As a high school English teacher taking part in a literacy class for teachers in grades three to five this year, I have gained a new perspective on “children’s literature.” Since September, I have faithfully journeyed to a nearby elementary school to join in on a class about “Guided Readers & Writers.” At first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to give up two hours twice a month to learn about how third through fifth graders learn to read and write better. Years of professional development classes that didn’t live up to the brochures’ promises have left me a little jaded.
I have to say, that is not the case with this class.
As a mother of a three year old and 11 month old, most nights are spent reading Good Night, Cape Cod or In a People House. When finished, usually a book like Night or Of Mice and Men takes up the rest of my reading time. On the off-chance that I do steal a few minutes with something on my reading list, such as Mary Karr’s latest memoir, Lit, I usually fall asleep within a few pages. Such is the life of a mother of young children. So, the thought of adding third to fifth grade books and a couple of thick textbooks to my list was hard to manage.
I’m so glad that I didn’t have a choice. It would have been easy to prioritize children, correcting papers or even sleep above attending an intermediate level literacy class. But, instead I read the chapters, listen to the instructor and interact with deeply committed colleagues whose purpose is to spark young readers into interacting thoughtfully and meaningfully with literature.
And, it makes me a much better high school English teacher.
I’m learning about how to facilitate a child or young adult’s ability to gain meaning from text, connect it to his or her life and use that information to think about something in a new way. I’m learning how to hold back from giving answers, looking for specific “important” facts to point out and from generally “running” my class for my students. Instead, slowly, I am learning to provide a general overview of a mini-lesson—something that all good readers or writers do—then handing over the reins to the students and letting them find the meaning in what they are reading and writing. We have practiced bits and pieces of it throughout the year, but I hadn’t jumped in fully until now.
My fourteen to seventeen year olds are starting with a Children’s Literature unit. How fitting. They picked it…and we are running with it. Picture teenagers enraptured by Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth or discreetly wiping away a tear at the end of The Wall by Eve Bunting. They are developing a list of “What good children’s literature authors do.”
So far, here are a few examples:
- Use suspense and excitement to keep interest
- Have illustrations match the tone and meaning of the text
- Teach empathy and how to see something from another person’s point of view
- Weave in descriptive language, alliteration, rhyming and repetition to help a young child “read” the story
- Talk about emotions in a way that help a kid feel safe and appreciated
- Build confidence and value others’ differences
- Teach how to share and build community through giving
Hmmm…I had hoped they would come up with some of these, but I didn’t need to push, “lead,” or prompt. The students found these meanings, techniques and purposes on their own. Twenty-four for of them. And now, they are excited to write their own children’s literature. They’ve scoured mentor texts, are deciding what age group they want to write for (Mrs. Bundschuh, you know, writing for a three year old is different than a six year old…), and if they are going to illustrate it themselves or try to find someone that can capture their vision.
I hadn’t planned on doing this unit next. We had just finished up a poetry unit where students read famous poems from people around the world, learned how to analyze and find meaning in poems and wrote a series of poems in different forms, from the haiku to the sestina. Most of the students loved this because instead of having me teach “how to read a poem” each day, we read and discussed poems and wrote and discussed our own, too.
It was like a Creative Writing class in college with each student bringing his or her work to the table, presenting it and listening to others’ reactions. It deepened our sense of community and vulnerability. It allowed each person to have writing of value. They were hooked and begged to continue writing, so we had a discussion about different types of writing: screenwriting, journalism, playwriting and children’s literature. They narrowed it down to playwriting and children’s literature, took a vote and children’s literature won.
If left to me, I probably would have moved us along to the next book. Something great like Black Like Me or The Wave. But I used what I have been learning, and realized that the students would learn so much more from something they chose, from ideas that they talked about and realized for themselves and that these “important” facts about how to read and write would last many years after the class finishes in June.
I can’t wait to see what they produce. They’re excited, too. Kind of like the fresh enthusiasm and excitement that a first grader feels when she reads a book to her parent. Except, these are supposed to be apathetic high schoolers that hate to read and don’t want to write anything but text messages and Facebook status updates.
I smile each time I tell them that we have to end because it’s lunch time. They whine and complain that class isn’t long enough.