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.

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!” 

img_2950

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.

On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

The Harry Potter club

harry-potter-club

Every semester a new group of them arrives, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, often clutching owls or wands, quivering with excitement and  ready to be sorted into one of the four houses … no, they’re not at Hogwarts. These are third, fourth, and fifth grade students who signed up to be in the Harry Potter club at our magnet school.

A colleague and I are the founders, the “co-deputy headmistresses” of the club, formed in conjunction with the school’s mission to expand arts and science integrated opportunities for the students. Staff chooses what to offer; students can sign up for anything from cooking classes to a foreign language to astronomy. Since it began, the Harry Potter club has operated at maximum capacity. Once we know students’ names, they receive their own rolled parchment letter of acceptance (as yet not delivered by owl, but we headmistresses are working on that).

My colleague and I expected to have fun – after all, we chose a theme that was fun for us. We expected that the kids would have fun, and they do. From Day One when they are sorted with the help of an online quiz  – we call it the “technological Sorting Hat” and we always end up with an alarming number of Slytherins, prompting discussions about character traits – through sessions of making their own wands, Quidditch pencil brooms, golden snitches, and patronus pictures, the students savor every moment. One of us, a teacher or student volunteer, reads aloud from the books while the club members work on their crafts. As students are sorted, someone reads Harry’s sorting experience to the group; when students make wands, one of us reads the scene where Harry goes to Ollivander’s for his wand. All students chime in right on cue, because they’ve seen the movies and they know: “The wand chooses the wizard.”

What my colleague and I didn’t expect were the far-reaching effects. Parents frequently tell us: “My child is SO excited about being in the Harry Potter club!” We didn’t expect the depth of the discussions students would initiate on their own, regarding various characters and their motivation:

“Professor Snape was really protecting Harry the whole time, not trying to hurt him.”

“That’s because Snape loved Harry’s mother – they knew each other when they were little, before she knew Harry’s father.”

“It was Harry’s mother’s love that protected him – she died to save him, and that’s why Voldemort couldn’t defeat Harry.”

One would have expected students to be drawn most by the magic, the fantastic, or the old good vs. evil theme, but at the ages of eight to ten or eleven, the students talk more about love, the huge, shining thread that winds through the stories and ties them all together.

My colleague and I certainly never anticipated one student’s attending the club from its inception to the day he left for middle school. As the club is in high demand, repeaters are not usually allowed. One of his teachers made the appeal: “He doesn’t like school, but he loves the Harry Potter club. He’s always here on club days. Can he please be in it again?”

His mother said: “It’s all he ever talks about – the Harry Potter club.”

Our young friend turned out to be a jubilant Gryffindor (as is yours truly, for the record). By his third go-round in the club, he was made Head Boy; he coached newcomers on club matters. He occasionally stopped by my room to discuss Potter trivia and other topics of his interest, always smiling. When he graduated from the fifth grade, my colleague and I presented him with a Hogwarts T-shirt. He wore it for the ceremony.

Just before his departure, our veteran member was asked why he loved the club so much. His brow furrowed in thought for a moment before he replied: “It’s this whole story about a boy who loses his parents and everything is hard for him all the time, but he still tries to save everyone. He’s so brave.”

He paused. We listeners wondered, with tears brimming, what sage, profound connection might be coming next. Our Head Boy just shrugged: “And there’s no Star Wars club.”

Ah, perspective.

Reflect: The power of story is limitless. Read a story to someone. Tell yours. It matters.

 

Lit legacy

 

 

Kobo

I love words because of my grandmother.

It’s a simple thing, really, to gather a child on your lap with a book open for the little eyes to see,  and read aloud as if time and duties and all the other business of life do not matter. In truth, none of those things matter more than creating a literate legacy for a child.

Did Grandma know the far-reaching effects these moments would have? She wasn’t a teacher. She just loved to read, and I caught it from her long before I ever started school. Over and over she read The Squirrel Twins to me, the adventures of Chitter and Chatter, immortalized in rhyme:

There were two little squirrels, who lived in a tree

As happy as two little squirrels could be…

She chuckled at the illustrations every time. Cozy there in her arms, enveloped in the light fragrance of her Avon sachet, the cadence of her voice seeped deep into my brain. One day I surprised her by taking the book from her hands and reciting every word on every page:

And this is the song they sang on the way,

“What a hippity-happity-hoppity day!”

“My goodness!”

“What, Grandmama?”

“You memorized all the words!”

I knew what was coming because of the repeated readings, connecting the visual story with the simple pattern of the rhyme before I could actually read the print. It’s such a simple thing: What was poured in came pouring back out.

She poured in so much more than words – the love of words, the love of story, eventually the love of writing. My grandfather retired when I was five years old. He and Grandma moved “back home” to eastern North Carolina, leaving me behind on the Virginia peninsula. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she said years later. Determined to stay connected, she began writing letters to me. I was soon old enough to write back, and when I told her that my dad (her son) complained about my using up his postage stamps, Grandma promptly sent a letter containing a book of stamps so that “you can write to me whenever you want.” I could almost see the defiant twist of her mouth when I read that line. Every summer when I came to stay for a few weeks with my grandparents, the first item on Grandma’s agenda was taking me to the tiny, musty town library where I checked out more books than I could carry. Nothing was ever deemed off-limits or inappropriate. I was completely free to read what I wanted, as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

When Grandma died, I inherited her piano, which now belongs to my musician son, and twenty-five years worth of diaries in which she recorded the minutiae of her days. In those pages, all those we loved and lost are still alive, the grievances of the time are now hysterically funny, almost sitcom-worthy, and her prayers for my teenage self are yet another heart-wrenching reminder of the lasting power of words.

She was a gift, my grandmother. A priceless jewel. Her name, in fact, was Ruby. Of all the things in life for which I am thankful, one of the greatest is that Ruby read.

Reflect: How are you helping light the literate way for the children in your life? Who lit the way for you? How might you return thanks?