Cherokee students find dogs to be a good audience

Brooks Reece, a second-grader at Cherokee Elementary, enjoys reading to Aubrey. For over a decade, dogs have visited Cherokee to listen to students read and help them build confidence. PHOTO BY COLLIN BROOKS

Dogs can’t teach students to read, but they can be a strong support system for helping students become more confident readers. Students at Cherokee Elementary will happily attest to that.

For over a decade, Cherokee students in grades K-2 have had a chance to read to man’s best friend. While the dogs have changed through the years, the excitement has not. Aubrey and Nellie spend an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in classrooms eagerly listening to students read. The program is part of the Human and Animal Bond in Tennessee program, an outreach program from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Sally MacLane, a local veterinarian, was instrumental in getting the program started at South Side Elementary about a decade ago when her sister, Amy Stover, was the principal. The program continues at Cherokee Elementary and MacLane said that the students aren’t the only ones looking forward to reading time.

“I know the kids look forward to it so much, but Nellie also gets really excited when she realizes where we are going,” MacLane said. “It’s not intimidating for the students to read to the dogs at all, because the dogs aren’t judging them on how well they can read.”

Cherokee Elementary second-grader Brooks Reece was all smiles as Aubrey sat obediently, allowing Reece to rub her ears as he read her a story about a dog super hero.

“It’s fun because you get to pet her and you get to read to her,” Reece said. “Aubrey is really soft and she loves to listen to us read.”

Reece admitted to trying to read to his dog at home, but he noted that his dog didn’t quite listen as well as Aubrey.

Second-grade teacher Katherine Duncan said having dogs visit her classroom has been a welcomed addition over the last few years. “Aubrey is a calming presence for our students,” Duncan said. “Even my struggling readers do not hesitate to read with Aubrey. I think that she comforts them and makes them feel a little more confident. They don’t mind reading to her, but they get nervous reading to me or in class.”

Throughout the hour the dogs are in the room, students take turns sitting on the rug in pairs to read. It’s a time when students disconnect from their fear of reading and enjoy the attention and snuggles of a dog.

Vicki Kimball serves as an instructional assistant at Cherokee and is the HABIT liaison. She said that she notices student’s fluency increases when they are reading to the dog, because they aren’t thinking about the stress of reading out loud.

“It makes a world of difference, not even for that day, but then they know that they have something to look forward to,” Kimball said. “The beauty of having a dog in your room is that the dog is non-judgmental. The dog is completely non-partial and gives love to everyone.”

That love is absorbed by the students and it even gets Duncan excited. She said that it doesn’t matter how students fall in love with reading, they just need to be engaged and excited.

“We value anything that gets them engaged and makes them love to read,” Duncan said. “I feel like it’s my job to make them lifelong readers.”


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