Amid coronavirus, story time moves online for Robinson Center youth

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Samantha Musleh reads to RCLC students on Facebook Live

Samantha Musleh reads to RCLC students on Facebook Live

Samantha Musleh was out and about in March, before the full onset of the coronavirus, when she bumped into a family from the University of Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC).

“They said their son was missing me so much, and my heart just broke,” said Musleh, who teaches preschool to learners of English as a new language at the RCLC as an AmeriCorps member.

Like other schools and centers in the area, the RCLC closed recently because of the coronavirus, hastening an abrupt end to the school year.

“So when I heard students were sad and missed us, I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to get inside those homes without getting inside those homes,” Musleh said, meaning the students’ homes, where they were now suddenly isolated from friends and teachers.

The key: social media.

Using Facebook Live, Musleh recorded herself reading a bedtime story for the students from the RCLC’s expansive collection of children’s books, including titles from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that sends free books to South Bend area youth with support from the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County.

Six weeks and more than 50 books later, the nightly videos — they start at 7:30 on the center’s Facebook page — have become ritual for both current and former RCLC students from as far away as Armenia, as well as current and former staff and AmeriCorps members like Musleh, who commit to at least one year of service with the center.

It’s just one way, in addition to transitioning much of its normal programming online, that the RCLC is fulfilling its mission in this time of social distancing.

“They love it,” Musleh said of the preschool students.

Importantly, the Facebook Live format allows the students to interact with Musleh, and vice versa, in real time, enacting a version of the classroom experience online.

“They send me pictures and videos of them reading and say they miss me,” Musleh said. “And I miss them so much.”

Musleh, who is working toward a certificate in early childhood education, records the videos at home.

“I have four children of my own, and they’ve become my audience because it’s kind of hard to read to a computer screen,” she said.

Beyond preschool, the RCLC is offering tutoring and entrepreneurship classes, weekly art history/activity classes, poetry reading and competition, activities for kids and families, trivia for kids and daily inspirational posts for Take Ten students online.

The Robinson Shakespeare Company, meanwhile, is preparing to present its spring production of “The Taming of the Shrew” over Zoom, the teleconferencing app.

Established in 2011, the RCLC’s English as a new language (ENL) preschool program is a companion to its adult ENL program, exposing the children of students in that program to music, literature, computers, art and outdoor play on a daily basis.

The current class consists of 12 students representing nine countries and as many languages, according Jennifer Wittenbrink Ortega, literacy program director at the RCLC. Students typically start the year with little or no knowledge of the English language.

“All of our children are recently arrived in America,” Wittenbrink Ortega said. “It is a bit like the Tower of Babel in early September, but through play, family activities, a literacy-rich environment and plenty of animal crackers, come May we have a model U.N. in the back room, where English and native languages are supported, families feel welcomed in their new home in South Bend and our children are better prepared to succeed in the American school system.”

As with so many other things, of course, the pandemic has upended the student-teacher relationship.

In addition to reading to the students, Musleh now helps organize online sing-alongs and drive-by parades for them around their birthdays, drops books and activities by their homes and hosts online baby showers for their parents.

But that’s always been part of the job.

“We’re a family preschool,” Musleh said. “We’re not just teaching those kids and going home.”

Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127, eblasko@nd.edu