Write What You Notice

I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development.  I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes.  Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves.  I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark.   This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry.   However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years.  What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school?  Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry.  That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.

And of course, Penny had much to share.  She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it.  Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry.  I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me.  One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true:  Don’t write what you know – Write what you noticeAs a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment.  In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft.  I didn’t want anything to escape my notice.  I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.

Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.”  I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that.  I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father.  Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice.  Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone.  Who could I share this poem with?  I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen!  Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet.  I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand.  And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants.  Small world, indeed.  And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.

I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect.  I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share.  One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature.  This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary.  She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions.  My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts.  This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!

Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes.  Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry.  Here, she shows  pathways between the outside and inside world.  Here, there is a place for inmates to  explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption.  And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.

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Being Present to Joy

My colleagues worry about not having time enough to teach.  They have so much content they need and want to cover.  As a curriculum coordinator, I create tons of documents – benchmarks, scope & sequences, lists of standards by grade level to make sure we don’t miss teaching one single skill or strategy.  This is all well and good.  In fact, this is our job: to give our students a quality education.

However,  as I observe many classrooms, I’m realizing that we certainly cover lots of material and teach a myriad of skills, but we often forget the joy of learning.  Often, we cannot find time for stopping and laughing and celebrating what we’ve accomplished.  Many of us squeeze in as many skills and strategies as we can and are grateful that we complete them so we can check them off our lists, our every increasingly long lists.  We’ve forgotten how to be present to a children’s sense of wonder, a student’s newfound knowledge, someone’s struggle with a difficult concept and then – click – her instant understanding.  When we are in a constant hurry, we miss these things.   This view was noted in an October 12, 2013 blog post by Pernille Ripp: “I stopped telling them what to do and waited for them to figure it out.  Sure I ended social studies 4 minutes before I normally do, but we still got through it, they still had the time they needed, and at the end of the day we walked out as the first group in our building with smiles on our faces.”  It is crucial that when students and teachers walk out of their schools that there are smiles and a feeling of achievement – a day well spent.”

Recently,  I was witness to classroom joy during an activity I designed.  Every November, we read aloud Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet to our 2nd grade students.  The book is about the work of Tony Sarg, who was the first person to create the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. After the students listened to the story and watched a slide show about Sarg’s life and accomplishments, the girls were tasked with creating their own parade balloons using paper, glue, scissors, and lots of imagination.  Each year,  I marvel at the ingenuity of these young students as their balloons take shape: unicorns, pandas, a cube, floating ballerinas, griffins, and more imaginative creatures.

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During our balloon making workshop, as the girls were cutting, glueing, and revising their designs, they spontaneously broke into song,  singing in harmony “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. No one told them to start singing.  They just were happy creating their balloons and began to sing as they worked.  Their classroom teacher and I smiled at each other and watched as they continued to work productively.  It’s in these moments of joy that children truly learn.  There were so many skills and strategies that the girls were applying and using.  They were right in the midst of what Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” It is this optimal condition that we want all students to attain for it promotes independent thinking and motivation.  As Ellin Oliver Keene notes in her book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8, “Engagement…  is characterized by feeling lost in a state that causes us, on one hand to forget the world around us, to become fully engrossed. On the other hand, when engaged, we enter into a state of wide-awakeness that is almost blissful. We want to dig more deeply into our reading or listening or learning or taking action; we allow emotions to roll over us; we’re eager to talk with others about an idea—we’re even aware of how extraordinary or beautiful those moments are.”

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I urge all teacher to be open to those joyful moments.  Embrace them, make time for them, and realize that within joy lives true engagement, motivation, and life-long learning.

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Books for Teachers:

Mindfulness for Teachers by  Patricia A. Jennings

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

Practicing Presence by Lisa J. Lucas

Teach Happier by Sam Rangel

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Books for Children: 

All My Treasures: A Book of Joy by Jo Witek

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke

Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling

Every Little Thing by Bob Marley

Happy by Pharrell Williams

If You’re Happy and You Know it by Jane Cabrera

Joy by Corrinne Averiss

100 Things that Make me Happy by Amy Schwartz

Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Taking a Bath with the Dog: and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows

 

 

 

Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.

