The New Kid on the Block (Part 1)

I distinctly remember the book that made me fall in love with vocabulary instruction.  My third graders and I had just begun our poetry unit.  We'd kicked it off with some of Shel Silverstein's work, so my plan was to expose them to more humourous poetry before moving on to the "deep" stuff.  

After rummaging through some old books in my storage closet, I stumbled across The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelustky.  After reading the first poem, I immediately surmised that this book would be perfect!  The rhyme, the rhythm, the humor, the irony- all in the very first poem....why wouldn't kids adore this collection?  

Now let me be clear in saying that back then, I didn't spend as much time with books as I probably should have before using them for read-alouds or instruction.  I usually gave them a quick once-over, put them on the book stand for the next day's read-aloud, and hoped for the best.

The day I began reading The New Kid on the Block marked the end of this highly ineffective practice because I have never felt as ill-prepared as I did when "Joe" (name changed to protect the innocent) asked me what "vestibule" meant, and I couldn't tell him.  Sure, I knew that it had something to do with a house, or being a room or area in the house, but that wasn't good enough for "Joe".  He wanted to know exactly what a vestibule was, and I couldn't tell him.  I was able to appease Joe slightly after consulting Mr. Merriam -Webster, but I vowed then and there to never teach another book without reading it first and pulling out key vocabulary.

Subsequently, I did something that I'm almost ashamed to say I'd never done before.  I actually read the poems I was going to read aloud the following day, and a funny thing happened.  I noticed some of the same words appearing in different poems, and I noticed that these were words kids could get some mileage out of.  Words like immaculate and bellow,  so I decided to explicitly teach those words. And then I decided to use those words when I spoke to my students.  And then another funny thing happened; kids began to use them themselves.  At that point, I knew there was something to this vocabulary thing.  I was never the same.

The Waiting Place

"Mama, will you read this to me?"  My six-year-old held out Oh, the Places You'll Go as he climbed into my bed.   I jumped at the opportunity, as he rarely asks me to read to him anymore (he's independent, you know).  

However, there's something so magical about this book that every time he picks it up, he asks me to read it to him instead of reading it to himself.  You'll never know how thankful I am for that "something," because this is the one book that enriches, empowers, and enchants me like no other.  As a classroom teacher, I loved reading it to my students. As a mother, I love reading it to my children.  As a reader and a dreamer, I love reading it to myself.

As I read to my son, I smiled with glee every time he chimed in.  We savored the words and the images together. And then, we came to the waiting place.  The place that Dr. Seuss feared we'd get stuck.  And alas, he was right, for as I read the description of that dreaded place, my eyes stuck to the image while my mind stuck to the message....everyone is just waiting. Especially me.

Yes, I fear that I am in the waiting place in so many ways.  Waiting to better myself, waiting to better the world. I think about my life, my children, my family.  I think about my career.  I think about my purpose. And I ask myself, "What are you waiting for?" because deep down inside I know that my family can't wait. Our students can't wait. Our schools can't wait. Our world can't wait. So why am I waiting?

While my son and I left the story's waiting place when we turned the page, escaping the waiting places of life  is not quite so easy. There are many decisions to be made and much work to be done.  Nevertheless, I'm glad my son selected that book on that night.  On any other night, it might not have gripped me the way it did.  On any other night, I may have unearthed a different message.  But I needed that message at that time.  Thank you, Dr. Seuss.  My mountain is waiting.  I must get on my way.







I Hate Test Prep

Here we find ourselves yet again, the time of year I dread.  Time to drag out the test prep books and packets. Time to teach kids to circle titles and photographs, underline endless lines of text, and eliminate answers. Time to suck the joy out of each and every literacy experience by turning it into a dress rehearsal for standardized testing.  No wonder so many of our kids hate to read.

Do students need to know what to expect on a standardized assessment?  Absolutely.  Do they need to get test prepped to death? Absolutely not.

Call me naive, but I believe that we can teach students to  read critically AND appreciate authentic literature simultaneously.  The beauty of it all is it doesn't cost $29.99 to do...just a lot of thought and a little bit of time.

Food for Thought

I'm always in awe when I hear an adult say that he or she doesn't enjoy reading.  As an avid reader,  I can't imagine a life in which literature didn't have the ability to move me in some way. Many of my earliest and fondest memories involve books and language, and I remain enthralled with the magic of the written word to this very day.

Nevertheless, I realize that there are many who may be literate, but still don't identify as readers. This puzzles me, as I truly believe that children are inherent lovers of words, language, and literature.  I've never met a young child that didn't enjoy a good story, whether cuddled up in the lap of a loved one or sitting on a classroom rug.    What happens as they age?  How do the very children who begged to be read to as youngsters become adolescents, teenagers, and adults who wouldn't pick up a book if their lives depended on it?  Though I've never been brave enough to ask, I can only assume that such a disdain for reading stems from some type of negative experience with literacy.  What type of experience would make someone hate to read?  

As an educator, I've worked with students from all walks of life.  I realize that a child's home literacy experiences greatly impact their literacy achievement and motivation.  However, as great as that home influence might be, I also know that the classroom teacher has the power to instill a love for literacy and learning in every child who walks through his or her door.   Conversely, that same teacher also has the ability to weaken and sometimes eliminate that same love.

Yes, I said it.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or accidentally, sometimes it's us.  Through book level shaming, grade shaming, eliminating free reading and book choice, devaluing contributions to discussions, dismissing alternate points of view, neglecting to model what a literate life looks like, shoving awful literature down thirsty throats, limiting access to books,and the list goes on.  Sometimes it's us.

When I think of this, it saddens me.  How many children have been and are now being turned off from reading in the very place where literacy should reign supreme?  How many of these same children will become adults who hate to read?  Most importantly, what will we do about it?