Reading to a Very Special Listener

Maria and Ben reading together

By Joan Gabrielson, Executive Director

For the past year and a half, Jordana Deem has taught Literacy Classes in Excelsior’s accredited Middle/Senior High School. She worked hard to engage girls who struggled with the very basics of reading. Many girls felt so bad about themselves because they couldn’t read well, they acted out to avoid going to class or argued with peers in class.


Maria (16.5 years) never participated in class and wouldn’t even talk to Jordana because her reading skills were so poor. One day this Spring, Jordana observed Maria smiling from ear-to-ear as she entered the room where her afterschool activity called Paws4Trust was being conducted. Jordana observed Maria working with Ben, a Bernese Mountain dog who is a TDI certified therapy dog. After the Paws4Trust session was over and the girls had gone back to cottage, Jordana approached Volunteers Jeanne Schoech and Marcia Eckhardt and remarked that she would love to have the dogs come to her classes. Coincidentally, Marcia and Jeanne had talked about wanting to do a reading program with the dogs. One brief meeting later and a creative learning experience was created!


Weekly, Volunteers Marcia Eckhardt with her Bernese Mountain dog Logan, Jeanne Schoech with Bernese Mountain dog Ben and Barb Gierscher with Golden Retriever Dancer listen, help with pronunciation and check for reading comprehension. The objectives of this program are to: have a safe place to read without judgment and to improve oral reading skills, fluency and reading comprehension. “I have seen a dramatic reduction in negative behaviors prior to class and during class since we began having the girls read to the dogs. The student participation has significantly improved and they are more engaged in learning”, says Jordana. She has seen an increased desire to attend school regularly in general for these students because they feel they are learning, growing and having success in school for the very first time.


“The girls are not embarrassed or shy about reading because they have bonded with the dogs and volunteers and feel accepted for who they are. Girls who previously would not participate are now fully engaged the entire class period. They are also learning other valuable skills like sharing and cooperating as they take turns with other students reading to ‘their dog'”. “The girls are very supportive of each other and I have seen a real increase in positive peer interactions”, reports Jordana.


One girl, Becky, previously had never engaged in Literacy class and failed the class Winter term. She has a great deal of trouble focusing in all of her classes. Since the dogs and handlers have joined her class, Becky has never missed a class! She is fully engaged for the full class period. Becky greets Dancer and Handler Barb with her Marley and Me Children’s version book, pulls out the carefully placed bookmark and reads to Dancer for the full class period.


Handler Jeannie Schoech has written a special book just for Excelsior Client Sally with photos of Sally and Ben. The book includes descriptions of activities Sally and Ben like to do and fun memories of their time together.


The students tell Jordana that the best day of the week is Thursday, because that is the day the dogs come to Literacy class! Happily this year Halloween is on a Thursday and (don’t tell the Literacy class) the furry reading friends are coming in costume that day!


A heartfelt thank you to Barb, Jeanne and Marcia for all the hours they give to our girls!


Thank you to Jordana Deem for helping to write this article and for your dedication to creative teaching!