Read like a hero

The coming of spring at my school means it’s time for Literacy Lunch, an annual event where families are invited to take part in literacy-related activities in class followed by lunch in the cafeteria with their children. It’s one of our best-attended events. We do it over three days; parents with multiple children typically come on all three. The comment they make most often: “Thank you so much for this time at school with my child.”

It won’t happen this school year.

Our theme was to be Read Like a Hero! Our committee, entitled Reading Incentive People, otherwise known as the RIP, brainstormed and came up with suggestions to use with families. Note the emphasis on writing to be read aloud and art, which can also be “read”:

The “hero in me” digital word cloud (student photo with digital word cloud of student’s character traits)

Any reading/writing about community heroes OR superheroes

-“What makes a hero” activities, such as artistic representations of adjectives that describe a hero, with discussion

Character development (create a hero; use heart maps? ) Note: I’ve done this when teaching fantasy writing—we used heart maps to create villains!

Research and present living/historical heroes (tie to social justice?) Consider having kids present as a wax museum! Note: We’ve done a wax museum before, with students holding a “button” on one hand for families to press and hear them read as their character, in costume. EVERYONE loved this.

With heroes OR superheroes: Consider comic strips, saving the world, or any activity incorporating beginning, middle, and end

Onomatopoeia art/action word art for heroes/superheroes

Handprint heroes, real or superhero, with written stories to be read aloud

Create masks representing heroes, with corresponding poetry, story, or play writing, to be read/performed

Create action figures, with story writing; what about a short action film?

Opinion writing about the superpower students would want and why, to be read aloud

Favorite hero/superhero costumes welcome, so students can truly “read like heroes”

THE POINT: Creatively celebrating the joy of reading and the value of it—hence, being a reading hero.

I share this now for several reasons.

First being that our theme was set in motion before COVID-19 hit; we’d be gearing up for it at school now.

Secondly: I wonder if choices of heroes would be different, if kids and families would now choose to research, represent, or write and read about doctors, nurses, government officials (Andrew Cuomo, anyone? And I’m not even in New York!) How about those who are providing childcare for medical professionals and food to those in need? Maybe strangers who share their stash of toilet paper? People making and distributing hand sanitizer for free? The concept of hero, in just a few weeks’ time, is suddenly redefined.

And as for comic strips … how many might feature a specially-created superhero to defeat the monster COVID-19, also known as CoronaVirus? How many fictional doctors or kids in a lab might create an antidote?

Imagine a student creating and reading that aloud.

One day, my school will hold our Read Like a Hero event on campus—I already have the shirt (the lead photo). I am wearing it as I write this. One day, we’ll all enjoy gathering to celebrate literacy, learning, and lunch together—when we’ve defeated the tiny viral archenemy currently terrorizing us.

Until then … here’s to reading and being the hero of living one day at time.

A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt, or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.

—Christopher Reeve

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Lost

It started with a feeling.

It led to a word.

Lost.

It led me to look for a beautiful book, The Lost Words.

I couldn’t remember where I put it.

I looked everywhere.

It’s lost.

Ah. A theme.

Maybe it’s the dreary January dusk, or the drizzle, or Monday.

Maybe it’s the news. Lost lives.

Maybe it’s growing older and being reminded of things I loved long ago, like koalas, because of a book my grandmother read to me, and wondering how many koalas are left in Australia now. Wondering if there are enough eucalyptus trees left in that charred landscape to keep them alive.

Maybe it’s everything.

So much is lost.

I am not lost.

Just caught in layers of lost, like being wrapped round and round with invisible tulle.

It’s there.

I feel it.

Cocoonish.

That’s what sent me searching for The Lost Words as reading it suited my mood. The book is a glorious creation based on words that are disappearing from the dictionary. Words about the natural world that children don’t know anymore. Lyrical verse, majestic illustrations, making something beautiful of something lost . . . it was calling me to reread it. The very thing I needed.

But I can’t find it or remember where I last left it.

It’s really lost.

Naturally that beckoned lost associations. Lost people, lost friends, lost dogs, lost moments, lost time, lost things. Lost opportunities. Lost relationships, lost trust. Lost vision, especially in the educational world of late. Lost sense, lost direction. Lost ideas that I didn’t write down (although I am better about it now than I used to be). Lost dreams, so vivid and clear — what great stories they would make! — disintegrating as I wake, alas. I can’t seem to hold onto the dream and wake up; too often I am left with odd fragments.

