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The 'paws' that refreshes

School librarian Deborah Cannada stands on a pretty straightforward rule: The best way for reading to touch young lives is for young lives to touch reading.

Deborah Cannada

“I love my Kindle, but I will never get tired of the feel and the smell of a book in my hand—and I want our children to experience that,” says Cannada, the librarian at West Side Elementary School in Charleston, W.Va. To secure that end, the veteran educator of nearly two decades and member of the Kanawha Federation of Teachers is not afraid to leave any stone unturned or any punches pulled. Late August found her arranging and rearranging her media room, working to fashion relaxed, cozy corners filled with oversized chairs and the types of spaces that coax children to spread out, relax and browse the shelves at West Side, a new public school serving a low-income neighborhood.

Children also have come to expect another unusual wrinkle when they visit Cannada’s room—one that comes with four legs and a sweet disposition. Her name is Paca, a 2-year-old therapy dog that is trained to calm, comfort and socialize with special populations like nursing home residents. Cannada saw opportunity in therapy dogs almost immediately and traveled to Kansas for a week during her 2010 summer break to adopt a therapy dog for the school. She returned to Charleston with a Labrador retriever who reaches West Side students on many levels; the chance to earn “Paca time” is a real incentive for the students.

“Many children in our community have so little access to pets,” says Cannada, who lives only two blocks from her school. “They think of Paca as ‘our dog.’ She’s loving, obedient and well-trained—and she’s trained to sense children who are in crisis. She knows it before I know it.”

Deborah Cannada

School librarian Debra Cannada joins West Side students and the school's therapy dog Paca.

When children become upset, nervous or angry at school, Paca is often the first to walk up and nuzzle them, inviting the students to pet her. “When they do, it’s almost as if you can see the stress fall away,” says Cannada. The dog is also a “fabulous reading incentive,” she adds. “Children who do not like to read aloud will read to Paca. She will not make fun of them if they miss a word, and she will lay her head on their laps for just as long as they want to read to her.”

And reading options and opportunities are sure to grow at West Side in the 2010-11 school year. A new school-community partnership was launched this year, and Cannada is helping the school spearhead it. The partnership, which enlists support from Cannada’s union as well as First Book (a nonprofit organization that provides new books for children in need) and other groups will help expand the stacks at West Side so that there is something available for almost every young interest and imagination. The project kicked off by delivering two new books to every student in the building—volumes that they can treasure and keep.

Cannada already has seen the effort make a difference. Recently, the school had its book fair, and the two new volumes were welcome keepsakes for most students, particularly those who did not have cash available to buy books at the fair.

“I think there is a lot to be gained through these types of partnerships,” which help schools give back to the neighborhood, the librarian says. Plus, “it’s pretty cool to be able to put a book in the hands of children instead of a game controller.” 

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