parrish wanted to monitor the progress of the reading groups, and then eventually allow the other reading groups to participate. The children are at various reading levels. While lower level reading groups might improve word recognition and reading speed, higher level groups might improve their reading inflection and comprehension. Though only about five children at a time work with Cricket, the children in the rest of the class are still having fun.
When Cricket is in the classroom, Stoehr-Parrish works with another group of five or six children, who read into pretend microphones, and a third group of children work on laptops on the floor. These children know their time will come to read to Cricket later in the year.
"I'll be able to tell whether they're improving or not," Stoehr-Parrish said.
With regular testing, reading is a big focus of first grade, so Stoehr-Parrish is intent on boosting reading skills and feels Cricket has already helped.
So far, she feels all of the children in the program have improved their reading speed. The next formal testing will be later in the spring, when the measurement will be more concrete.
"The ultimate goal is for the students to improve their literacy skills, including fluency, and confidence when reading aloud. Because Cricket does not point out mistakes or pass judgment about the children's reading, the students are more comfortable reading aloud, thus increasing their level of confidence and their literacy skills," Beaver said. "My hopes are that Emily becomes more comfortable reading aloud to her peers and teacher and that her love of reading continues to grow and develop through this unique program."
The kids already know why they love time with Cricket.
"When it's not your turn to read, you can pet her," first grader Ethan Little said.