A Time for Apples

I don’t know whether it’s because my mom was a teacher or because I became a teacher and have been doing this for the last forty years… but I LOVE apples.  I keep an apple collection: marble, ceramic, crystal, brass – all kinds of apples to remind me that school has just started and like the crisp, fall apples – the year is full of sweetness and possibility.

One of my most favorite things to do in the fall is bake with children: picking, washing, peeling, slicing and incorporating apples into pies, cakes, and muffins.  It is not fall to me until the classroom is filled with that apple, sugar, cinnamon scent.  And it’s those memories students are fond of the most, the ones they want to repeat no mater how old they become. As the years pas, it has become important for me to provide apple memories to our Kindergarten students by reading the book, Apple Pigs by Ruth  Orbach, and making the aforementioned apple pigs.

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The book was first published in 1978, the year I graduated college.  When I became a nursery school teacher, I read the book to my young students.  They loved the rhyming text and the multitude of creatures who came to the apple feast.  At one point, Apple Pigs went out of print, and I couldn’t find it anywhere!  Even my local library had lost their rag-tagged copy. However, last year I decided to try one more time to find a copy. I was happily surprised that Apple Pigs had been reprinted in England. I quickly bought a copy and read it aloud to the Kindergarteners.  They loved the story and rejoiced in making the pigs.   Throughout the week, many children would find me to thank me for reading. They’d ask me when I was coming again and what we were going to make next.  Even older students, remembered the pigs and asked to make them again. It always amazes me how important good stories and good food stick in children’s memories.

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I think this activity is so appealing to children not only because they get to eat marshmallows, but because they take simple ingredients are able to quickly make something beautiful and delicious.  They want to make it again.  They go home and tell their family and friends.  Apple pigs  has become a tradition.  It is a tradition I gladly share now with generations of students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year

A Great Way to Start the Day

For the first couple of weeks of school this year, I stared my work day in the Junior Pre-K with a vivacious group of three-year-olds.  Those morning were filled with joy.  This is my 40th year of teaching.  My first six years in this profession was happily spent in a cooperative nursery school whose mission had at its core Quaker ideals.  This was a fortunate start to my career, and I continue to be grateful for it.  It gave me a strong foundation of respecting our small ones, listening to their wisdom, and joining forces with their parents to create a wonder-filled environment.

When I first walked into the Junior Pre-K room, the children looked up and they all smiled at me.  A few called me over to their table.  One girl asked if I wanted to be her friend.  Another girl came close and offered me one of the blocks with which she was playing.  I, indeed, felt a deep sense of welcome. And so quickly too!  It restored my faith in humanity.  Graciousness and hospitality comes naturally to three-year-olds.  They want to be your friend.  They trust you.  They are open to the world around them.

One of the boys who was sorting sea creatures with me, stopped abruptly, pushed back his chair, held up his index finger and said, ” Wait here!  I’ll be right back!”  I watched him scurry over to another table where some children were coloring.  He grabbed a piece of paper and a blue crayon.  He carefully made three shaky ovals on the page, put the blue crayon back in its place, and hurried back to my table.  “I made three clouds for you,” he said handing me his paper. I smiled, thanked him, and together we wrote his name on the paper.

The next morning when I came to his classroom, the same boy hurried to make me a picture.  “It’s a bow and arrow,” he said seriously, “It will protect you.” I smiled and laughed.

“Thank you,” I said, “I definitely need protection.  I will hang it in my office next to your clouds.”

Every morning I visited that week, I was gifted with a picture.  Then one morning when I walked in the door, the boy looked happy and then worried to see me. He came over to me, “Oh… I’m sorry! Today I made a picture for my mommy.”

“That’s wonderful,” I responded, “Your mommy will love your picture.”

Signs of worry faded from his face. “Do you want to see it?” he asked.

“Yes, I would love to see it.”

He ran to his cubby and came back with a colorful picture.  “It’s a rainbow,” he said.

“Your mother is going to love your rainbow!”

He smiled and put it back in his cubby.

