Editor’s note: This is the 11th in an continuing series of articles explaining the policies and strategies our schools are implementing to try and raise Marion County’s academic performance in its public classrooms.

Nationally recognized reading advocate and American children’s writer Jon Scieszka once said, “Expand the definition of ‘reading’ to include non-fiction, humor, graphic novels, magazines, action adventure, and, yes, even websites. It’s the pleasure of reading that counts; the focus will naturally broaden. A boy won’t read shark books forever.”

Early in life, I viewed reading as something you had to do at school because the teacher made you and you received a grade for doing so. Being active in physical education and social during lunch were fun; reading, not so much. Throughout elementary school I developed a desire for good competition, an innate gene I gained from my mother, the most competitive person I know — and if you don’t believe me just ask anyone who spent an afternoon on the tennis court opposite her.

My father was a big sports fan and quite the avid reader. Looking back, I sometimes thought all he did was go to work, read, and watch sports. His reading included the daily newspaper (which has not changed for over 50 years), sports magazines, all types of history, and his absolute favorite — books written about Mafioso crime families.

Ms. Cobb’s fifth-grade reading class at Wyomina Park Elementary offered opportunities that fed my appetite for healthy competition, thanks to the numerous topics we could read. In her class we competed against our classmates on the number of books we read and the scores we received on tests (never could keep up with Mark Vianello in “blue group,” but it was fun trying), while competing within ourselves to increase the level of difficulty in material we read. Ms. Cobb made weekly trips with all of us to the school library, which allowed us to choose books and other reading materials we could take home to help support her efforts in the classroom.

Today’s “Community Reads” project is identical to the initiative Ms. Cobb instituted for me in fifth-grade reading. It provides a great resource for both family and the community to “connect literacy lessons in the elementary classroom with activities and conversations beyond the school day.” This reinforcement is critical when trying to improve the reading ability of our students.

My family would love the “Community Reads” second-grade topics for October, including Greek Mythology, ancient civilization, gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece, and, most of all, the first Olympic Games. I could envision my mom setting up some type of “Phillips’ Olympics” challenging all of us to expand our reading and writing skills on these topics. I can imagine us bouncing ideas back and forth like tennis balls. Now that sounds like fun to me.

In retrospect, I am living proof Mr. Scieszka’s statement is true. Accessing all of the aforementioned experiences allowed me the chance to explore numerous topics and subjects, which proved “likeable” to my taste. The process allowed me to mature into someone who doesn’t “just read shark books” anymore. Thanks to my family, community, and some really great teachers like Ms. Cobb, my reading focus has become much broader over time; and for that, I am grateful.

I believe the “Community Reads” initiative is a great resource to provide you, your family, and our community a similar experience to mine where I learned to love reading in Ms. Cobb’s fifth-grade reading class.

— Jody Phillips is a product of Marion County Public Schools and is currently a program specialist for athletics, extra-curricular activities, and Driver’s Education.