Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Independence and the Joy of Reading

Beyond any technical skill or exercise in inferential comprehension, our literacy program strives to bring a sense of joy and wonder to the process of reading. We hope that our students will nurture an appreciation for a story well told, for a powerfully engaging depiction of history, for an evocative verse, for an eloquently presented memoir, for a legend that captures the essence of a cultural value, and for all the other gifts that reading brings.

December 12: Loving the Words

On Tuesday morning, a group of second grade children gathered around the world rug in the library’s story room, engaged in a lively conversation about Cinderella with Mrs. Cirillo. They have heard several variations of this fairytale from different times and places, and Mrs. Cirillo asked the children what they expected to hear in the new book she was holding. Their informal discussion touched on many of the elements of the archetypal story of an outcast who is saved from a life of hardship through magic and a lost shoe. As Mrs. Cirillo began to read, the children noticed that this story was unusual because it featured a boy as its main character. A few pages later, one of the children called out, “Oh! He won’t lose a glass slipper; it’s a boot!”

Story time in the library is a singular form of literacy instruction for our primary school children. Every week, children in Pre-K through 2nd grade spend time listening to wonderful books read with joy by our librarian. While there is certainly conversation about the stories, and while the books often include new vocabulary words or interesting ideas, story time is not about formal instruction. When asked to describe her approach, Mrs. Cirillo is quick to point out that for her, these times with the children are about a love of literature, a love of story, a love of illustration, and a love of words.

Picture books occupy a special place in children’s reading lives. Most of these books are not mean to be read by children; the size of the type, the complexity of the words, the sentence structure, and the form of writing are often beyond early readers’ abilities. Instead, these books are designed to be read to and with children. Although Mrs. Cirillo does not follow a specific plan, her choices for each grade provide wonderful guidelines for sharing books with children.

As you consider gift ideas for the children in your lives (from our Book Fair or elsewhere), consider these suggestions:

In Pre-K and K, Mrs. Cirillo looks for books that feature fun and engaging topics. She’s found that Pre-K children love stories about babies!
In K and 1st, she focuses on early literacy skills such as rhymes and repetition so that children can participate and anticipate the words in the stories.
In 2nd grade, she reads folk tales and fairy tales to expose children to universal themes and classic works.

December 19: The Moment of Excellence

Of all the books and stories you have read, which ones truly drew you in? Which ones presented a moral dilemma or a difficult choice that left you pondering the alternatives long after the last page was turned? Which ones created such a vivid image in your mind that you felt that you had visited a real place? Books like these are not only a pleasure to read, they are also a tool for learning and for expanding our thinking about challenging issues. In every grade, our teachers make literature selections to encourage this type of critical thinking and connection. Often, book choices are made specifically because they will lead to conversations about choices or “big ideas.”

Our 7th graders have just completed such a book: The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel about an adolescent boy living in a tightly controlled “perfect” society. One of the central themes that the 7th graders are examining this year is that of the individual versus the group, and The Giver’s plot focuses on this theme. The ending is deliberately unclear, prompting deep discussions about what really happened. The level of connection to the text within the class and the compelling issues raised by the story created an ideal environment for reflection and creativity.

Ms. Jorgensen and Mrs. Sher arranged an exhibition for the students to demonstrate their understanding of the themes raised by the book. Some chose to create a three-dimensional map of the setting; they did not just build a model of a place, they made careful choices about color, texture, and their use of three dimensions to express their interpretation of the insider/outsider tension in the story. Other students wrote and performed scenes to expand on pivotal events, emphasizing the significance of the theme to the dialogue they presented. Some students chose a third option and wrote epilogues, matching the style and tone of the author and carrying the theme forward into a “what happened next” chapter. After Mrs. Sher instructed them to look for the moment of excellence in the presentations, students evaluated their own work and that of their classmates, using a detailed rubric to assess both their process and their product. Perhaps the most remarkable moments of excellence occurred in the discussions after each presentation; the students discussed concepts such as acceptance versus rejection, the need for love, and how societies operate.

April 3: It’s a Family Thing

“Dear Parents…Once again, you have homework,” began the letters that went home to 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade families last month, announcing the 6th annual Literary Tea program, the brainchild of Mrs. Listfield and a tradition beloved by everyone. For each grade, Mrs. Listfield and the teachers have selected a book for adults and students to read together at home. This week and next week, Coolidge Hall is the setting for a series of gatherings where parents and children have been coming together to share their questions and thoughts about the books. Accompanied by a treat of tea and cookies, families meet around our lunch tables to discuss small details and large issues raised by the stories.

For our third graders, Wednesday morning was their first experience with a Literary Tea, although their novice status was not at all obvious. The group had read Pam Munoz Ryan’s book Riding Freedom, a historical novel about a woman who becomes a stagecoach driver in the American West. Discussions ranged from the challenges of being a woman during this time to definitions of freedom, to questions about perseverance and true happiness. “I think this book is bittersweet,” commented one child. “She was happy that she could do some stuff, but sad that she couldn’t be herself.”