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I am struck with the generous spirit of this small boy and that of his classmates.  I was a stranger to them, but they quickly accepted me into their space and wanted to show me what they could do.  Even two students with limited command of English greeted me and wanted to interact with me.  One of them is learning English by listening to songs, and he would come over to sing to me or count to ten in English. In return, I would sing and count along with him. And we would laugh together. I  wonder how we can  preserve this sense of wonder.  I wish we could put it in a bottle and sell it over the counter to any adult who has lost direction.  It would definitely be hard to keep in stock!

If you are an adult who has lost direction, feels that the world is tilting upside-down, and that there is little compassion left in the world, take heart! In preschools all over the country — and the world, there are small ones who will show you the way.  They will smile and offer you maybe a rainbow, maybe three cloud, maybe a bow and arrow for protection.  I recommend returning to preschool; it is a great way to start your day!

 

 

 

 

 

A New Way of Seeing

I am an educator, writer, and artist-photographer. All those disciplines hold at their core visualization. For the educator and student, it is the ability to visualize the possibilities and set a course to invent and re-invent oneself. For the writer, it is to find a way to communicate ones’ visions to others. And for the artist-photographer, it is to take what is seen and create a new figurative language that goes beyond words.

This summer, I visited Montreal. It is a place of juxtapositions, which I love so much:   French/English, old/new, tradition/experimentation. As I traveled the city, I looked for new ways to express this city’s heart. It is so different from New York, the city I know the best. In New York City, everyone rushes. You have to pull yourself back to truly notice the details of a cornice with squatting gargoyles sticking their tongues out at you. But in Montreal, the pace invites one to linger, to notice, to be attentive.

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During the summer I’m lucky enough to be able to travel to take a break from work allowing me to reflect on my teaching and the teaching practices of my colleagues. And this summer, I began to reconsider the importance of visual literacy. As a society, Americans rush around – DOING. Doing is paramount. If you are not busy doing something, then you are not worthy of success. However, it is those slow, thoughtful moments when people create the best. There can be no true creative expression without purposeful reflection.

Here are some easy ways in which to make visualization an important part of your teaching practice. You will be surprised by your students observations, some of which might have escaped your adult perception!

Guided Imagery: Listening and Imagining

download.jpgGuided imagery is one technique for bringing ideas to life.  Richard De Milne, in his book Put Your Mother on the Ceiling, offers teachers many imagery scripts, which he calls “games” to develop students’ visualization ability. When done systematically, visualization exercises increase student awareness and helps them create deeper understanding using one’s own “mind’s eye.”  Students begin to understand the many perspectives people can have when they visualize the same scene Teachers can further develop visual acuity by asking students to look closely at paintings and photographs, noticing everything they can.  Regular practice viewing art enhances analytic skills. Students need time to consider questions such as: What do you notice? What makes you curious?  What can you conclude? They need space to share their wonderings with their classmates to develop deeper understanding.

Looking Closely 

Now, instead of creating the image in their heads, encourage students to look closely at an image.  It can be a painting or a photograph.   Have students pair up, sitting eye-to-eye and knee-to- knee, to discuss what they are noticing and wondering about the photograph.  Then, as a whole group, discuss what the children noticed and wondered, making a chart of their responses.  Done regularly, this activity gets students to really tune in to detail and this skill begins to transfer their reading. It strengthens their observation skills.

Every Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I love to collect old photographs, beautiful art prints, and funny images that make me laugh and make me wonder.  I keep a box of them in my office and add to the collection periodically.  I often forget what I’ve collected and am pleasantly surprised when I sort through the box looking for some writing inspiration.  Students love looking through the image box too and it is amazing how many different stories, poems, and wonderings they written using the same photograph or painting.  They love sharing their stories and realizing at one picture can mean so many different things to different people.  That is the true essence of imagination!

