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.

The book

I heard their whispers, and I shouldn’t have, because they were in line in the hallway. There are Rules, you know . . . .

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

I looked around. There they were, not standing neatly in line but leaning out in varying degrees, trying to get my attention.

“What-? You all sound like a bunch of Parselmouths, hissing,” I said (Parselmouths being people who can speak snake language, for those of you not intimately familiar with Harry Potter, few though you may be).

Giggles.

And more whispers:

The books came! There’s one for you!”

“It’s wrapped”—

“Stop, you’re ruining the surprise!”

—I think somebody got elbowed, just then.

I taught a series of personal narrative lessons to this third grade class. I modeled my own narrative. They drafted theirs, conferred with their teacher, revised, conferred with me, revised.  They did every bit of the work, made their own artistic choices in both writing and illustrating, asked a lot of questions. At the last I coached each child through final edits.

Then their teacher compiled it all and sent it off for publication.

This week, the books arrived.

These writers couldn’t concentrate when I came to the classroom Thursday afternoon to talk about opinion writing. They wriggled and writhed like puppies at their seats.

Because a flat package, wrapped in bright jewel-tone paper, waited on the reading table.

The tag read Mrs. Haley.

“Soooo,” I said, “this is what all the excitement is about? Am I supposed to open this now?”

—They almost burst.

YES!”

YES!!”

YES!!!”

When I picked up the package, they gathered so close around me that I felt slightly claustrophobic. I had a fleeting sense of Gru in Despicable Me, being surrounded by  a sea of adoring Minions, countless giant eyes blinking in anticipation.

“Oh, wow—it turned out so well! It’s beautiful, everybody! I am so proud of you and your writing.”

They laughed, clapped, clamored, tried to tell me more stories about their stories . . . for they are, after all, authors.

I held the book to my heart, basking in the glow.

—They do not realize that they are the gift.

Salt and the stagecoach

Stagecoach

Western Stagecoach 08. Robin HallCC BY

The third graders were having a hard time.

“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”

She sighed.

So, as extra practice,  I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).

Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:

Why there are stars

Why there are oceans

Why the ocean is salty

Why zebras have stripes

Why there are colors (challenging!)

Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.

“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”

When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.

I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.

Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.

He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.

Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.

“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”

“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”

—Makes perfect sense to me.

The moral of the story:

We can show them the stagecoach

but if we never let them load it as they please, 

they’ll drive only so far.

Set the wheels in motion,

hand over the reins,

jump out of the way.

See what astonishing routes they take.

Stone speaks

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Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.

Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.

Here are my favorite words of Stone:

“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”

“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . .  finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”

“Write for yourself first.”

“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”

“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”

“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”

“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”

“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”

“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”

“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn  . . . they need a soft place to land.”

“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”

“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”

“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”

“Emphasize the fun in research.”

“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”

“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”

“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”

“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”

“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”

“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.

“Always be working on something else. Always.”

“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”

“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”

Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . . 

My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.

For all of these connect.

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Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.

*******

See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.

RSVP

They sit at the table before me, these two boys, with their books open.

The book’s too hard for them. I know this. But they’re fifth-graders now, having been in intervention groups since first grade, and this is a book they really want to read. 

So we’re reading it together.

The book? Wonder. By R.J. Palacio.

We stop to discuss words and phrases that they have questions about, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I don’t get it,” says one of the boys. “Why is the mom talking about a tree? What tree?”

You’ve studied figurative language in class, right?” I ask. The boys nod. Their expressions are perplexed. “Sometimes words and phrases mean something more than what they actually say. That’s the case here. Think of a tree loaded with apples. If an apple falls off, what eventually happens to it?”

Someone comes to eat it,” offers the other boy.

Maybe,” I laugh. “But let’s say the apple stays on the ground where it fell and no one ever comes to eat it. What will happen?”

They think. I can almost see their brains scrolling.

It’ll go bad, won’t it?” asks the first boy. 

Yeah,” says the second. “Like, brown and mushy.”

“So,” I press on,”what’s inside of that rotting apple?”

