After the kids went home that day, I pored over all of the books I had in the classroom. I was surprised and amazed to discover that I didn’t actually have a shelf of “Tommy Burgers.” Many of my favorite books were among the books on the shelves! I found Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bridge to Terabithia, Chrysanthemum, A Where the Sidewalk Ends, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Frog and Toad Are Friends,
James and the Giant Peach
and many, many more.
The books that lined the shelves of our classroom were books that guided me throughout my childhood. Wilfred taught me about how to be compassionate, and about how sustaining happy memories could be. Bridge showed that no matter how different other kids were, we could form a connection and share great gifts with one another. I learned from Harold that we can create the life we want to have, by using our imagination, and setting our own boundaries. Leo showed me that, even if I wasn’t exhibiting my gifts at the same rate as my siblings or friends, that it was ok, and I would, eventually, bloom.
The thing was, books were always my “guiding light.” They helped me to understand who I was, they helped me to strive to be the type of person that I wanted to be. They showed me the pluses and minuses of acting on feelings of joy, fury, hope, envy, and uncertainty. Books helped me to discover how I wanted to live my life. And that wasn’t happening with my students.
Why weren’t they viewing books like I had, and did? I had some thinking to do. I thought for the next few days about what it was like for these kids. I was teaching in a neighborhood that didn’t have a bookstore in a 5-mile radius. My kids were ELL’s. I imagined what their life with print had been like before I met them. And I realized that our crummy, mandated curriculum was, for the most part, the only type of “literature” they had been exposed to.
The district had adopted a program that taught students how to read, and answer test questions, but it didn’t exactly teach them how to love reading. I thought of Island of the Blue Dolphins. I had fallen in love with that book when I was a little girl. I read it over and over, until the cover was falling off. The student anthology had an excerpt from that book. Three chapters! How do you fall in love with a book in three chapters?
Then I remembered Charlotte’s Web. My single earliest memory of a book my ma read to me. I remember the lump forming in my throat, when Charlotte was asking Wilbur to take care of her egg sac . . . when I realized that Charlotte was going to die. As the tears welled up in my eyes, they were welling up in my ma’s, as well, and I saw the power that the written word could have on people. The stories they were reading, from the scripted curriculum, had no heart. Who could love reading empty, dull books?
I wasn’t enjoying these prescribed texts with my students, and neither were they, because they were pretty lame. Like throwing water on a campfire, their curiosity and excitement for reading had been extinguished, or possibly never lit. I would have to strategically light their fire.
I scrapped DEAR and replaced it with read-aloud. I had a hunch that maybe if they could see how I thought about books, if I could talk about them while I read to show them how I connected, or what I thought about, maybe they would, too. With good books.
I’d have to start out with one that would really hook ‘em in. Enter Roald Dahl’s The Twits. This book is disgustingly hilarious. I read, and we laughed our heads off! Some of the boys fell out of their chairs laughing, and now I think it was fate that landed me in that bungalow on the other side of school that the principal came into, maybe twice. It gave me the freedom to experiment, and let them experience, instead of having to worry that someone would come in to stop all the fun.
Laughter is one of the surest ways to ignite the fire in kids. It will help them fall in love with reading. After The Twits, I busted out Mortimer, and basically everything else by Robert Munsch. With every page, they couldn’t believe what was happening! We were in hysterics! As an added bonus, Munsch’s books are repetitive and rhythmic, so they’re great for beginning readers. They allow students to feel confident when they’re reading, instead of tense as they’re timed, once again, to see how many words they can read per minute.
Once they loved those, I took it deeper. We read Dear Mr. Henshaw, and talked about what it’s like to not have your dad around all the time. They were making real connections to literature. Then I brought out the big guns with Thank You, Mr. Falker, by Patricia Polacco, which is one of those books that is interesting and inspiring, and can teach a child so, so much. It’s about a little girl, who wants to read so badly, but couldn’t. She felt so ashamed and learned how to hide it. In fifth grade, her teacher finally discovered she has a learning disorder, and taught her to read. We cried when I read it! To this day, I still do, with every class. Good literature moves people. This book teaches so many lessons. It teaches kids about the importance of kindness, and about the importance of asking for help. It shows that some things you think you’re bad at can end up being your strength, because that book is a true story, and the little girl who couldn’t read turned out to write that very book, and be a famous author. How inspiring!
After we read that one, I started noticing some big changes. Martin (a student with a debilitating learning disability) held his head a little higher, and the other kids jumped to help him out, or compliment him on his amazing artistic ability.
This change gave me courage to cut out other bits of the schedule, to make time to read to them more than once a day. Magic was happening in our little bungalow. It wasn’t because of me, or the books, or the kids. It was the combination of the three parts: the enjoyment we took, the discussions we had, the feeling these words stirred within our souls.
I think it was the beginning of November when I started overhearing the chatter. They were making connections, and reading on the sly, and swapping books like Pokemon cards. Two months was all it took, for them to realize those “Tommy Burgers” were actually a gold mine.
And it made my soul soar.
Takeaway Tip: We love books that make us laugh and cry and think. The trick to picking a good children’s book for your child is to find books that make you feel that way, too.
Invitation: What is one of your favorite books? From your childhood, or that you love reading to your kiddo?
Melissa is the founder of Tandem Teaching and teaches in the inner-city. She blogs weekly about tips parents can implement to enhance their connection with their children and ways to bring out their children’s inherent gifts. Contact her for a private consulting session.