BEMIDJI -- After a challenging season of distance learning, educators and families around the country have braced themselves for the possible learning loss for students who may not have reached their full potential during the pandemic.

For Jude Hagen, this doesn’t seem to be an issue.

The Bemidji fourth-grader has been in distance learning at Gene Dillon Elementary throughout the school year, and has read more than 3 million words -- that’s over 7,533 pages single-spaced -- since September.

The young bookworm credits his recent success to his teacher at Gene Dillon, Roben Beyer, who introduced him to the book series “Warriors,” which he has been hooked on lately.

Beyer mentioned in his more than 25 years of teaching fourth grade, he’s never seen a student hit this milestone.

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“I've never had 3 million and I've (taught) over 500 fourth-graders,” he said.

During the 2019-2020 school year, Hagen hit the 2 million-word mile marker and received a bike as a surprise reward. Each year, the count resets to zero.

His mom, Chelsey Hagen, said she finds him sneakily staying up all night to keep on reading.

“I can't really get mad when he stays up all night reading a book,” she said. “He definitely doesn’t put them down, that’s for sure.”

The largest book he’s attempted to read had around 118,000 words, “and I’m reading that one right now,” Jude said.

Instantly hooked

Though Jude was a voracious reader before coming in contact with the “Warriors” series, the books have clearly captured his attention.

The “Warriors” universe centers around a group of feral cats -- split into five groups called clans -- who initially reside in a forest, and later, around a lake after fleeing their forest home due to its destruction by humans.

Beyer, who taught at Solway Elementary for nearly 25 years before moving to Gene Dillon, said prior to discovering the series, dog-centric books were a staple in the school.

“It used to be all dog stories at Solway. Now the kids come up to fourth grade, they've read Shiloh and all the fun dog books. And my daughter said, ‘well, you just have to find a cat book. Try this one, dad.’”

Thus, Beyer began reading the “Warriors” books to his class, and has now done so for around a decade.

Beyer also finds ways to incorporate group reading into daily distance learning.

“Mr. Beyer, takes the time at 11:30 a.m. on Zoom, to read aloud. It's so great (for the students) to sit there and listen to an adult read,” Chelsey said. “Jude was hooked instantly after the first book.”

The Hagens had soon exhausted the Gene Dillon and Bemidji Middle School libraries of Warriors books, with Jude reading all they had to offer by December, and then started looking for more online.

“I found a thrift bookstore online. And we would just keep buying them, and buying them, and buying them,” Chelsey said.

Hagen mentioned the family had ordered 36 more books from an online thrift store this week, something that will likely take mere weeks for Jude to complete.

Thriving during distance learning

According to Beyer, Jude is the type of student who thrives in an independent learning situation, describing him as a self-motivated student. “He excels in all his classes,” Beyer said.

Through distance learning, Jude has been able to spend more time reading, which he fits in between his synchronous online lessons.

“I read between my (Google) meets,” he said with a sly smile.

He’s even taken to a bit of teaching, Beyer said, as Jude has chosen to read aloud from some of his books to the class.

Jude mentioned that he doesn’t know how Beyer does it all day, because his mouth gets so dry from reading.

While reading is his favorite subject, it isn’t his sole interest. Jude also is an avid outdoorsman and participates in wrestling and other activities.

“When it’s raining outside in the middle of the summer, I’ll read those,” Jude said, gesturing to a stack of some of his books. “In first grade, I used to like math more, but since then, I’ve liked reading.”

He mentioned he wants to be a football player when he grows up.

Jude is also certainly willing to stray from the “Warriors” series, though it is taking most of his attention this year. He has torn through the Harry Potter series, and many books related to animals, history and the outdoors, like “Hatchet” and “My Side of the Mountain.”

Earlier this year, he read “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and like many familiar with the novel, was affected by its emotional ending.

“He woke me up in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. crying because he finished that one,” Chelsey said.

Goals and progress

Jude’s progress toward 3 million was measured by the Accelerated Reader program -- a reading management and monitoring program that aims to foster independent reading in students. The internet-based program assesses reading age and suggests books that match students’ needs and interests. Students can take quizzes on the books and earn points as they progress.

Ordinarily, Bemidji schools have celebrated young students who reach the 1 million word milestone in a school year, with some sort of prize or small party. Beyer said this might happen for two to three students per year.

“If they read a million words in a year, then they got a special party or some special recognition at the end of the year,” Beyer said. “So in my 20-some years -- almost 25 at Solway -- I've never had anybody read 3 million. I've got a couple coming in at 1,000,000 -- two or three, and it depends on the year. However, I've never had one with 3 million.”

Chelsey said she remembers the program when she was in school, and said it’s been a staple in Bemidji schools for years now.

While his progress has been monitored through the Accelerated Reader program, it may not be necessary, as Jude has become quite adept at estimating word counts.

Pointing to some of his books, he said, “The smaller ones are around at least 60,000 and the bigger ones have around 100,000.”

Jude said he hopes to hit four million soon.