“Seeds?” says the first boy. 

The second boy says “Oh!”

“What?” asks the first boy.

The seeds. They get in the ground and grow into more trees.”

Now you’re getting there.” I lean in. “You know about life cycles from science. So what will these new apple trees do?”

Grow more apples!” says the first boy.

Yes. The new tree does exactly what the mother tree does. It grows the very same kind of apples. So when August’s mom says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ when Julian’s mom doesn’t RSVP to August’s party, what is she really saying? Think of what you already know about Julian.”

He acts like his mom!” says the second boy.

For a second, tiny rays of light beam across both boy’s faces, driving their clouded expressions away. Then . . . 

“What’s an RSVP?” asks the first boy.

You’ve never heard of it before?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I turn to the second boy. How about you?” 

He shakes his head, too.

“It’s what people put on a party invitation so that the people throwing the party know how many other people are coming, so they know how much food to buy or how many prizes to get.”

Their faces are blank. 

It’s French. RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît: Please reply. When you get an invitation with RSVP, you’re supposed to let the sender know yes, you’re coming or no, you’re not. That’s what’s happening here in this chapter. August’s mom has sent the invitations for his party and people are saying their children can’t come. Julian’s mom doesn’t even answer.”

Oh,” says the first boy.

It hits me then.

Hard.

Guys, have you ever gotten an invitation to a birthday party or anything?”

 They shake their heads. 

I look at them for a long moment while my mind races. My thinking process is like a bubble map sprouting out in every direction, bubbles upon bubbles, thoughts multiplying exponentially.

What some children— including my own—may take for granted as a natural and fun part of childhood isn’t every child’s experience. Superman, Captain Hook, the Titanic, even—alas!—Barney the Dinosaur themed-parties clamor in my mind. 

These two boys have never had, never even seen, a party invitation.

 This is a matter beyond understanding the heart of this scene in the books before them.

It’s now a matter of understanding how the world generally works. Of broadening their world. 

 I recall a university professor giving a keynote address to would-be educators years before. He described his impoverished childhood and taking an aptitude test in elementary school. He told of this question: “What color are bananas?” I can’t recall the four answer choices (one of which was presumably yellow and the right one) but he chose “black.” Because that is what he knew; his father could only afford the bananas that were reduced when they began to spoil. He’d never seen a yellow banana.

How could he know?

How can these boys know what an RSVP is, or care? Until now, it’s never appeared in their world. It has no significance, no relevance.

All right, then,” I say. “That’s enough for today. We’ll read more and talk more about this chapter tomorrow.” 

They gather their things and head back to class.

That night, I make two invitations, personally addressed to each boy:

You are cordially invited to attend a popcorn and book celebration

with Mrs. Haley at

(the time of our group meeting, two days away).

(On an additional slip of paper):

RSVP – I will ____ will not ____ be able to attend.

The envelopes are on the table at their places when they come the next day.

“What’s this? ” asks the first boy.

That’s our names on there,” says the second.

Well, I guess you have to open them to find out,” I say.

Rustling, tearing. Reading.

What’s this word?” asks the first boy, pointing.

Cordially. It means ‘warmly’ or ‘in a very friendly way.'”

A popcorn party?” says the second boy, eyes lighting up.

A popcorn and BOOK party,” I tell him. “We’re still going to read.”

Can we have Dr. Pepper, too?” The first boy bounces in his seat.

That all depends,” I smile, “on my knowing how much popcorn and Dr. Pepper I need to buy. How am I going to know?”

Oh yeah . . .” 

With their pencils, both boys check I will be able to attend on the slips. The second boy slides it across the table to me. The first boy follows his lead.

Great! All my people RSVP’d that they’re attending! So tomorrow is our celebration. Just promise you won’t get popcorny fingerprints and Dr. Pepper on our books.”

They giggle.

Together we read a little more of August’s struggles. All the while my heart is hoping that right now, and tomorrow, and what little bit of time we have together in the tomorrows beyond, will lessen their own. And that their learning will become one long celebration, filled with wonder.