Wajeha Chaudhry wanted her students to love reading as much as she does, and also wanted to make it easier for them to be able to hear a story read aloud daily. So she created her own YouTube channel to read bedtime stories to them, and became an internet sensation with youngsters in her community.
“My reading to their child is one less thing for parents to worry about. It’s a way of me saying, ‘We’re a team, and if you can’t do this, I’ve got your back.’”
It started in October 2019, when she was teaching third graders at Loudon Elementary School in Bakersfield. And it has continued now that she has transferred to Berkshire Elementary School, where she teaches first grade. (Both schools are in the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District.)
“One of the things I love about teaching is the relationships I have with students and their families,” says Chaudhry. “It is important for me to connect with them. And I have realized that a lot of them are not reading, through no fault of their own.”
Sometimes their parents have been working all day, and they come home to a house full of children and chores and are too exhausted to pull out a book and read to a child, says Chaudhry, a member of the Panama-Buena Vista Teachers Association.
“Parents have so much on their plate, especially in the pandemic. So my reading to their child is one less thing for them to worry about. It’s a way of me saying, ‘We’re a team, and if you can’t do this, I’ve got your back.’”
In the pandemic, it has also been a way to connect more closely with students she has never met face-to-face and only seen on Zoom.
“It’s my way of saying goodnight, sweet dreams, and tucking them into bed. It’s a way for me to reach every child. It’s a way to teach them vocabulary, pronunciation and phonemic awareness.”
Chaudhry, Kern County’s Teacher of the Year in 2019-20, loves the comments students leave on YouTube. She says some have pointed out that she skipped a page or a chapter accidentally. This shows they are watching and paying attention. Students she taught years ago also tune in with siblings.
Ashley Shumway, whose daughter Paisley is in Chaudhry’s class this year, says her daughter is a big fan of the stories.
“Paisley watches the read-alongs and re-watches them. Her favorite is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie [by Laura Numeroff]. Her teacher also reads some of the books I grew up with, the Junie B. Jones books [by Barbara Park], which have brought back such good memories from my childhood. We are going through such a hard time these days, and Ms. Chaudhry makes it easier. She is a great teacher outside of her read-alongs, too. I love that she is so patient.”
Chaudhry was born in Lahore, Pakistan. Her mother and grandparents were professors. “They always said, ‘A good education is something that nobody could ever take away from you.’”
She was so thrilled when she began her first teaching job that she called her parents (who now live in Bakersfield) to say, “I get paid to do what I love, how awesome is that!”
She started by creating math videos, because parents were having trouble understanding new ways of doing math. Then she segued into reading videos, which she enjoyed as well. She films herself on her phone on a tripod. When a Spanish-speaking mother said she needed help reading to her child, Chaudhry read books in Spanish on her channel. She plans on reading in other languages as well.
She has often sought community members for guest readings, including her own children and a police officer who pulled her over.
“Before the pandemic, I would ask anybody I met to read, including people from my doctor’s office, dentist’s office, news anchors, the Bakersfield chief of police, the mayor, and fellow teachers,” says Chaudhry. “I would drive to their location and film them. Now in the age of COVID-19, I’m thinking they can film themselves and send the readings to me so I can add those to my guest reader playlist.”
One of her most rewarding moments came when a third grader who was struggling with reading decided to start her own YouTube channel so she could read aloud to her friends.
“She said, ‘Ms. Chaudhry, I need a channel, too.’ It was wonderful for me to see a child became so empowered through reading.”