For the last seven years, Reading Pals, a tutoring program for 5th and 6th graders in Newark, has been a cornerstone of our community efforts. Not only do the weekly sessions with our volunteer Audible tutors consistently improve students’ reading abilities, says Justin Snead, literacy curriculum director for BRICK Education Network, which helps coordinate the program, but “more than that, the students love making friends with the tutors, learning about their work and lives,” and visiting Audible’s offices at the end of the school year.
So when Covid-19 closed both our office doors and those of the three schools we had been set to work with this year, Audible’s Community Engagement Coordinator Monique Jones worked quickly and creatively to make the program virtual. “We didn’t want to abandon the educational needs of the Reading Pals students,” she said. “Audible is committed to the educational initiatives we’ve established.”
Making a virtual program work required the students and their teachers to commit their time to an after-school program, the students’ parents to grant their permission for attendance, and Audible employees to commit to sharing their ‘no-meeting time’ on Thursday afternoons to Reading Pals students. Luckily, the book that students and tutors read and discuss together, The Mysterious Benedict Society, had already been chosen, and, in the final hours of the last regular school day, Reading Pals students were sent home with the Kindle devices Audible provides at the beginning of the program.
Despite not being together in the classroom, the weekly Zoom sessions, which are supported by the students’ teachers, “have gone really well,” says Snead, a longtime community educator. “Students were excited to see the tutors again and continue talking about the book.”
Students were up to the task of preparing on their own, Jones says, charging their devices and completing their assignments beforehand. An added perk of going digital was the ability to supplement the reading sessions with Kahoot.com, a free game-based learning platform, which turned the chapter reviews into competitive games.
Brandt Hale, Video Producer, Audible Studios, is a second-year Reading Pals volunteer. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with Newark students” on reading, pronunciation, vocabulary and understanding of themes and literary devices. Hale also enjoys meeting “co-workers you haven’t otherwise crossed paths with.” The virtual sessions, which became a highlight of his week, also gave students an outlet for opening up about the challenges of transitioning to schoolwork and classes at home. “Programs like Reading Pals exemplify the enthusiasm our company and its employees take in active participation within the Newark community,” added Hale.
Other staple community initiatives have also gone virtual, including our in-house high school internship program. This change has enabled us to open up opportunities for students to intern for our offices around the world and to expand the number of paid internships we could offer. Our educational workshops on storytelling and STEM skills, led by Audible employees, are being expanded and will be offered virtually to Newark students.
We are also conducting virtual volunteer events including an educational session on Audible’s business and content for the United States Air Force Education With Industry Fellows and a panel discussion with members of our technology team for the graduating class of NPower, which provides tuition-free technology training to veterans and young adult job seekers. Audible employees are also pairing with members of the graduating class of the Newark Museum of Art Explorer’s Program for a mentoring session.