Dr. Suess’ Lorax – Maria L. Baldwin School librarian Karin Kugel in costume – tales part in the school’s April 15 Arbor Day celebration. (Photos: Jean Cummings)

Dr. Suess’ Lorax – Maria L. Baldwin School librarian Karin Kugel in costume – takes part in the school’s April 15 Arbor Day celebration. (Photos: Jean Cummings)

Arbor Day is today across the rest of the country, but it came early to the Maria L. Baldwin School with a special guest appearance by The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental hero and defender of trees.

Best PracticesOn a beautiful Friday before school vacation, vice mayor Marc McGovern stood in the school’s new CitySprouts garden in front of the gathered Baldwin community to read a City Council order proclaiming April 15 to be Arbor Day in Cambridge. The change in date this year was to recognize the culmination of the elementary school’s fourth annual reading program, this year called “I Read for the Trees.” (Baldwin’s program needed to wrap up to accommodate the state-required standardized PARCC exams, scheduled at the Baldwin beginning Monday.)

McGovern may have been slightly upstaged by the large yellow Seussian visitor who, though silent, seemed proud to mingle with the students, the youngest of whom were clearly delighted with his presence. (The older kids gave him a respectful nod or high five.) As the children had learned, The Lorax speaks for the trees (because they have no tongues) and is famous for warning the people of Thneedville not to let the trees disappear, a warning they almost failed to heed.

After the presentation, city arborist David Lefcourt was helped by The Lorax and some children in planting new trees from the Arbor Foundation around the perimeter of the school. This reading program’s tree theme had the students learning about trees, their role in the environment and how to cultivate and care for them. Lefcourt, who visits fourth- and fifth-graders across the city each year, spent time at Baldwin preparing them for the Arbor Day planting.

Baldwin reading program

The Baldwin reading program challenges kids from kindergarten through fifth grade to see how many hours they can read as a community. Students kept track of their reading time over a six-week period, in school and at home.

The final tally was 6,561 hours from 327 students. Students also contributed $967.50 to the Arbor Foundation through a voluntary fundraising drive. McGovern, a Baldwin alumnus, contributed $32.50 to make it an even thousand. The 6,500 hours of reading blasted through last year’s record total of 3,844.

Baldwin School second-grader Frances Fennel digs a place for a new tree under the guidance of city arborist David Lefcourt and Kugel, as The Lorax.

Baldwin School second-grader Frances Fennel throws dirt on a tree ball under the guidance of city arborist David Lefcourt and Kugel, as The Lorax.

The program is the brainchild of Karin Kugel, the school’s librarian (who fortunately was a perfect fit for The Lorax costume once she added some pillow stuffing). When Kugel started at the Baldwin four years ago, she initiated a themed reading program that, in the words of school Principal Nick Leonardos, “not only encourages reading at home, but connects the school to a larger community – whether it’s the environment, our city or a village halfway around the world. I cannot say enough about how much I appreciate Karin’s work on this program.”

The thing that makes Baldwin’s reading challenge different than some other schools’ is the theme. The first year, Kugel’s “Boogie Into Books” theme found ways to connect reading to movement, with a weekly contest in which the winning classrooms got in-school dance instruction (from Leonardos’ dance-trained daughters).

The second year, Kugel said, she moved away from the competition aspect and used a bee theme, linking some of the reading to highlight the importance of bees as pollinators and the threat of their disappearance through colony collapse disorder. She connected it to a “no pressure” voluntary fundraising effort for the Bee Conservancy, with Leonardos and Assistant Principal John Roderick gamely stepping into bee costumes for the final celebration.

Last year the program raised funds to donate farm animals to a village through Heifer International, and Leonardos and Roderick transformed into chickens for an undoubtedly remarkable chicken dance the last day.

Convinced of “the transformative power when you dress up and the impact it has on your relationship with the kids,” Leonardos said wryly, this year he urged Kugel to experience a little of that magic.