I love a good story, especially one that involves reading aloud and the stunning difference it makes with children. Here is a favorite story of mine, from the million-copy best selling book, The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease:
“During his ten years as principal of Boston’s Solomon Lewenberg Middle School, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and his faculty proved it. The pride of Boston’s junior high schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, Lewenberg subsequently suffered the ravages of urban decay, and by 1984, with the lowest academic record and Boston teachers calling it the “looney bin” instead of Lewenberg, the school was earmarked for closing. But first, Boston officials would give it one last chance.
The reins were handed over to O’Neill, an upbeat, first-year principal and former high school English teacher whose experience there had taught him to “sell” the pleasures and importance of reading.
The first thing he did was abolish the school’s intercom system. (“As a teacher I’d always sworn someday I’d rip the thing off the wall. Now I could do it legally.”) He then set about establishing structure, routine, and discipline. “That’s the easy part. What happens after is the important part–reading. It’s the key element in the curriculum. IBM can teach our graduates to work the machine, but we have to teach them how to read the manual.” In O’Neill’s first year, sustained silent reading (see chapter 5) was instituted for nearly four hundred pupils and faculty for the last ten minutes of the day, during which everyone in the school read for pleasure. Each teacher (and administrator) was assigned a room–much to the consternation of some who felt those last ten minutes could be better used to clean up the shop or gym. “Prove to me on paper,” O’Neill challenged them, “that you are busier than I am, and I’ll give you back the ten minutes to clean.” He had no takers.
Within a year, critics became supporters and the school was relishing the quiet time that ended the day. The books that had been started during SSR were often still being read by students filing out to buses–in stark contrast to former dismissal scenes that bordered on chaos.
The next challenge was to ensure that each sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade student not only saw an adult reading each day but also heard one. Faculty members were assigned a classroom and the school day began with ten minutes of reading aloud, to complement the silent ending at the end of the day. Soon reading aloud began to inspire awareness, and new titles sprouted during SSR. In effect, the faculty was doing what the great art schools have always done: providing life models from which to draw.
In the first year, Lewenberg’s scores were up; in the second year, not only did the scores climb but so, too, did student enrollment in response to the school’s new reputation.
Three years later, in 1988, Lewenberg’s 570 students had the highest reading scores in the city of Boston, there was a fifteen page waiting list of children who wanted to attend, and O’Neill was portrayed in Time as a viable alternative to physical force in its cover story on Joe Clark, the bullhorn- and bat-toting principal from Paterson, New Jersey.
Today, Tom O’Neill is retired, but the ripple effect of his work has reached shores that not even his great optimism would have anticipated. In the early 1990s, a junior high school civics teacher in Japan, Hiroshi Hayashi, read the Japanese edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook. Intrigued by the concept of SSR and Tom O’Neill’s example, he immediately decided to apply it to his own school. (Contrary to what most Americans believe, not all Japanese public school students are single-minded overachievers, and many are rebellious or reluctant readers–if they are readers at all.) Although SSR was a foreign concept to Japanese secondary education, Hayashi saw quick results in his junior high school with just ten minutes at the start of the morning. Unwilling to keep his enthusiasm to himself, he spent the next two years sending forty thousand handwritten postcards to administrators in Japanese public schools, urging them to visit his school and adopt the concept. His personal crusade has won accolades from even faculty skeptics: By 2006, more than 3,500 Japanese schools were using SSR to begin their day.”
Used by permission of the author, Jim Trelease, 2013, The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin)
These are the stories that make me continue to read aloud to children. It is THE single most important thing I do in my classroom. Children love it, read on their own throughout the day, and excel in school. Not only am I growing readers, I’m opening the door to the world for them. And, they jump in with both feet.