But even in my tulle-swathed, piece-y malaise, never lost hope. No, not that. Never lost faith. Never lost love, because, if it’s love, it’s there forever.

I lost interest in reading tonight. So, I write.

Never lost words, not for me. Not yet. They find me, somehow.

And tomorrow I’ll find that book.

Photo: Lost. gwenole camus. CC BY-SA

Power of three

The title of this post might have you wondering if it’s about a mnemonic aid or a literary device (also known as “Rule of Three”). Perhaps you envisioned triangles — the strongest geometrical shape in the context of civil engineering and architecture — or the algebraic exponent, as in “to the third power,” i.e., cubed.  Or maybe even the Trinity.

But today I am pondering the power of three as it relates to the human brain, words, and reading.

As inspired by a little person who’s been staying with me each day for a few weeks this summer.

She is three years old.

Her mom and my son, who’s a newcomer in their lives, read to her each night.

So each day, as she settles for a nap, I read to her from an assortment of books I keep in baskets here at home. Some of these I bought just for her. Most are from my personal collection at school, a few are old favorites of my sons, and a couple I salvaged from stacks discarded by teacher colleagues who considered them too outdated (a worthy topic for a later post . . .).

And each day, of her own volition, my new little girl picks the same three books: Curious George Goes to the Hospital, A Bad Case of Stripes, and Green Eggs and Ham.

That is the exact order in which she insists they be read each day.

I think of myriad things while reading this rather motley selection to my rapt little listener. Two of the books have been in print for over half a century. Their illustrations are simple. The the third has elaborate illustrations and a story that might be deemed too strange or “above” a preschooler’s interest and capability to understand. While she examines various books throughout the day, poring over pictures on many pages, it’s always these three books she clutches in her arms as she climbs into bed for nap. I am reminded, yet again, of the inestimable power of reading aloud, rereading, and familiarity. And of choice. 

I also think about the impact of language on a child’s developing brain. It just so happens that a book in the stack of my own summer reading is Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, in which the author (cochlear implant surgeon Dana Suskind) writes: “By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language development of the young child. This does not mean that the brain stops developing after three years, but it does emphasize that those years are critical” — because the neural pathways for language are being created  only in that window. As a literacy educator, I mull the importance of early phonemic awareness in conjunction with Suskind’s words: “It takes more than the ability to hear sounds for language to develop; it is learning that the sounds have meaning that is critical. And for that a child must live in a world rich with words and words and words.” (Suskind later emphasizes the quality of language in addition to the number of words spoken, the power of affirmations on a growing child’s development. And her first line of her first chapter is “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.”)

All of this swirls in my own brain as I reread the same three books every day to this three-year-old entrusted to me, as we converse about her observations and questions:

“What is a tube?” she asks, during the fifth (sixth?) reading of Curious George’s hospital visit. “Like a hose in the garden, only a lot smaller so it can go down George’s throat. Very small,” I say. “Tiny,” she declares with authority, and we go on with our sixth (seventh?) reading of this book.

“What is broke?” — when, in A Bad Case of Stripes, Camilla “broke out in stars.” This is a bit harder to define. “Hmmm. Has your skin ever had a rash, or a lot of tiny spots on it?” She nods hesitantly, and I say, “Then your skin broke out, meaning it suddenly got spots or little bumps on it for a while.” I can tell by her solemn expression that this information is being processed. A minute later: “What is sob?” When I say it means to cry a lot, not just a little, the light of understanding flickers instantly in her wide blue eyes.

I continue this umpteenth reading of Stripes to the page where the old woman who will cure Camilla arrives, just after the visit from the Environmental Therapist who told her to “breathe deeply and become one” with her room. Camilla became one with her room, all right; she melted into the walls where two pictures became her eyes, a dresser morphed into her nose, and her bed turned into her mouth. Totally abstract. Transcendental. Out there. I read in my best kind-old-woman voice: “What we have here is a bad case of stripes. One of the worst I’ve ever seen!” 

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My listener giggles. “It’s not a bad case of stripes. It’s a bed case of stripes.”

A pun so profound that I am at a loss for words.

