On beginning readers as well as lifelong ones…

I was blessed to have grown up in a household of books and I am sure my mother read to me from the womb. While I cannot remember the first time or first times I was read to as a child, I can remember the moment that I learned to read independently. That moment was life-changing for me- unforgettable.
I was five or six years old, half way through kindergarten, and at the time, we were on vacation at my grandparents house. I was alone in the upstairs bedroom passing the time, and for whatever reason, I had a book that I was looking at- which in one moment I wasn’t reading for message and content- and in the next moment, I was. It was like I went from darkness to light. I still remember running downstairs to tell my family that I could read. Still remember the excitement and pride and absolute wonder at it all.

Today, my kindergarten students got their very first guided reading books to take home with them for homework. I brought the books out and told them what we were going to do- that we were going to read some books together- with them reading alongside me independently. And one Little Guy piped up, “But I can’t read yet!” I assured him that he most certainly could, and that they had been reading for quite some time (that is, reading our morning message, sight words, word work, letters, words in Big Books, environmental print, etc.). But I got what he was saying. This time, it was different. They had an actual book in hand and it was their job to do the reading- not mine. We got started and within minutes, the students were noticing words and letters and pictures…and low and behold: they were reading!

They were READING.

We read the book through three times together on our classroom rug, and they read it on their own twice. And the pride that we all felt was palpable. I could hardly contain it myself! Thankfully, a colleague dropped by to relieve one of the educational assistants for a break, and I was able to nab her and share with her this most transformative of moments. I was bouncing, I was so excited.
I can only imagine those students tonight as they read to their moms and dads and significant others in their lives- reading school books out loud for the very first time. To me, it is a milestone up there with walking and talking. I would like to think today is the first day of the rest of their lives spent as lifelong readers. I hope that they always find joy in reading- joy as I saw on their faces today.

It never fails to move me to watch a child read for the very first time.

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I’ll Love You Forever…

Little voices, tiny hands.  Baby hair still wisps, framing round faces.  Wide-eyed.  They move, and squirm, roll and tumble.  And I try to quiet them, but they are alive with energy.  Full of life.

We read on the blue rug, I’ll Love You Forever.  As I begin to form words on the tongue, I can feel the tears welling behind the wall I’ve built.  My game face.  Trying to be strong for everyone.  Not wanting to let emotions show.  Making this about them, not me.

Their sing-songy lilt joins mine with the refrain, I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, My baby you’ll be.  I focus on the words- the pictures, as I read.   Remembering those infant days twelve short years ago when I thought I would never again be able to do another thing but sit and hold an infant.  When I took walks up and down the river-road, trying to console that colicky baby-boy.  Holding him tightly, fearing the worst.  Bundling, swaddling, comforting, adoring.   And I remember.  Those crazy days led on.  To crazy days with two.  And how much more mischief can two get into.   Both into cupboards pouring out boxes of cereal on the floor, smearing Vaseline all over the couch.  Baby voices then, calling me, hugging me, wanting me.  Oh, the tender joy to hold chubby, little hands.  And yet, there were times.  I wanted to put them in the zoo.  I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, My baby you’ll be.

I remember still.  The days are not so long and far removed from now. When there were three- and four.  Could a heart hold that much love?  Days of highs and lows, of joys and sorrows.  Days when they walked through the house as if they owned it, full of spitfire and gumption.  Of battles over clothing, movies, free time, chores.  Sibling rivalries.  Of embarrassing parents who like to tell stories.  Of wanting to be close, but pushing away. These days of feeling like I am in the zoo.  Of sulky stares and stolen hugs.  Those days are now.  And yet.  This I know for sure.  I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, My baby you’ll be.

And some nights, when they are really asleep, I tip-toe into their rooms and I touch their cheeks with a mother’s kiss.  Tucking the blankets around their slumbering bodies.  Holding them close in my heart. And I know then, as I know always.  That I will love them forever.

As long as I’m living, my babies they’ll be.

Teachers are people too…and other misconceptions

Driving down a street in Summerside, P.E.I. today, I realized that the way you drive says a lot about who you are and what you do.  For instance, I was idling behind a vehicle driven by a woman who I could just tell was a teacher.  We were both lined up at a crosswalk, and there was a little girl waiting to cross the road with her bike.  And this little biker-lady was not budging.  While she stood there holding up traffic, precious seconds and minutes ticking by on the clock, I began to imagine what all those drivers waiting for her to make a move secretly were wondering.   Were they, like me, wondering what was taking her so long to just ‘cross the road, already’!?  It almost became a game.  Would she stay?  Would she go?  Would she bolt into oncoming traffic?

