My very first day of teaching preschool in Massachusetts, thirty-two years ago, was both career and life altering. Lindy, my co-teacher, asked me to read the picture books to children each day after our Morning Meeting. Sure (gulp)! I was new, scared, and unfamiliar with many children’s books. I had not been read to as a child, except for The Five Chinese Brothers from my grandmother. I still remember the page that opens sideways, with the brother who could stretch his legs. One book, and to this day I remember it vividly.
The book I read to the children on that first day of school was Swimmy, by Leo Lionni. It was magical for me, and for the children. The story line, the art, the engineering, the words… it was a taste of something I knew I had to have. And, I couldn’t get enough.
The next few decades I consumed children’s books. I realized that the more I read aloud, the more the children wanted to hear stories and be read to. I displayed books in my classroom front-facing, so children were drawn to picking up and ‘reading’ the books. In this way, the children wanted to handle, hold, and turn the pages of books. This was a big deal! It was true hands-on learning, with exploding questions and interest. I was the yeast in the dough, or perhaps the books were the yeast. Oh, our Morning Meetings grew. We had to include a children’s dictionary on the bookshelf so we could look up words that were new. That was fun!
By this time I had become picky about good books. Whenever I read a good book, it sparked so many questions and conversations, that sometimes it took ‘forever’ to get through the book. The first time I read Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky, it took forty minutes to finish reading the book. I started with the inside cover, a picture of the courtyard, and simply asked questions; “Where is this?” “Does this look like Massachusetts?” “What is different?”
Reading picture books triggered big discussions. I often stopped to ask questions. Sometimes I would simply say, “Oh, dear…” in mid-sentence and let the children grab onto that rope. Yes, I was throwing out a lifeline, a learning line, and it worked. It was exciting, always engaging.
Before long, I started reading chapter books before rest time. This was unconventional for preschoolers, yet it felt right because children were on their nap mats and needed to hear stories without seeing pictures. I started with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and have never looked back. The first thing children learned was ‘you make the pictures in your head’. This is thrilling, because we now have non-stop reading and multiple discussions, without pictures. Thirty minutes of pretty intense reading-aloud. My chapter books include the best of the best.
My teaching had become language based and child centered. Often there were ‘moments’, things that happened because we were reading all the time. Reading had spilled over into my curriculum. The day we had set up a restaurant in housekeeping, children were ‘reading’ menus and ‘writing’ orders on clipboards. I was spelling out the words to one child and listening to questions about the menu from another child. I doubt these moments would have happened had I not read so often in the classroom.
I wanted to tell families what happened, about moments of learning, and of course about reading-aloud. So, I started to write more information in my newsletters, and include details. I wrote, and I wrote, sharing small moments and relating those moments to the big picture in education.
I attended a teacher seminar, and Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, was the keynote speaker. As he spoke I wanted to jump up and rush over to the hundreds of teachers in the room, screaming, “Are you listening to this man?” “Do you realize how important his message is?” Instead I wrote him a letter and included one of my newsletters to families that spoke about the importance of reading-aloud. That sparked his interest in my chapter reading, and he visited my classroom to watch. I’m included in the latest version of his million copy bestselling book.
My public library asked me to direct a library reading group for second and third graders. This was another new adventure in reading. I read The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, among many wonderful books. Again, these were new books to me, and I loved it. This past summer I embraced YA books, thanks to reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I read every Kate DiCamillo book I could lay my hands on. Every one.
My reading and reading-aloud continues to grow. Thank you Read-Aloud West Virginia for getting the message of how important reading is to the public. We are making a difference.