She’s three.

I make a mental note to tell her mom, who’s clearly laid a magnificent foundation long before now.

This perceptive child notices the letters down the side of the Stripes front cover. She attempts to sound them out, and I let her try for a minute before telling her the words are “Scholastic Bookshelf.” She points to the square between the words and asks, “Why is this one blank?” I am excited: Print concepts! Teachable moments! “That’s a space. They come between words. See, this is a word. Then a space; this is another word . . .” She picks it right up: “And this is a word, this is a word . . .”

Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.

Even though her eyes are growing heavy, she chimes in with the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham.  In fact, she takes over reciting portions without my help now, mimicking my expression and cadence, on all the right pages . . .

I leave her to her nap. I wonder if her dreams will be filled with monkeys, phantasmagorical color patterns, rhythms, rhymes, words, words, words. My husband is compelled to check on her after awhile. He whispers his report: “She’s sound asleep.” Obliviously recharging her power of three for the remainder of the day, and for a future brimming with potential.

To the power of infinity and beyond, one might say.

And I believe it.

Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

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Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

Magical literacy and learning, part 2

As my colleague and I present at a reading conference for educators this week, I watch the participants’ faces. Eager. Expectant. Reflective. Smiling and visibly misting over in turn, as my colleague and I talk about the diversity of the third, fourth, and fifth grade students who sign up, some of them multiple times, to be in our Harry Potter club. How they develop a sense of identity, of belonging, how the club became a “thing” at our school . . . 

On the first day of our club each semester, we “co-headmistresses” give the kids a quiz adapted from one we found online. We plug answers into the website so that every child is sorted into his or her own Hogwarts house. Students familiar with the books or movies are triumphant to know they’ve landed in their favorite house (usually Slytherin; we seem to have an abundance of those), and even students who are just encountering the world of Harry Potter for the first time have an unmistakable look of pride on their faces. They all write their names on the Hogwarts crest in the areas designating their houses. I read Harry’s sorting experience to them, and then we talk about how members of each of the four houses have specific traits or characteristics, and how we’re sorted according to these attributes:

We read each column of traits. It’s a lofty word bank. I ask, “Who knows what these words mean?” The students who know, share; the words that no one knows, I define.

Then I ask: “So, do you see yourself in these words? Do any of these words describe you?”

A vigorous nodding of heads. One sweet-faced little girl says, emphatically: “Yes! I’m ruthless!”

It’s all I can do to not collapse with laughter.

For part of developing a sense of belonging is first developing a sense of self-awareness. Why I think and feel the way I do—because these drive my actions. If I understand myself, then maybe I can begin to understand others. In books, in real life.

Not to mention that character traits and character motivation are woven throughout the reading and writing standards.

The newly-sorted club members move onto talking about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and their stories. Why they make the choices they make.

For everyone has a story, and as the club rolls on, the students begin sharing bits and pieces of their own lives in conjunction with the characters’ experiences:

One time I . . .

I had something like that happen . . .

In my family . . .  

And somehow this “thing” spreads from the confines of our club into the school at large.

In my daily work as a coach, I am in and out of classrooms across grade levels. In third, fourth, and fifth grades, the club members greet me excitedly, with an air of ownership. Their non-club classmates say: Mrs. Haley, I am reading the books for the first time! I just saw one of the movies again! Hey, Mrs. Haley, they have new Harry Potter shirts at Walmart—my mom’s gonna get me one. Come check out my Harry Potter socks! 

When I walk through lower grade hallways, a second-grader will occasionally pop out of line just long enough to say, “Next year I’ll be in third grade and I can be in the Harry Potter club!”

Once a teacher brought a kindergartner to see me—a boy, the spitting image of Harry himself in miniature, black hair, glasses and all. He was even wearing a gray shirt adorned with tiny lightning bolts.

He looked me dead in the eye and said: “I love Harry Potter more than you do.”

I dared not argue.

I’ve dubbed this “thing” permeating the ranks of children across the school “the Hogwarts phenomenon.” Again, Harry breaks barriers, open doors that might not have opened otherwise. Children seek me out to borrow my books, to see my ever-growing collection of Potter memorabilia, just to have conversations.

