NYer of the Week: Jo Umans Creates a New Chapter in the Education of City Students

The latest New Yorker of the Week is promoting literacy with unique and positive programs that don't necessarily go by the book. NY1's Roma Torre filed the following report.

On this day, they're not just fourth graders. They're authors.

These students are putting together biographies they wrote on an influential person of their choice. 

Guiding these curious kids is Jo Umans. Fifteen years ago, as a part-time librarian, Umans saw how visits by authors inspired children to get more motivated about reading and writing.

"I went back to the library after the author sessions, and I saw how excited the kids were," she says. "They would come in and they would say, 'Did you know that so and so is my friend and I met her today and [talking noises].' I thought, wouldn't it be cool to do this in public schools?"

So Umans made it her full-time mission. She founded Behind the Book, a nonprofit that promotes literacy by bringing authors and their books to classrooms in low-income neighborhoods. 

Whether it's learning to read or reading to learn, every workshop is creative and based on a teacher's curriculum.

"Sometimes, they would write the most minimal amount. You know, they won't really get into the writing pieces," said Yvonne LaRoche, a teacher at P.S. 154 in Manhattan. "With this program, they understand that as writers, they have the power to inspire."

"We chose engagement to focus on because engagement is the one part of learning how to read that has nothing to do with socioeconomics," Umans says. "We show the kids that they can be successful, no matter what level they are."

That lesson encourages kids to keep their nose in a book and their eyes open to new opportunities. 

"Reading is like exploring new worlds in a book to me," says student Angel Gomez. "Writing is like a friend of reading."

"You see them walking a lot taller afterwards," Umans says. "They're much more self-confident. They're willing to take risks. They're willing to try new things."

Since 2003, Jo and her volunteers have worked with 10,000 students in the city from pre-k to high school.

"I like her loud voice, and I want to be her when I grow up," says student Chanze Gibbs.

So, for creating a new chapter in the education of city students, Jo Umans is the latest New Yorker of the Week.

For more information about Behind the Book, visit behindthebook.org

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