CONWAY — The Year of the Book has begun at Conway Elementary School. Conway El. was one of five schools in New Hampshire and five in Vermont in late May to receive a Children’s Literacy Foundation $25,000 Year of the Book grant for the 2020-21 school year.

On Sept. 24, the Cougars kicked off their Year of the Book festivities with a visit from Duncan McDougall, executive director of the Children’s Literacy Foundation, which is based in Waterbury Center, Vt., and he brought some gifts for everyone — lots of books.

“It was amazing,” Conway Elementary Principal Jason Robert, who applied for the grant last winter, said. “It was a wonderful afternoon with Duncan.”

Broken up into two groups (K-3 and 4-6), and spread out on the baseball field in the back of the school, the students and staff each met for 30 minutes with McDougall, who shared what the Year of the Book program is all about.

“The kids were pumped,” said Robert. “We even had our distance learners be a part of it as we had an iPad set up on our speaker. We also extended an invite to the Pine Tree and John Fuller distance learners to join in.”

“Duncan’s storytelling was phenomenal. The highlight for me was the excitement in the kids. It was great to safely put out students in a field. To hear the students laugh and participate, we all missed it.”

At one point, McDougall asked, who has heard of the book “Hatchet,” and the entire fourth through sixth-grade students shot their arms up into the air.

“Everyone has either read it or is currently reading it,” Robert said.

McDougall founded CLiF in 1998.

“He has given a few thousand literacy and storytelling presentations to children and parents throughout New Hampshire and Vermont,” according to the Children’s Literary Foundation’s website. “Duncan has an MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College and worked for seven years as a management consultant in Boston. He has also been a freelance writer, teacher, and radio commentator, and is active in local political and environmental campaigns.”

According to clifonline.org, each sponsored school receives:

• $25,000 worth of literacy programming and books.

• A wide variety of literacy-related programs that will take place during the school year, and several other forms of support.

• Ten new, high-quality children’s books for each student to keep and to select from hundreds of titles.

• CLiF support in arranging logistics, integrating low-cost literacy programs into the school year, networking with past and present school coordinators, and accessing additional CLiF resources.

The program targets schools with a high percentage of students scoring below proficient in literacy assessments and a high percentage receiving free/reduced lunch.

In addition, the Conway Public Library also will receive $1,000 worth of books.

David Smolen, executive director of the library, serves on Conway Elementary’s literary committee, the principal said. Robert said Smolen and Meredith Scott, program director for CLiF, “are going to be able to put out a wide array of books for our school and the town.”

Students received their first books this week.

“In the past, they’d be able to touch and look at them first,” Robert explained, but due to the coronavirus, that’s not the case this year. “We asked them to choose a book by the cover and go for the adventure and see what comes out of it.”

Students will get to pick another book every couple of weeks or so, according to Robert.

Robert said the grant was on his radar for more than a year. He applied for it in January with reading specialist Alicia Hill and library media specialist Meghan Murphy writing letters of support.

“This is going to bring a lot of great connections and access for us,” Robert said, adding, “I can’t say enough about Meredith. It will be great working with her. And, Meg Murphy is running this whole program, so big kudos to her.”

In addition to each student receiving 10 books, selected schools get to host visits from the more than 68 authors, illustrators and storytellers with whom CLiF works; options for writing, songwriting or cartooning workshops; free family literacy events; and special programming like field trips and visiting artists.

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