The fourth grade class read Walking to the Bus Rider Blues by Harriet Gillem Robinet. This story takes place in the segregated South during the bus boycott. It centers around a young African-American boy and his family dealing with difficult circumstances. Although a work of fiction, the book includes authentic details about acts of racism during the time period. Parents shared their own thoughts about discrimination and recollections of the civil rights movement. Many conversations centered on the concept of courage: what sort of bravery it would take for a white person to participate in the boycott on behalf of black people, and the kind of confidence required to stand up for yourself in the face of a racist system.

The fifth graders read Lauren St. John’s novel The White Giraffe, in which an 11-year-old girl moves to Africa to live with her grandmother on a game preserve. The book raises questions about the idea of “home,” and what it means to protect vulnerable creatures. Sixth grade families read Roland Smith’s novel Elephant Run, World War II, when a boy moves from his home in England to his family’s teak plantation in Burma (now Myanmar). The book raises questions about courage, adventure, and a respect for the environment. Though the issues raised by all these books are not easy, our students and their parents approach them with respect, interest, and an appreciation for good stories.

May 22: Metamorphosis

“Silent reading and butterflies: two signs that the school year is almost over,” said Mrs. Chait the other day. She glanced at the large net holding the cocoons for the Painted Lady butterflies that will be emerging soon, and then her gaze traveled around the room to observe the students, each of whom was settled into an independent reading book. “They couldn’t have done this at the beginning of the year,” she added, with a note of pride in her voice.

How do you measure growth when it happens in tiny steps? When we are with children every day, the small changes are not always noticeable, but every now and then we are struck by the transformations that are occurring in their minds and bodies. At home, many of us have a door frame, or a spot on the kitchen wall, or a chart mounted inside a closet to mark our children’s height; how many times have you suddenly discovered that your child is an inch taller than the last time you measured?

Progress in reading happens in a similar incremental way. As the first grade year unrolls, inch by inch, new skills are developed. More complex words are introduced, longer texts are mastered, more words become recognized automatically, oral reading becomes smoother and more fluent, and suddenly, like the marks on the kitchen wall, we find that children are reading with significantly greater mastery than they could months before.

On this day, the first graders spill into the classroom from recess, ready for silent reading time. They find quiet spots at the tables, or sit cross-legged on the big rug, or sprawl on the pillows and carpets in the classroom nook, their books spread out on the floor in front of them. The literature choices are as varied as the children themselves: picture books, chapter books, early readers, classic stories, non-fiction selections, and popular series. One boy flips through a plastic bin, looking for something new. “Read it already; read it; read it; read it,” he says, ticking off each title. He moves to the next bin and grins as he finds a story that he hasn’t read yet. Twenty minutes later, when Mrs. Chait softly asks the children to put away their books, one student exclaims, “That’s the most I’ve ever read in DEAR time!”

Deep into the month of May, we look back over the school year and realize how much learning has occurred, and how much that learning will serve as the foundation for future growth. The butterflies about to hatch out of their cocoons, metaphorically as well as in reality.

May 29: What’s In Your Pile?

When asked about her summer reading plans, Mrs. Zamore laughed. “I can tell that we’re almost finished with the year when the pile of books that I’ve been saving topples over.”

For the past few weeks, this column has described many signs that the end of the year is fast approaching. We now release the results of an informal survey conducted among a cross-section of faculty and staff. The survey consisted of a single question: “What books are you most looking forward to reading this summer?” The results of our survey reveal evidence of many piles of books, and a vast range of interests, humor, talents, content knowledge, curiosity, hobbies, and personalities. The common thread among everyone surveyed was the sense of relaxation and pure joy of reading— how, what, and whenever we choose. Mrs. Zamore reflected on the luxury of time to read a long book, and Mr. Chaves quipped that he loves summer reading because he can read at a time of day when he won’t fall asleep.

Some respondents fall into a broad category best summed up by Mr. Chaves, who said, “I’ll read anything that’s good.” He likes to share his favorites, and Mr. O’Neill is the happy recipient of a whole stack of Chaves-approved selections. Ms. Rochford said that she reads whatever grabs her interest, and Mrs. Holman also described herself as a generalist. Mrs. Beaudoin, certainly speaking on behalf of all the associates, said, “I can’t wait to read something besides textbooks!” On the other hand, Mrs. Brissenden noted that she saves her summer reading time to focus on educational theory and philosophy.

Other people prefer specific categories and genres—Mr. Spencer likes myths and folktales, Mr. Sucich seeks out the sports section of the bookstore, and many people (including Mrs. Leana, Mrs. Zamore, and Mrs. Cirillo) named mysteries among the titles on their summer reading lists. Ms. Atwood alternates fiction and non-fiction. Ms. Isler, Mrs. Fell, Mr. Downing, Ms. Moriarty, and Mrs. Scholes talked about historical fiction. Mrs. Listfield loves to read children’s books, and she subscribes to many magazines. Some of us read about hobbies or interests: I love to read cookbooks as well as biographies and non-fiction history books, and Ms. Atwood is engaged in a book about doubles tennis strategy.

The survey’s timing was deliberate: summer reading lists are included in this week’s Friday Folders, and our spring book fair will take place next week. While it is important that students read the recommended books for their grade levels, it is even more important to find time to heed Mrs. Cirillo’s advice to “read a lot, read for pleasure, and read what you like.”

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