So the ‘teacher’ in front of me did what any proper teacher would do.  She laid on the horn.  Essentially saying this, “Listen Susie, I haven’t got all day, and if you’re not going to move,… why then I’m going to give you a little motivational pep talk in the form of my blaring horn.”

She was a true teacher.  And I know so because she used a manipulative in the form of her horn to teach little Susie what happens when little girls wait too long to cross the street: they get to hear what is (hopefully not) their swan song.

People don’t really understand teachers.  I think the public vacillate between thinking teachers have the patience of Job and the evil heart of the Grinch.  A little truth in both of those inferences.  Teachers, at the end of the day, are essentially just people.  When you catch us on a good day, which I hope is by far the norm, I think one would find that teachers do have an extraordinary measure of patience.  Even the horn-blowing gal of which I referred to already.  I truly think she was just experiencing the Friday Fun-day jitters.  That is, the nervy feeling teachers get just before ‘end of day routines’  and bus arrivals on Friday afternoons.

You’ve got to have taught at least one full week to know what I’m talking about.

But you have to have patience- it is part of the job requirements.  One poor fellow teacher told me today at a workshop that he asked for a transfer out of Grade 2 after having put twenty-eight snowsuits on little bodies all one winter.  He was winded just bringing back the memory of those days spent in the early elementary setting, eyes glazing over with thoughts of all that jumble of winter attire.

And I just love hearing what kids think about our after-school hour activities.  One of my students happened to meet up at the grocery store with an EA who works in my classroom.  As she realized that Ms. So-and-So was shopping for groceries, the look of utter surprise that come over her face was enough to peel an onion back.  “You shop here!!” she cried.

No, darlin’.  She sleeps inside my top drawer, waking only when I drop by on the weekends to see if she needs any more granola bars.

I love how kids will tell you anything.  A.N.Y.T.H.I.N.G    So, you have all been duly warned.  One mother told me that she once wrote a note to her child’s Grade 1 teacher and premised it with this thought: “Please note: the thoughts and ideas that this child will discuss with you, may or may not be representative of what truly goes on at home.”   Point well taken.   One of my students once told me that her father was unable to read, causing me to feel a great deal of empathy for both her and her family.  Along with a great deal of admiration for the father for admitting this fact to his five-year old daughter.  Come to find out, she had actually gotten this fact quite wrong.  About three weeks later, out of the blue she says to me, “Oh yeah, Mrs. Gard.  My Dad actually DOES know how to read.”

Teaching is a demanding profession, requiring an unusual bladder capacity in most potential candidates, seeing as we have to hold it for rather long periods of time.  Particularly on duty days.  But I wouldn’t trade it for another career.  Teaching children to learn and discover the world around them is a true joy.   And I am privileged to be one of these lucky ones.

The Joy of Light Bulb Moments…

If anyone had told me three years ago I would be teaching kindergarten, I would have politely laughed at them.  If anyone had told me three years ago I would be teaching kindergarten, and one of my students would be my charming little M.A., I would have (politely) laughed at them and then high-tailed it for the next bus out of town.  If anyone had told me I would be teaching kindergarten, and one of those students would be my daughter, and then added to that last part that I would love being that special Mrs. “What’s Your Name Again?” to two consecutive sweet classes of the cutest little kindergartners this side of the South Pole, I know I would have looked that person in the eye and said, “Sign me up, pup.”

You know you’re a true kindergarten teacher when you can make rhymes fit on the end of any ordinary statement.  And that’s the truth, Ruth.

I am reading a Robert Munsch book to my students after quiet time is over.   Complete with dramatic actions, over-exaggerated emphasis and lots of expression.  And I realize (for not the first time, but still…) that one of my callings in life is in drawing out passion and interest and understanding in people and allowing those individual life lights- the joy that dwells within each and everyone with whom we come in contact- to shine with radiance.  Even little people have the ability to shine their inner light brightly.  I love watching little faces and listening to their laughter as I read an especially funny part, or watching them interact with a book with the wide range of emotions that even an infant is capable of conveying.  (We all love a good book- and Robert Munsch has been read in our family from Day 1.)

