LEWISTON – First lady Karen Baldacci read poetry and led laughing kindergartners Tuesday as they crossed arms, slapped their legs and clapped.

They were acting out a children’s book, “Schoolyard Rhymes.”

Baldacci was in class for the seventh annual kickoff of the statewide “Read With Me” program to encourage literacy and reading. Montello’s classroom was chosen as the kickoff site because it’s home of Maine’s reigning Teacher of the Year, Donna Tardif.

As Baldacci walked into the room, 20 pairs of eyes looked up at her and the television camermen who followed.

“Good morning, boys and girls,” Baldacci said.

“Good morning, Mrs. Baldacci,” the kindergartners said, seemingly having no trouble pronouncing her name.

The first lady asked: “Who can tell me what a rhyme is?”

One student answered with an example: “Raven, maven.”

That’s right, Baldacci said.

She opened the book. In no time, Baldacci demonstrated her past experience as a kindergarten teacher. She knew how to handle little heads turning the wrong way.

“Eyes to the front. Hands down. Ears open,” she said.

It worked.

“You’re all so good.”

As the cameras rolled, Baldacci began singing rhymes: “Miss Suzy called the doctor. Miss Suzy called the nurse. Miss Suzy called the lady with the alligator purse.”

In between she talked about the difference between a story and a poem. The poems in “Schoolyard Rhymes” had different subjects. One was about going to bed: “Teddy Bear, turn off the light. Teddy Bear, say goodnight,” she read while holding up a picture of a bear in pajamas walking upstairs.

Sitting next to Baldacci was Melissa Sweet of Rockport. “She is the one who drew the wonderful pictures” in the book, the first lady told the students.

It was time to get up and move.

Baldacci taught the kindergartners what actions to do with certain words. Before long, the students and the first lady were crossing arms, slapping knees and clapping in unison. The wide-eyed girls and boys were all smiles.

Through the “Read with Me” program, this September all kindergartners in Maine will receive a book bag and their own copy of “Schoolyard Rhymes” to take home. The giveaway of the 18,000 books is made possible by Verizon, which provides them without charge to schools and students.

This fall, boxes of the books will arrive at the Augusta Armory, where Maine National Guard members, Verizon volunteers and employees will pack and deliver them to schools across the state. Employees enjoy taking part, said company spokesman Peter Riley.

The company values highly the program that encourages reading in homes.

“Did you know that 20 percent of Mainers have no or low reading skills?” asked Verizon President Edward Dinan.

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