I think of one of our rare Ravenclaws, a shy girl who came out of her shell in the club, who later realized how much creativity was bottled inside of her, and that it could, and did, pour forth in writing (she’ll be published one day. Trust me).

My colleague recalls four siblings, three brothers and a sister, who were all members at various times, how the club became their family legacy.

I remember how, when we first created a page of spells that Rowling made up for the books and put them into visual representations to see if the kids knew or could figure out their meaning, that one boy said: “Hey—Aguamenti—that sounds like my word for water. Agua.” Indeed, that’s what it meant. This sparked a deep discussion of word origins and vocabulary, such as incendiary meaning “to cause a fire” and luminous meaning “giving off light or glowing.”

My favorite story of all (I’ve told it many times) is about the boy who stayed with us for four semesters, because he despised school and was frequently absent, but never on club days. His mother said: “The only thing he ever talks about is the Harry Potter club.” In his final semester, we made him Head Boy; he co-facilitated with us, reading to the new members and helping them make their crafts. We gave him a Hogwarts shirt on the day of fifth-grade graduation. He ran immediately to the bathroom to put it on.

He walked across the stage at the ceremony wearing that shirt.

We had no idea, really, where we were going with this club in the beginning; when our school started clubs as part of our magnet theme, my colleague and I just thought it would be great fun to read bits of Harry Potter books to kids, make some crafts, and simply enjoy the experience.

Then all the magic just . . . happened.

Teachers, remember:

What inspires you will inspire the kids. Passion is contagious. Tap into it.

Find a way to make it happen for them.

As we end the presentation, we give our participants—educators from across the state of North Carolina—the choice of going to the official Pottermore site to find their own Hogwarts house or Patronus, or making some of the crafts we make with our students. The glee in the room is palpable; how many presentations have you been to where you can make a pencil broom, a golden Snitch, a feather pen, a wand, a winged key, an ornament with your house colors, or eat a homemade chocolate frog? 

The teachers bubble over with ideas to take back to their schools. A couple of them are actually from a women’s prison; they think now they will start a Harry Potter club for inmates.

Again I think of major themes in the books.

Hope. Redemption. Overcoming. 

Love.

“Thank you,” the participants say, over and over, on their way out, carrying their new Potter loot. 

One teacher says, “This was just so inspiring.”

I say, “That is THE word that matters most to me . . . so thank you.”

“It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are, far more than our abilities.”

Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Magical literacy and learning, part 1

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Yesterday my colleague and I presented “Magical Literacy and Learning: The Harry Potter Club” at the North Carolina Reading Association. While we waited for the preceding session to end, I watched other educators gathering in the hallway outside the closed door where our session would be held. I could hear whispers: “Harry Potter . . . Harry Potter . . . .” For a second, it was almost like being in one of the books or movies. Here’s a portion of what we presented, in narrative form. There’s more to come . . . .

For seven semesters now, a colleague and I have hosted the Harry Potter Club for third, fourth, and fifth graders at our school as part of our creative arts and science magnet theme.

When clubs began in 2015, teachers who volunteered to do clubs were told, “Pick something that interests you. Something that you enjoy.”  Here’s a small sampling of club offerings over the years: cooking, gardening, etiquette, beading, creative writing, acts of kindness, paper airplanes, tie-dye, iPad movie-making, weightlifting, astronomy.

My colleague and I wanted to integrate arts and crafts with reading enjoyment, so that’s how our Harry Potter club was born. We figured we’d read some passages from the books and have the kids make something. That’s all the vision we had, in the beginning.

The club became so much more.

Last winter, a former student of ours, in his first year of middle school, was killed in an accident. My colleague and I, mourning, recalled that he’d been in our club more than once. We remembered how much he enjoyed it, how much he smiled, how he asked questions. We went back over our club rosters to see when he’d attended, and that’s when we discovered something that we hadn’t exactly realized before.

Maybe it’s due to our school improvement-trained brains, but, as we looked back at lists of club kids, I said, “Hey . . . there’s something significant going on with subgroups here.”

That, of course, led to further analysis.

Here’s what we learned about our club:

70% of attendees are male.

54% are non-white or minority.

Over half have identified learning or behavioral needs.

Siblings of nine families have attended.