Those we call light bulb moments.   When an idea is connected with understanding.   Or when empathy is evidenced in a relationship.   When unlikely, new friendships are formed, when impossible relationships are grown deeper, woven more tightly together.  When the miracle of life is seen in a new-born and one realizes again and again that a heart is always big enough for more love. Always.

Light bulb moments happen.

My students have light bulb moments all the time.  Today, most of them properly read something for the first time ever.  EVER.   And this is what they read to each other:  they read their name.   They read their name out loud, as they tracked the letters and sounds with their tiny baby fingers.  They read THEIR NAME.    Yet another milestone in the life of a child.   Light Bulbs flashing everywhere!    I felt like I was going to bubble over with joy as I watched them reading, witnessing a significant first in their four and five-year old lives.

It is CUTTING-EDGE to witness a child reading for the first time.  Right up there with the Seven Wonders of the world.  I felt like I had watched Moses part the waters.  It was THAT EXCITING.   But that was not all.  Other light bulbs were flashing on.  I watched a cute little lady befriend a beautiful little girl in her class with special needs, and I saw it.  The light bulbs turning on.  When children realize that in spite of our differences, on the inside we are all the same, it is not just a light bulb that goes on.  Fireworks happen.

I made a new friend today too.  An unlikely friendship.  And it was largely due to my effort in plugging away at being plain-old friendly.  I also realized something else.  Even old friends sometimes need a little extra understanding and TLC.  Be kind to your friends.  And even though it is a worthy reason to do so because “you never know when you might need a friend,” do it just because.  And let that be enough.  And when the favour is returned your way, take it as a blessing, not a right.

My light bulb moments for the day.

Joy in the School Library…

Library day for Kindergarten A.  I, for one, am stoked.  Library day is every third Monday, and it is a twenty minute interlude from the hectic pace of life in the zoo. It is the gift that keeps on giving.  When library day comes, we all get to escape the confines of the classroom, head down the hall, single file- touching the wall as we go so that stragglers do not get side-tracked or lost in the corridors, then walk (no running! for goodness sake) directly towards the two sets of stairs that lead ever upwards to that greatest of rooms.  The Library.  Or as we say in Kindergarten, the Lie-berry.

I love the library.  And not just for its very special purpose of allowing teachers and students an escape (literally and figuratively).  The library is a place where dreams come alive and connections are made.  At least it is suppose to be that way in all the workshops on literacy and texts teachers read on the same.  The library experience opens doors and windows- allows students choice of text and freedom to take risks.  It helps students become independent readers.  It provides an opportunity for readers to discover books they might never stumble upon otherwise.  It is one of the most underrated time blocks in our schedule, but to all those who think it a waste I say this: What’s not to love?

Today, we are not allowed to check out books.  This is a bummer, but I am creatively (yet somewhat desperately) trying to figure out a way to extend our time block, as normally it takes twenty minutes to find everyone a book, re-shelve the dozens of books that everyone thought they wanted but now look too boring, then take the books that make it onto the interesting list and in turn, get these latter books checked out for home by Ms. O.  That’s Ms. Olscamp, our coolest of cool, school librarian.

Ms. O reads us a book after check-in and check-outs are over.  Today she is reading a very funny book that I selected from our classroom collection of ocean-life books, about a giant squid.  Everyone laughs hysterically at the little squid who thinks he is the biggest fish in the ocean.  I am wondering exactly how long is this book?  And who thought of such a ridiculous story line?  But it works, and the children are engaged.

After the story is over, Ms. O suggests that everyone take notice of her very colourful book display to promote summer reading, behind which she has carefully (perhaps painstakingly?) cut out and pasted the following slogan: Dive into Reading.  On it, there is a cut-out of very enthusiastic diver propelling himself into an invisible pool below the display which leaves much to the observer’s imagination.  And this folks, is exactly what reading is all about.  I am trying to get the students excited about the connotations that this display suggests and I ask them leading questions.  What do you think this means, boys and girls?  What is the diver DIVING into?  No one is really paying attention to me now that the giant squid story is over, and I make a last ditch effort to make a connection.

Who is going to read a book over the summer? I ask sweetly, thinking that Ms. O. will at the very least be encouraged by the many hands that will undoubtedly rise upwards in an affirmative to the prompt.

Instead, a little one says to me with as much swag as she can muster, “I’m NOT reading a book over the summer.”

Undeterred, I forge on.  If this is the last battle I win today, I will come out victorious.