Constructing What is Imagined: Exploring Place

A collection of doodads, gadgets, small everyday items people toss out: pen tops, springs, and plastic bits and pieces can lead to some unique explorations. This collection of recyclables can become a treasure trove for children tasked with constructing a sculpture, an invention, a bridge, or other edifice. Ask children to think about what they want to construct, visualizing what they need and how they will go about creating their structure.  Place all the materials at their fingertips and then stand back and watch them create what they have imagined. This exercise strengthens problem-solving skills, spurs children to be flexible in their thinking, and gives them a great amount of pride and ownership in completing their construction.  This is very similar to the experience young children have when they build with blocks, but in this activity the structure is  long-lasting and serves as evidence of their imaginations.

 

 

 

 

Mindful Assessment: Breathe, Lean in, & Listen

Fall is here, and for me September and October mean it’s time for ELA assessments. The teachers, specialists, and I gear up to assess the reading, phonics, spelling, and writing skills of students to help support their learning throughout the year. It is an intensive rush to provide the best instruction possible. This year, as I begin to assess third, fourth, and fifth grade students’ reading, I feel the usual pressure to get the assessments completed quickly and efficiently. Then I remember the Zen principle of being present. Instead of thinking of all the things I need to do as I listen to a student read about early railroads, I stop myself. I take a deep breath, lean in and truly begin to listen. As I listen, I ask myself, “ What strategies is this student using to help her understand the story?” I marvel at how young readers naturally “talk back” to the text, questioning what they’ve read and re-reading to fully consider the information. Of course, I’ve been reading some of these same passages for several years, but it never fails to amaze me how each reader brings something new to the reading. The students’ beginner minds allow them to be open to the text and to create understanding together with the author. I have had some fantastic conversations about steam-powered railroads, the process of respiration, and an author’s travels to Japan. The most important outcome of these assessments is the time I spend with young readers listening to them construct meaning. I call this process Mindful Literacy, finding joy in the reading moment.

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In the rush of everyday life, when dinner has to be put on the table and clothes need to be washed – I urge parents and teachers to take a deep breath, lean in, and listen to your children and students read.  You will discover the strategies they are learning to decode new words and to understand complex text. As they read, their words will transport you to new worlds. They will ask questions you may have no answers for and together you can ponder the possibilities. You may, in turn, want to read to them and then it is their turn to breathe, lean in, and listen with their full imaginations.

Mindful Literacy cannot only slow us down and help us to attend to what’s important, it can also help us to love texts and the subjects we know through them. This deep engagement with books can inspire in us a reverence for word and deed and for one another. It just takes a small space in the day to connect with your young reader and share a magical reading moment.

Linger A Little Longer: The Power of Rereading

Every year, over the past decade, I have attended a lecture series sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy, whose director, Dr. Lesley Morrow was one of my professors at the Graduate School of Education and now has become a valued friend. In June, I attended a presentation by Doug Fisher who spoke extensively about the value of surface-level learning in order to be able to deeply engage with texts. Throughout his presentation, Visible Learning for Literacy, Fisher expressed his strong belief in the power of rereading. He noted that many elementary teachers discourage children from reading books they’ve already read. When those readers mature, they hesitate to reread more difficult texts, which puts them at a disadvantage because rereading is a necessary part of understanding complex texts.

I must admit, I was one of those teachers who when a student asked permission to reread a favorite book – steered the student toward another book by the same author or on the same topic or in the same genre. Somehow, I had been convinced that rereading was synonymous with cheating – laziness – a waster of good reading time.

However, my own experience refutes this notion. As a young child, I remember listening to my other read aloud Old Mother West Wind by Thornton W. Burgess to me. Then as I became a read, I read those wonderful stories to myself over and over again. This spurred me to write my own Old Mother West Wind stories complete with colorful illustrations of all the animals I loved. And I also confess that when I was in 5th grade I would sneak upstairs to my bedroom and reread all my old Dr. Seuss books, delighting in the rhymes and nonsense words. I attribute my keen sense of fairness and support of the environment to The Sneetches and The Lorax! It is so true that everyone has stories which resonate for them and of which they never tire.

