School of Education, Athletics, Driver’s Village Support Otto’s Reading Kickoff for Local Schools


Otto, the Syracuse mascot, doesn’t speak, so it may be difficult to assess how well Otto can read.

But Otto clearly recognizes the value of reading, and a December 2016 visit to Ed Smith Elementary School in Syracuse thrilled the third- and fourth-graders who had scored the highest participation rate in Otto’s Fall Reading Kickoff. The School of Education (SOE), SU Athletics and Driver’s Village in Cicero organized the reading program.

Otto helps third-and fourth-graders and Ed Smith School celebrate reading.The SOE invited schools to participate in the one-month program. Students would read at least 20 minutes every night and complete a weekly summary of what they read. They filled out paper footballs to track how much they read and posted the footballs on their lockers and in classrooms.“Some of the fourth-graders who thought they were too cool to get excited about meeting Otto ended up being very excited,” says Gerri Berish ’87 G’89, a fourth-grade teacher at Ed Smith. “He was very playful, and kids loved getting hugs from him.”

Otto, photographers from and officials from Driver’s Village visited to celebrate Ed Smith’s success and reinforce the importance of reading.

“A couple of students asked me why Otto was visiting and there were all the cameras,” Berish says. “I told them it was because they participated in the reading challenge. And they asked, ‘You mean it’s because we read?’ And I told them, ‘Yes, because you read.’”

Teaching reading is challenging, Berish says.  “Students have different reading abilities. We have students who are very below level all the way to students who are reading at high school levels,” she says.

“We also see that our students have very different experiences that lead to these levels”—from homes that encourage reading to homes that don’t to special needs students to immigrant students just learning English.

All but a few of the Ed Smith third- and fourth-graders participated.

“Kids could read whatever they wanted. They read according to their abilities. We have some students reading picture books and others reading 500-page books,” Berish says. A third-grader read the most—2,500 minutes.

SU Athletics provided free tickets for students to the Florida State football game in November. Family members and school staff received discounted tickets. Driver’s Village presented a $1,000 gift card to the school.

“One of the goals of our partnership with SU Athletics was to create an engaging, educational incentive for Syracuse schools. Otto’s reading program exceeded our expectations, and we were proud to offer a prize to the top school, helping them to purchase the tools necessary to facilitate their students’ reading,” says Ken Ellender, a marketing specialist at Driver’s Village.

With the gift card the school will purchase 15 Amazon Fire tablets and headphones and two charging ports.

Berish says a key concern is the needs of English as a New Language (ENL) students.

“Some students come from places where they did not have many of the same materials we take for granted here, and some had a very limited educational experience before moving here. So having students with little to no English, it is very hard to teach them higher concepts when they cannot visualize some basic places or objects.”

She teaches content subjects that involve much writing, in paragraphs and essays. She envisions the ENL students using tablets with programs that teach basic concepts, while higher-level students, who finish assignments quickly, use tablets to conduct research or use an app that challenges them.

The attention Otto paid the school emphasized the value of reading.

“For some students, I think they saw that reading is highly valued. It is not just something that the teachers say they need. For the students who are voracious readers, I think it just confirmed what they already knew, that reading is important,” Berish says.

View more photos from Otto's Reading Challenge