Well then, who is going to try to make it to the library this summer to read some new books?” I say, plunging in over my head as does this little paper diver behind me on the presentation board promoting reading.  I look around pleadingly for one little hand to raise, one little voice to chime in that they will indeed be visiting our public library system even once this summer.

Nada.  Instead I get a look that insinuates I might have just grown a third head.  I must be dreaming this all up.  The two closest kindergarteners look me boldly right in the eye and then declare that the library is the last place on earth they are going to be heading in the upcoming two months of Island summer.

“I am NOT going to a library this summer.

Yeah, me neither.”

I am about to blow a gasket.  Meanwhile, the children head to line up at the door, and as I try to collect myself, I notice that the only thing the children are truly interested in right this very minute is securing a front position in our line-up: for two of them are nearly about to come to blows over who should stand first and who should follow.  I desperately try to resume decorum, and insist on the children thanking Ms. O. for her most generous spirit in allowing KA this memorable experience.

And to Ms. O, if she happens to be reading my blog tonight, I can assure you this.  When KA graces the hallowed walls of the library, know that it is for this very reason: We’re here for a good time, not a long time.  And I am sure that must be a relief.

The joy of nightly bed-time rituals…

I am cuddled in bed with my youngest.  This, after she has jumped all over the bed and I have calmed her down by rubbing cream on her hands and feet, a nightly calming ritual as much as the bedtime story we are about to read together.  Tonight’s selection, Stellaluna by Janell Cannon, is the story of a fruit bat separated from her mother after an encounter with an owl.  We have read this book before, many times.  We settle in, propped up by pillows to enjoy the read.  She listens attentively, pausing to ask questions when necessary.  I read, holding on to this quiet moment.  It is a rare treasure to sit quietly anywhere, what with our typical busy family life.

I love this time of the evening.  It is special time, alone time, just the two of us sharing an imaginary world found between two slipcovers.  We are transported to places far away and dreamy.  I wonder, as I read, where fruit bats really live.  My daughter wonders about the trees in the illustrations and why they have been drawn to look like poles instead of the leafy green towers of strength we are accustomed to here in P.E.I.

Down the hall, my two daughters are reading their chosen books.  My second youngest is waiting for a turn at the read aloud, and she comes down the hall to check on me.  “I’ll be down to read to you next,” I reassure.  My older two no longer need me to read to them, although occasionally I still do.  For old time’s sake.

The benefits of reading to children, according to all kinds of research conducted by many institutes have been found to be exponential.  We see as teachers in the school system.  Consistently, those children who have been read to or encouraged to read at home, are the ones whom meet grade level requirements and beyond.  And yet, so often reading is shoved to the back of the agenda in the after-school slate of activities.  We can find time to do most everything else, but read to ourselves and our children, it seems.  And our children are finding the same: reading is often as much of a chore as it can be a bore.

We must do better than this.  And we can!  But it takes commitment and practice.

I was talking to a friend today about my newest interest in blogging, and she made mention of my lengthy posts.  “I see how long it is, and I just have to say “sorry”, it’s too long to read!”  I realize that there are many valid reasons for why people choose to read some things and not others, and that not everyone can take the time to read a personal blog.  But it got me thinking: we live in a fast food/fast fix society, and most of the time, we are not afforded the luxury of slowing down our busy schedules enough to read anything more than a headline, synopsis or summary.  We want the bottom line, not the explanation.

In a world where life is expected to be a blur of commitments, expectations and time on task, isn’t it a wondrous pleasure to take the time to read, word for word, line by line; savouring each pleasurable description as if it were a tasty morsel, instead of just cramming it down one’s throat for the sake of sustenance?  The utter joy of reading and the ability to read and comprehend: it is a pleasure and privilege beyond comparison.

I check in on my son.  Over the past month, I had read to him some of the classic, Swiss Family Robinson,  but of late we have not had time in the evenings to do so.  He goes to bed later now, and we do not always take the time to read together.  Tonight, he is under the covers and settled in for the night with a book on dinosaurs that he got from our church library.  I ask him if he would like for me to read to him.  He is intent on his own reading and barely lifts his head.  That is to be expected of a serious reader, engrossed in another world, another time and place.  I leave him to do what I have always had as my goal: allow him the pleasure of independent reading.  Although I will not read as much to him in time, I will reap the benefits of having read to him as a child for many, many years to come.