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I was surprised one fall day, when talking about Peter Rabbit with a group of second graders, that most of them didn’t know who Peter Rabbit, Farmer McGregor, or Jemima Puddleduck was. I was utterly appalled.  I explained the stories to them and they begged me to read the stories to them.  I promptly went to our school library and lamented to our wonderful librarian, she nodded her head in sympathy, and concurred that most of the children did know the Beatrix Potter stories.  Over the the next month, I read the adventures of Peter Rabbit to the second graders.  I read to them, they read to each other, they reread the stories on their own and became thoroughly immersed in all things Peter Rabbit.  One girls found a biography of Beatrix Potter and read that on her own.  Rereading spurred on further investigation.

 

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Over the years, I have been fortunate to tutor many 7th graders, which meant that I was given the opportunity to read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee no fewer than eight times so far in my lifetime! It has amazed me that with each rereading I’ve discovered something new in the text. There were many times when Harper Lee surprised me with a beautiful description or a subtle characterization, which I had missed during previous readings. With every return to the text, my understanding deepened and I became even more attached to text. I believe this is just what Louise Rosenblatt was talking about when she described how true understanding comes from readers transacting with the text (Literature as Exploration). Reading is a conversation between reader and author, and rereading allows the reader to continue the conversation and reflect on what is known and still unknown. So of course, Doug Fisher is correct – children should be encouraged to return to texts: read closely, discover new truth, and grow as readers! In our rush-about world, it is so important for teachers and students to linger a little longer with a good book.

Here are some of my favorite children books that warrant rereading:

  1. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
  2. Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt
  3. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  5. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
  6. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne  – Chapter 6: “In Which Eeyore has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents”
  7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  8. Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
  9. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
  10. Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
  11. When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
  12. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  13. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
  14. Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
  15. Wonder by R.J. Polacio

 

 

 

 

Reaching Reluctant Readers

Follow me through a typical day and you will see me reading: reading microwave cooking directions on the side of a frozen food container, reading articles on travel or exercise or cures for wrinkles, scrolling through educational websites, and at the end of the day picking up a novel from a three-foot stack of books next to my bed. And if you saw me going though my typical day, you would never guess that as a child I was a reluctant reader.

When I first started to read, I learned that reading was hard and time consuming. By the time I got through sounding out a word, I lost track of the meaning of the story. And there were so many words on a page! Reading was work and what I wanted to do was play! Play with my dolls; play with my dog, even play with my bossy sister. Anything was better than sitting down and reading.

My attitude quite horrified my parents. My father was a writer and worked in public relations. My mother, my very patient mother, was a teacher. Both were avid and ardent readers, as was my older sister. I was not! Most definitely I was not going to do what they all were doing. I was going to find my own way. I painted, I made up songs, I wrote poetry, I created junk-pile sculptures, but I did not enjoy reading. I read because my teachers told me I had to and my parents nagged me.

My reluctance to read worried both my parents. My father handled the dilemma by reading to me at bedtime. He hoped that those stories would spark my interest and that soon I would become interested in books. My father read widely: poetry, recipes, mythologies, true tales, mysteries, and on and on. My mother, being a teacher, kept giving me strategies for sounding out words and for figuring out unfamiliar words in context. She played word games with me and she drew pictures with me and we made up funny stories about school, animals, and the beach – anything that was of interest to me. And that two-pronged approach actually worked over time and I became totally fascinated with words and stories. I loved make-believe. I loved learning about different people in new and wondrous places, and I marveled at how writers could string together words to make pictures in the heads of their readers.

However, reading remained difficult for me in elementary school. I was a good student, I remembered what I read; I just didn’t enjoy it. I was a slow reader with a fast mind. I became impatient and devised all kinds of ways to trick adults into thinking I was reading. Most of the time it worked, except when I got to fifth grade. In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Skovron, was not fooled. She knew. She sat me down and told me that I needed to keep reading and if I kept reading my reading muscle would get stronger and stronger and reading would get easier and easier. One day, one fabulous day, I would enjoy reading. I was doubtful. But I loved Mrs. Skovron and wanted to please her. So I tried and Mrs. Skovron made a list of all the things I liked. Then she found books about those things and gave them to me. What hooked me were horses. One day, Mrs. Skovron put Misty of Chincoteague in my hands, and every night for a week I locked myself in my bathroom with a pile of blankets and pillows in the bathtub and I read. And I read and I read. I wasn’t reluctant any more – I was curious – and a little slow reading wasn’t going to stop me. And it hasn’t.

