In the small town of Statesboro, GA, Statesboro High School’s National Honor Society (NHS) has been diligently working to uphold its dedication to service while making accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic. As a newly inducted NHS member, I was thrilled to contribute to the surrounding community of Statesboro but knew that the vast majority of my community service would be virtual. Unfortunately, this year’s NHS members would not have similar experiences to those of previous NHS cohorts. However, Shannon Anderson, one of Statesboro High’s NHS advisers, implemented a Virtual Storytime Project for NHS members to read stories to elementary school students in the surrounding area.

Each NHS member who signed up for the Virtual Storytime was assigned to two elementary schools. I could either send a prerecorded video of reading a book or do a live reading via Zoom for the young students. I opted to read via Zoom because I wanted to have a fully interactive experience. Seeing the children’s faces and engaging in conversation with them is much more uplifting and encouraging than simply recording a quick video.

For each elementary school, I decided to read the children’s book Yoko by Rosemary Wells. This story is centered around a Japanese cat named Yoko (the characters are all animals), whose classmates ridicule her for eating sushi. The book accurately reflects the experiences of many children who bring foreign meals to lunchtime at school. As a child of immigrants, I was one of these children. My mother’s side of the family comes from China, so I used to bring many Chinese dishes for my school lunch. In first grade, I eagerly bounced my way to the cafeteria, carrying my hot pink lunch box. But, when I started eating my dumplings, the kids next to me would say, “EW, ears!” When I ate noodles, my classmates would say, “EW, worms!” Before these instances, I thought my lunches were perfectly normal. However, when I realized that it was the norm for everyone to eat Doritos and Lunchables, I was embarrassed. I did not realize at the time that there was nothing to be ashamed of. My classmates were simply ill-informed and didn’t know better. So, I thought Yoko would be the best book to read to young children. I decided that this was the time for me to give some valuable lessons to younger generations.

The first school I read to was Stilson Elementary School in Brooklet, GA, whose media specialist kindly arranged a time for me to read to a group of first-grade students. I created a Zoom link for her to join when the meeting time came around. On the morning I read to the kids, the media specialist connected her laptop to a Promethean board so that I could be viewed on a large screen. As I read Yoko to the young students, I tried to make it as entertaining as possible by using different voices and accents for each character. For Yoko, I made her sound like a sweet little girl who was excited to eat her delicious sushi at school. For the Franks, two of the bullies in Yoko’s class, I deepened my voice and made them appear as spiteful and as disrespectful as possible. After I finished, the kids thanked me for reading to them. I answered any questions they had for me, and we had a brief conversation before saying goodbye. I then read to first graders at Julia P. Bryant Elementary School in Statesboro—my alma mater. I had a very similar experience to the one I had with the Stilson kids. Since I loved reading to the buoyant children so much, I asked Mrs. Anderson if I could do another reading. Because Statesboro High has a preschool, I contacted its pre-K teacher and ended up doing a third storytime to a group of 4-year-olds. Again, the kids were very appreciative to have listened to the book Yoko.

In navigating the current circumstances, high schoolers who are willing to engage in community service are seeking out safe ways to do so. The Virtual Storytime Project is a perfect way to connect with younger students while making accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it has an NHS chapter or not, any high school could implement a similar service project to those of Statesboro High’s NHS. If you wish to start a Virtual Storytime Project at your school, have your students keep these tips in mind:

  • Pick a children’s book that you think will be both entertaining and informative for kids. A story like Yoko highlights the importance of celebrating diversity and inclusivity. A story like Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen has macabre humor geared toward older children—that may not be the best choice for elementary school students.
  • Be as enthusiastic as possible when reading your book. Kids want to hear interesting stories, and they will zone out if you sound monotonous.
  • Clearly show each page of the book to your camera as you are reading. It is helpful for the kids to see all of the colorful pictures as you bring the story to life.
  • Enliven your storytelling by using different voices and accents. If there is a French character in the story, you could try to use a Parisian accent by pursing your lips, “Frenchifying” your diphthongs, and connecting your words with liaisons. If there is a big, menacing antagonist in the story, you could deepen your voice and have a demeaning attitude.
  • Dress up! This little cherry on top could make your storytelling seem more realistic. You could wear cat ears when reading for feline characters or wear loud Christmas clothing when reading holiday stories.
  • Ask the kids if they have any questions when you’re done reading because they might be curious about details from the book. If they don’t have questions, still try to engage in conversation with them. It will make the experience for both you and your audience much more meaningful.

Reading to dozens of children was such an illuminating and heartwarming experience for me. I truly appreciate Mrs. Anderson for encouraging NHS members to read books to elementary school students. I expect that as we move away from this pandemic, future NHS students at Statesboro High may still opt to do virtual storytimes. Making them virtual is often more convenient than traveling to the elementary schools themselves.

If you want to implement similar programs at your school, tell the NHS adviser—or any service club’s adviser—to make the Virtual Storytime Project a way for members to earn individual service hours. You could even make it a schoolwide program to have a larger impact on young students in your area. Start by having the adviser research copyright permissions and publishers that allow read-alouds of their books. Make an Excel spreadsheet to assign students to different elementary schools. From there, students can contact the schools’ media specialists and arrange times to set up a Zoom or Google Meet. As high school students join me in contributing to their communities through the Virtual Storytime Project, I hope that they will have equally engaging and gratifying experiences. I can’t wait to see other students spend some time reading to kids!

Helen Piltner is a senior at Statesboro High School in Statesboro, GA.