Boys chose Harry Potter over sports camp, Lego mania, football, and tech. Several of them made this choice more than once; they asked to be in our club again and again, even when we said, “But you’ll just be making the same crafts as you did before!” They said: “I know! I just want to be in the club.” Children of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and races identify with the predominately white Potter characters and their struggles, because the underlying themes speak to all children, all people: Friendship, teamwork, love, hope, redemption.

During club sessions, after I’d read a portion of a book and the kids were busy with their craft—painting a wand, tracing wings and attaching them to keys, making pencil brooms or gold-foil Snitches—discussions developed. Unscripted, organic discussions. Many of the children had seen the movies, some had read the books, some had done neither, but everyone talked. Everyone had questions, observations.

Professor Snape in particular fascinates the children (I often have to say, “Snape. His name is Snape. Not Snake”):

“He was so mean to Harry and Harry thought he hated him, but really he was protecting Harry the whole time.”

“Yeah, because he was in love with Harry’s mother.”

“What do we learn from Professor Snape, then?” I interject.

Pause.

“Even when somebody seems bad, they really might be good. You don’t always know what’s in their heart,” pipes a voice.

I see their heads, bent intently over their craft, nodding.

The children speak of how much Harry’s mother loved him, how she died to save him. The mothers in the series are some of the strongest characters: Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy. In the end, Narcissa saves Harry in order to save her own son.

It’s a safe place, the club. A place of belonging. It doesn’t matter if you’re academically gifted or have an IEP, if you’re an extraordinary reader, or if you struggle with reading. Here, with the read-aloud, the crafts, the discussions, the playing field is level. Here, everyone excels at something.

I think of how the magic was probably the pull for many of the kids, at first.

Or maybe the crafts.

But something deeper keeps them coming back for more.

Snow day GIF documentary

If you work in education—in central North Carolina, anyway— you know that the merest rumor of snowflakes sends people into a frenzy. Mostly because 1) We must go buy bread and water in vast quantities, or at least the necessary ingredients to make big pots of chili; and 2) We want to be home quickly, because we really don’t know how to drive in this stuff.

Just to be safe, systems dismiss early, sometimes before any flakes fall.

Such was the case yesterday. The masses went home to stay glued to weather reports and social media, all the while asking: When will the snow start? How much will we get?

And the question of all questions: WILL SCHOOL BE CANCELED TOMORROW?

So, as a few flakes dropped in various areas, but not in others, as the evening wore on, the waiting intensified.

I amused myself by reading tweets to the school district about when a decision would be made about school closings. Many had GIFS such as these:

Dumbledore.gif

tenor.gif

Those, by the way, were sent by staff. Not students!

Then the announcement came: There were, in fact, enough snowflakes to cancel school today!

Someone tweeted this as the parent reaction across the district:

John Ritter.gif

Poor parents! And poor John Ritter, for that matter . . . is anyone else out there astonished that this will make fifteen years since he died?

By and large, however, there were hundreds of celebratory tweets from students with variations of GIFs such as this:

Peanuts

Many of those tweets said something like: “THANK YOU! You saved me and my grades!”

Okay . . . that really begs more investigation as to exactly how one snow day can save a GPA . . . and why grades are the whole emphasis of education . . .

Then there was this cheery admonishment from the school system: “Everyone stay safe! Kids, don’t forget to read!”

Truly warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Except for a long thread of student responses like this:

“Don’t expect us to read, though.”

Reading that sentiment was, to me, like being impaled by a jagged icicle. My reaction:

Why.gif

Why do the kids hate reading so much? When they say “reading,” what do they actually mean? After all, they text constantly, they’re a huge presence in social media, and their choices of graphics to communicate feelings are both entertaining and dead-on. Today’s average student is quite literate, digitally.

I think—I shiver as I say this—that the aversion is to reading books. Whether it’s actual books or those on a screen is a moot point. My question is: How have we, educators, failed on such an epic scale to promote a love of reading, to the point that our students, especially those who NEED to read more, view it as such a hateful chore? As long as they feel this way, when will our students ever, hopefully, pick up a book that they simply want to read?

The year is young; there’s no time like the present. Snow days are ideal for thinking of ways to revamp instruction to help the kids get excited about books and develop a love—or at least a very strong like—of reading. Will they all? Truthfully, probably not. But that’s no excuse for not striving for something far better on their behalf:

Books are great.gif

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.