COLUMBIA — Perched on carpet squares, the students of MU's Robert G. Combs Language Preschool worked hard to keep fidgeting to a minimum as they listened to their guest teacher, Anne Deaton.
During this semester, the students have had visits from four prominent MU spouses: Deaton, who is married to MU Chancellor Brady Deaton; Sherry Forsee, who is married to University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee; Lerke Foster, who is married to MU Provost Brian Foster; and Carol Oliver, who is married to the dean of the School of Health Professions, Richard Oliver.
Each woman has spent time in the classroom, reading books and participating in activities and games with the students.
Carol Oliver started the program a couple of months ago, calling it the First Ladies Reading Program — a reference to her nickname as the "first lady of the School of Health Professions."
Oliver was inspired to start the program after she spoke with Dana Fritz, preschool director and a clinical professor in communication science and disorders, about the morning preschool, which specializes in speech and language instruction. Although the school is open to all children between ages 3 and 5, most of the students have problems with speech or language. There also are peer models, students without speech problems, in the class.
"Every child deserves to meet their greatest potential," said Oliver, who kicked off the program with her reading of Laura Joffe Numeroff's classic children's book, "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie."
The students at Combs work closely with the school's clinicians, all of whom are MU seniors studying communication science and disorders, but Fritz said that having visitors helps the preschoolers apply what they learn in their preschool lessons to other situations.
"When people come in to read, it puts our kids to the test," Fritz said. "One thing that we struggle with, with these kids, is transferring the skills they learn with our clinicians (to situations) with different people and in different places."
Deaton read one of the students' favorite books, "Going to the Zoo" by Tom Paxton. In between pages, Deaton — who has a doctorate in adult education and has worked with children throughout her career — asked the students what they thought of the book's illustrations.
After the book was finished, Deaton narrated an imaginary safari, leading the children in pantomimed hiking, swimming and tree-climbing to find a dangerous lion.
"I was privileged to be asked," Deaton said, after a near escape from an imaginary lion. "I have worked a lot with children, professionally and as a mother and grandmother. I believe in quality early education and think reading is fundamental."
Oliver said she plans to ask other "first ladies" to lend their time to the preschool, including Columbia's first lady, Axie Hindman, Missouri's first lady, Jan Nixon, and yes, even first lady Michelle Obama.
"I'm delighted to be able to do what I can," Oliver said. "I would love to grow the program; we're just getting started."