Books are windows and doors to me; they open up to so many possibilities. And that’s what I want children to experience: that even though learning to read is hard, the pay-off is worth it! You get to run, climb, explore, sail into so many exquisite places and meet so many funny, scary, friendly, outlandish people. Today, I can’t imagine a day where I don’t take time to enjoy a book.

 Here are some tips that I think will help reach reluctant readers:

  1. Read aloud to them and don’t stop – even if it’s hard, even if there is not enough time, even if you think they are getting too old. Please keep reading to them.
  1. Choose a wide variety of text types (poetry, novels, nonfiction articles, recipes, etc.) and read different genres (historical fiction, mysteries, mythology, realistic fiction, etc.)
  1. When they have to read for homework 15-30 minutes a night, and can only sustain reading 5 or 10 minutes, don’t panic. Have them read for the 5 or 10 minutes and then sit with them the rest of the time and read to them. Gradually extend the time they are reading and you are listening. Soon they will be reading independently.
  1. You can also share the reading by taking turns reading one page and then another. When reading longer chapter books, I suggest that you start out by alternating paragraphs not pages so that your child stays attentive.
  1. Before reading with young readers, go for a walk in the book. Look at the cover and the pictures of the story. Talk about what you see and what you think might happen.
  1. Make a list of topics or questions that interest your child, and then find books that match these interests.
  1. When reading aloud at bedtime, choose books that are slightly above their reading levels so that you are building their vocabulary and thinking skills. If you start reading a book and your child is not understanding or enjoying it, abandon it and try again at a later time.
  1. Surround your reader with books that are slightly below and at her reading level. This way she can easily practice reading and building those reading muscles.

 

 

Poetry in Play

Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight. – Mem Fox, Reading Magic, 2001

Poetry is near and dear to my heart. My love of poetry came from my father, who would read poems to me every night before I went to sleep. He is a poet and always shared his love of words with me. That love of words and the beauty of language is something to which I have dedicated my life’s work. Poetry allowed me to play with words, discover their wonder, create new worlds, and express my emotions. Even now, my ninety-year-old father will send me an email with one of his poems or a few lines of a well-known poem. It is the way we communicate best!

In the school where I work as the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, teachers include poetry in their curriculum at every grade level. Some teachers develop multi-week units devoted to poetry, while others decide to sprinkle poetry lessons like sugar throughout the school year. I am happy to serve as the guest poet in many classrooms, sharing my strategies for generating, developing, and revising poems. Poetry is a great way to spark student interest and to encourage children to use their imaginations.

Poetry…

  • increases oral reading fluency
  • sparks creative writing
  • enriches vocabulary
  • plays with words and uses figurative language
  • has rhythm and rhyme
  • expresses feelings
  • adds to the enjoyment of nature
  • enhances communication skills

April is National Poetry Month, but I think poetry should be celebrated throughout the year, and I dare say – poetry should be shared each and every day! Here are some suggestions of wonderful recently published poetry books you might want to share with children and begin a tradition of your own!

  1. 100 Great Poems for Girls by Celia Johnson
  2. A Child’s Calendar by John Updike
  3. Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart by Mary Ann Hoberman
  4. Goodnight Songs by Margaret Wise Brown
  5. Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth
  6. Hush, Baby, Hush!: Lullabies from Around the World by Kathy Henderson and Pam Smy
  7. I’ve Lost My Hippopotamus by Jack Prelutsky
  8. Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry by Natalie Merchant and Barbara McClintock
  9. The Wonderful Habits of Rabbits by Douglas Florian (and all of Florian’s books)
  10. Poetry Speaks to Children by Elise Pachen
  11. The Tree That Time Built: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination by Mary Ann Hoberman
  12. Treasury for All Seasons: Poems and Songs to Celebrate the Year by Julie Andrews

 Some websites you also might want to explore:

  1. http://www.poets.org
  2. http://www.poetryfoundation.org
  3. http://www.robertmunsch.com/
  4. http://jackprelutsky.com/
  5. http://www.shelsilverstein.com/