We love stories of children learning to read and write. While most of these accounts come from the teachers with whom we work and the professional books we read, we especially love when we find reading and writing stories in texts that aren’t specifically related to education. Here are a few favorites to enjoy as you are beginning (or getting ready to begin) a new school year. Each one offers an instructional “moral to the story” that gives insight for how to go back-to-school this year.
- Start the school year letting students tell you about their identities as readers.
In chapter 2 of To Kill a Mockingbird–a classic text, which many of us are rereading given the recent release of Go Set a Watchman–Scout begins first grade and meets Miss Caroline who “accuses” her of being taught to learn to read at home and tells her to tell her father to stop teaching her lest it “interfere with her reading.” Scout is appalled by Miss Caroline’s suggestion that her father “taught” her anything and begins to think back on how she began to read. To add further insult to injury, Miss Caroline also discovers that Scout can write–in cursive–a skill that she learned from her housekeeper, Calpurnia. Scout quickly learns from Miss Caroline that “we don’t write in first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.”
Unlike Miss Caroline, the best teachers adapt their instruction to the needs of students and, as much as possible, start where the students are, rather than where the curriculum is. Start this school year listening and talking to students, gathering formative assessment data about their interests and their needs, and figuring out how to let the curriculum serve them.
- Start the school year with books that make kids want to read.
Bailey White, who was a first-grade teacher for decades, also writes about the various methods she used to try to teach children to read. In Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living, she begins by describing the “word-list method” where children work to learn words in isolation and when they know ten to twelve words, they read books that use just these words. She explains that this method led to some “dreary stories” that made it hard to hold children’s interest. Next she talks about the “cute-idea” method which displayed contractions and beginning consonant sounds on parts of cut-paper animals and left her room “strewn with dismembered teddy bears and starving dogs whose bowls were permanently lost.”
In search of a better way, she stumbled upon the “maritime disaster method,” which involves helping students discover “that written words can tell them something absolutely horrible.” Bailey White describes kids falling over each other to get at the stories she read aloud about the Titanic; and not the simpler stuff she rewrote so that they’d be able to read it. Her students wanted the actual words that told the stories she introduced in read aloud.
We agree with Bailey White; stories that describe amazing, fascinating, even horrible things can motivate young children to want to read, particularly when shared through read aloud. What riveting, moving, or spine tingling stories will you share with your students to show them the power of reading? Start the school year with a commitment to abandon “dreary stories” and to surround children with stories they can’t resist.
- Start the school year reading aloud.
Read aloud is receiving renewed attention, and rightly so! The most compelling reason we know for reading aloud to students is that it makes them want to learn to read for themselves. In The Hired Girl by Newbery Medal winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, we are introduced to Joan, the main character, who remembers her first day of school. Joan tells of how her teacher leaves the upper grade children in the care of an older student and gathers the primary students under a tree to read aloud Thumbelina. This is the first time that Joan has ever been read to and her encounter with the story is mesmerizing and magical. All she wants is for her teacher to “…read it over, read it over!” This experience is so powerful, Joan proclaims that, “I became a scholar that day” and begins learning to read in earnest (and “quickly”) reminding us that something as simple and beloved as reading aloud has the power to leave a child begging to work to claim the experience for themselves and to bathe in the beauty of words.
- Start the school year questioning your most closely held beliefs.
While we wish that all accounts were as inspiring as Joan’s, unfortunately, some stories sober us and remind us that we adults can inadvertently discourage an eager child. In Mitch Albom’s For One More Day, nine year old Charley goes to the library and wants to check out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Told by the librarian that the book is “too hard,” he opts for a picture book about a monkey instead. When his mother sees his choice, she questions why he has selected that book again and Charley reveals that the librarian wouldn’t let him take the one he wanted. Indignant, Charley’s mom marches into the library and demands that the librarian hand over the book Charley really wanted and demands, “Don’t you ever tell a child something’s too hard…And never–NEVER–this child.”
Has what started as a well-intended attempt to match books to readers gone too far? We think Charley’s mom thinks so and her message is humbling. We all need to be thinking more about what we are saying to students when we micromanage their book choices. While there are some impracticalities with young children “reading” 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the narrow text-level choices to which too many children are confined these days are enough to make any kid disheartened about reading. Why not start the school year with an expanded definition of “Just Right” Books?
- Start the school year living your precepts.
In Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Auggie’s (the main character) teacher, Mr. Browne, starts the school year by introducing students to the word precepts–”RULES ABOUT REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS!” After exploring the term thoroughly with the students, they begin brainstorming areas of their lives where precepts apply, such as schoolwork, family, parents, the environment, etc. Mr. Brown explains, “‘Who we are,’ he said, underlining each word as he said it. ‘Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? What kind of person am I?’” Mr. Browne offers the class his first precept to start the year, “WHEN GIVEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN BEING RIGHT OR BEING KIND, CHOOSE KIND.” He goes on to explain that, at the beginning of each month, he will give the students a new precept and they will explore it the whole month. Then, at the end of the month, they will write an essay about the precept. After more conversations about precepts, Mr. Browne says, “So, everybody relax a bit while I take attendance, and then when we’re finished with that, I’ll start telling you about all the fun stuff we’re doing to be doing this year–in English.”
We love Mr. Browne for the way he starts with his big goals for students and thinks beyond the curriculum. In most schools, the mission statement includes a piece about students becoming “lifelong learners.” Yet, too often, the work we do towards short-term goals, such as scores on tests, interfere with this larger intention. This year, readjust your focus on lifelong learning and commit yourself to holding tight to it. Your inner teacher will thank you!
- Start the school year with appreciation.
In Loser by Jerry Spinelli, Mrs. Meeks begins the first day of first grade talking to students about their graduation from high school. She explains that they will be driving cars and taking jobs and ready to take their place in the world. She writes 180 on the board to represents the number of days in first-grade, and then she multiplies by 12 to calculate the 2160 days they will be in school. She explains, “Two thousand one hundred sixty. The days of your journey. That is how long your adventure will last. Everyone of those days will be an opportunity to learn something new. Just imagine how much you can learn in two thousand one hundred and sixty days.”
Finally, Mrs. Meeks pulls a conductor’s cap and a train whistle out of her desk drawer, blows the whistle, and says, “All aboard the Learning Train! First stop Writing My Own Name! Who’s coming aboard?” Then, “Twenty six hands shoot into the air.”
We wish you much joy as your Learning Train leaves the station this year. May we all remember that learning and teaching are privileges to be appreciated and celebrated.