Robbie had always struggled to engage with what he read. But then his teacher at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Conn., introduced the class to Story Shares. He took to it eagerly—and soon he was writing his own stories based on the ones he’d read.
That success is thanks to Haverford native Louise Baigelman. Initially founded in New York with the help of the Poses Family Foundation, her nonprofit provides materials and writing tools to students with delayed reading comprehension and who lack literacy skills.
Baigelman, who now lives in Ardmore, drew inspiration for Story Shares from her time with Teach for America and teaching English as a second language. She noticed that many of her students weren’t at their target reading level. “I couldn’t find books for them that they could read and that they wanted to read,” she recalls.
Baigelman worried that an early deficit would have a domino effect on their other studies. Her concerns weren’t unfounded. A surprising recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read and that 21 percent of adults read below fifth-grade proficiency.
Story Shares’ target reader demographic is “anyone who reads below grade level after age 10, with the core of it being middle-school and high school students who read at least two years below grade level,” says Baigelman.
She also sees it as a great tool for those learning English as a second language, those with dyslexia or attention issues, and low-income families with limited access to materials.
Baigelman’s classroom experiences stuck with her when she made the move to the Poses Family Foundation. During her time there, they launched a contest that has since become the backbone of Story Shares. In four months, nearly 600 story submissions poured in for the contest, which was aimed at creating what she’s dubbed “relevant reads”—stories that are interesting for students who read below level. They’re written with a certain age in mind, but at a lower comprehension level, in the hopes of boosting interest.
From 2014 to 2015, Baigelman was given a grant by the foundation and branched out to start Story Shares. While the idea was in its infancy, she contacted teachers and professors for feedback. One was Lisa Simon, a Bryn Mawr College alum and a City College of New York professor at the time. Simon focused on literacy programming and soon joined the advisory board of Story Shares. “I love the idea of what they’re doing,” says Simon. “I think it’s a smart design, where there are two huge needs that they are tapping into. There are writers that want to be published and kids who want to read books that are interesting.”
Simon has seen the negative effects of not having confidence when reading. “It gets worse in so many ways. Emotionally, you don’t feel confident and are embarrassed, and you’re not working on building your fluency,” she says.
Having access to new content has helped make Story Shares successful, Simon says. She believes those stories can be an especially valuable tool for teachers in low-income areas. At the moment, it’s free and only requires internet access. Demand is clear—it’s being used in all 50 states and across the globe. “I think it’s a very large group of people who need these kinds of stories, and a lot of teachers are looking for them,” she says.
Lacey Ramsey, Robbie’s teacher in Connecticut, was among the first to pilot-test the program, using it for her students with learning differences. “I had middle-schoolers reading on a second-grade level, and Story Shares was great for that,” says Ramsey, who’s now an educational consultant. “They were more interested, so they were more likely to continue the reading.”
Teachers can browse a cross section of books by reading level and age, then offer suggestions to their students. “It’s giving kids stories that are pretty current, very readable and of high interest,” says Simon, who notes that the books are well designed and visually appealing.
To ensure the content is appropriate, Baigelman and a team of editors and advisers vet everything. Anything deemed acceptable goes through a thorough editing process. And the contest that kicked off Story Shares still remains an integral component.
“The contest itself is a fun awareness campaign,” says Baigelman. “Established writers, self-published [writers], grad students and teachers can create their own.”
In the span of about three years, they’ve had roughly 2,000 submissions. “Story Shares is putting resources in teachers’ hands that you otherwise could not find. The fact that one of my students was able to publish his book in the digital library … is definitely motivating for them,” says Ramsey.