Monday, June 7, 2010

Learning Reading and Writing

It occurred to me, after sharing the experiment done in the 1920's, that I could share a few of my own stories about reading and writing with kids.

For some years I've traveled the Northwest presenting inspirational one-day "Young Author Programs." A day-long program starts with a slide show for all the children, kindergarten to sixth grade. It is quite a challenge to hold an audience consisting of unformed little ones, bright and eager learners, and jaded older students busy being cool for one another. But the slide show works well because everyone feels included. I show the kids books and stories of my own, and show them things from my life that I love - my animals and trees and gardens, and most of all my son, things he and I have done together. They love that we had gone sledding in the moonlight, they love that we slept out with our dog and cat and goats and chickens. The older kids love that Jesse was a baggy-pants, shaggy-haired skateboarder who convinced our whole town to build a skatepark by writing letters and making his own newspaper . . . colorful stuff that lifted their schoolkid hearts. The Young Authors day also includes handson workshops by grade level. On the day of the visit, always there are kids all the way to sixth grade who suddenly write pages and pages about their own cares, interests and passions. Kids who had never written anything at all, and who had shown no interest in reading. One autistic boy who had never spoken asked questions from the back of the room and walked right up with more questions about everything.
It is obvious that reading and writing are gifts kids will greatly treasure for many reasons of their own. One of my first insights of this came from a friend who taught reading in the deep south of Georgia. She had high school teenagers who had driven tractors and plowed fields since they were children, who had seen crazy drunks and lynchings. They were not drawn to Dick and Jane readers or anything else offered up in schoolrooms. She brought in stacks and stacks of Life magazines and asked them what they thought. They approved, and most of them became proficient readers while simply relating to the up and down dramas of American life.
With my son: read-aloud in front of the fire, read-aloud in my lap, read-aloud at bedtime . . . he said much later that reading aloud was one of the best parts of his childhood. But he himself was not ready to read until he was about seven, at which time he simply decided he would do it because he loved books already. He chose the moment he was ready and accepted the help he needed to decipher all the symbols on his own.
Once I was asked to give a talk to a group of eighty seasoned reading teachers. I was reckless and said sure! Before me at their round breakfast tables they all sat, drinking coffee and expectant. And you know, I just said, I am an artist and a single mother and here are some things that have worked. One thing they loved: how you can make up a story, any story, with a stick drawing in the middle of a blank page. A big rock is good, or a tree with gnarly roots, or a little campfire. Then you can ask your children what comes next - a stream, some trees, some hills or a cabin or castle or tent - some people and animals, a storyteller, a flute-player - something in the skies - maybe there is a little rock with a symbol carved into it by someone long ago. Now someone picks up the rock; a doorway opens up that goes into another world - pretty exciting stuff! Of course then you have to work together to write down sentences to go with the picture, maybe draw some more, and then more words come . . . and reading is a happening thing, naturally, through having fun. After this and other homespun ideas, these old timers said they were refreshed and inspired.

Where else can inspiring ideas come from? Children love learning how to interview, they love interviewing old people or teenagers who come to your classroom, and they write their questions and answers with such great care . . . They love shelves and cupboards stuffed with books and magazines everywhere, making collages, crafting handmade books with captions and pictures of their own. Esme Raji Codell, in Educating Esme tells how she crafted a time machine - a cardboard appliance box with a revolving red light and other gadgets, crammed with books. Her fifth-graders loved reading in that space!

A puppet post office takes up less space than a time machine. If you use puppets to introduce subjects, to teach tricky concepts, to perk up your kids, or for conflict resolution- you can have a decorated cardboard box with a slot where they can drop letters to the puppets. (I did once with a fairy post office in a multi-age classroom, they all got into it.) This can develop into a subculture in your room where your kids are reading and writing just for the fun of it. You might get so many letters that you'll need parent volunteers to help answer all of them.

Last one for the moment ~ while volunteering in a local third grade classroom, I met a little girl who was still completely illiterate, and asked if we could do some things together. We sat at a table outside her class, just talking, swapping stories to get to know one another, no biggie. I asked her to share her life story with me, everything she could remember, and offered to be her "scribe." She liked the idea, and I wrote quickly to get every word down. At home I neatly hand-printed it all out for her. The story was filled with her parents' and brother's intense and harsh moments - lashings-out and screaming, sad things for a little girl that would put anyone into an anxious fog. Next time we met, we looked at her four pages together, and started to read her story. We met two or three more times, and she read without help. Her reading difficulties were over. She told me she had posted her story near her bed, and her teacher told me after those few days she participated successfully in academic work.

Educating Esme is a fantastic read for teachers and parents, very funny with lots of insights. Available for seventy-five cents right here:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Iam going to try all these with my kids theywill love their storys on paper!and a puppt post office!!! I don't thinkwe have room for a time machine tho.