WEST ORANGE, NJ — Last week, pre-school and elementary school students from throughout the West Orange district and their parents filled Liberty Middle School’s (LMS) gymnasium to participate in the district-wide reading pajama party hosted mainly by Liberty’s staff and students.

LMS Principal Robert Klemt welcomed parents and students to the “circus,” where they were greeted by circus-themed imagery designed by LMS eighth graders and paraprofessional Lucille Madlinger.

After being dismissed by the principal, students were broken into three sessions based on their age group and placed with eighth-grade mentors.

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During a session entitled “story time,” the eighth graders who volunteered their time for this event were tasked with coming up with fun crafts and activities based off books that they either selected or were assigned to read to their younger peers.

Madlinger explained that some of the crafts designed by students to go along with their books included bookmarks and coloring pages. Ashton, an eighth grader who chose to read “Ladybug Girl,” created a superhero-themed craft and invited his group of Kindergarten students to create capes inspired by the story.

“I thought they would like it a lot,” Ashton said of his craft.

Another session was led by Roosevelt Middle School English Language Arts (ELA) teacher and illustrator Jay Wecht, who illustrated well-known characters from pop culture—such as characters from “Peanuts” and “SpongeBob SquarePants”—and had students guess who they were.

During the final session, students took a snack break in the cafeteria, where they were provided with a free book to take home.

For approximately 12 years, Liberty ELA teacher Maryann Solimo has been the brainchild behind this event, which is intended to engage children and make them realize the wonder behind reading.

“I’m a language arts teacher, so I just try to get children to love reading—which they don’t often do,” said Solimo. “Especially if they’re struggling readers, it’s really difficult. So we try to do as many fun things to make reading fun, and this is one of them.”

Solimo elaborated that although the event has been held at LMS for the last six years, it was initially held at Edison Central Six, where she previously taught. The dedicated educator has been teaching in the West Orange district since 1979 after she graduated from college.

Although Solimo devotes much of her own time to the promotion of literacy, she also credits many other staff members for doing the same.  

“A lot of people make this work; it’s not just me,” she said. “It’s something that could not work without the help of staff members, children that help set it up with me, ideas that we flew around to make it work [and] donations of books I get during the summer.”

Despite Solimo’s humility, Klemt and several of Solimo’s colleagues were quick to mention that this event would not be possible without her leadership.

“Her passion is reading, [so] she wants to promote reading as much as she can,” said fellow Liberty ELA teacher Patricia Richardson, who added that Solimo is one of the most “generous and giving people” she knows. “She donates her time; she donates her money. She’s just amazing; she’s just phenomenal.”

Solimo spends her summers writing to publishing companies that have consistently helped to provide books for students to take home with them from events like this one.

During the pajama party, students and parents also had the opportunity to enter a free raffle sponsored by LMS staff and parents. Raffle prizes included reading pillows, books, bubbles, flashlights and more.

In addition to this event, Solimo is also charge of organizing the annual “Reading Around the World” initiative. As part of this summer program, staff and other community members scatter envelopes with a voucher for a free book all over the world.

In 2018, approximately 60 people participated with at least 350 tickets being distributed in many different locations. A Facebook page will be going up soon with more information on the 2019 Reading Around the World program.

Follow the school’s Twitter account (@Liberty_WO) to learn more about events at LMS.

All photos were provided by Deborah Balthazar.