Lt. Tyler Broderick of the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Department discusses his work in law enforcement with a group of students from Shepherd of the Hills School in Eden. (Submitted photo)

In the corner of the gymnasium, a veterinarian read “Chicken Little” to a group of enthralled elementary school students.

In the art room, a Marine Corps veteran and local business owner shared “The Little Red Hen” with a semicircle of children dressed as lifeguards and police officers.

In the middle school English room, the former parish priest read the book “Frederick,” a fable about a mouse who knows the power of words and imagination, and a discussion ensued about the storytelling power of Christ.

It was, at least in the words of one third grader who offered a summary of Shepherd of the Hills’ first-ever Community Hero Reading Day, “the bestest day ever.”

On the morning of Friday, May 13, 15 local heroes were welcomed into the classrooms of the Eden school to share some of their favorite stories with students and staff. The event was a culmination of the 2021-22 school year’s academic theme of “Dive Into Reading,” which included school-wide literacy efforts and an exploration of eight different literary genres. It was also a fitting tie-in with the school’s Catholic identity theme of “Faith in Action,” which focused on a different virtue each month.

The visiting heroes personified those virtues for the students while making reading fun, said SOTH Principal Ron Smyczek.

“It reflects on what a great community this is,” said Smyczek. “This is showing (the students) how what they’re doing and learning in the classroom applies beyond the classroom.”

Third-grade teacher Nici Colwin was on the school reading committee that planned the event. “We wanted to do something different,” she said. “We thought, ‘Let’s get in some local heroes to read their favorite books to the kiddos.’ We did some brainstorming one afternoon and came up with a list of about 35 people within Fond du Lac County (whom) we thought the kids could relate to, too.”

Colwin and the reading committee also oversaw implementation of the academic theme throughout the year. Students at the school learned about and read examples of different literary genres each month — everything from a biography of Dr. Seuss to fairy tales, wrapping up the year with a unit on poetry that compelled students to write their own pieces, which were then attached to the “Poet-Tree” outside the school office. Each month at the all-school assembly, a different classroom would present a story representing that month’s genre, and there were also incentives and opportunities for prizes along the way, said Colwin.

At the Community Hero Reading Day, students were encouraged to dress up as their “real-life” heroes; some sported medical scrubs or law enforcement uniforms, others dressed in office attire as a nod to their parents. They were separated into small groups of six to eight students and rotated through a different reader every 15 minutes.

Associate Superintendent of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Sue Nelson, one of the Community Heroes, said she “loved the concept of bringing the community to interact with the student body.”

“It’s so invigorating for those of us in the community, but I think it also gives the students an opportunity to get a broader sense of reading by seeing respected adults engaged in that,” she said.

Nelson chose the book “Stephanie’s Ponytail” by Robert Munsch to share with the students, describing it as a “must-have book” that combines beautiful illustrations with an engaging and comical storyline that explores themes of confidence, kindness and originality. Reading aloud, she said, is a valuable educational practice for students of all ages. “I was an eighth-grade teacher, and you could do read-alouds in middle school easily. They love to be read to,” she said.

Fr. Joe Juknialis, who previously served as pastor at SOTH for seven years, chose to read the book “Frederick” by Leo Lionni. “What did Frederick do?” he asked one group of students, referring to the book’s protagonist, after they concluded the story. “He was kind of like a storyteller. Can you think of somebody that lived a long, long time ago that was a storyteller?”

A student volunteered the answer: “Jesus.”

“That’s right. Jesus was a storyteller,” said Fr. Juknialis. “He told stories about what was really important in life, and every Sunday we still come together to listen to his stories.”

Colwin said that her students were still “buzzing” about the event at the end of the school day. “Some of my students’ highlights were: ‘A police officer actually read to me!’ ‘I got to hold a dog named Chicken Little while a vet read me a story!’ ‘A real nurse read to me, and I want to be a nurse when I grow up!’”

“It is so rewarding to see the smiles on the students’ faces,” she said. “It really was a win-win event … students celebrated reading with local community heroes.”