Language, Literacy, and Storytelling – Part 5 – The Conclusion

In Part 4, I shared my storytelling at school.  In the bathroom I use rhyming words and tell make-believe stories.  I incorporate children’s names into the story.  I add complex vocabulary words.  At lunchtime, I tell Jennie Stories, true stories of my childhood.  I shared the incredible fact that the one-and-only common denominator among National Merit Scholars is having dinner with their families at least four times a week.

The power of story and words cannot be overstated.

Part 5 – The Conclusion
Words, stories, language, reading. storytelling… they all work together to give children the best start – cognitively and emotionally.  Both are equally important.  And John Phillips, the founder of Phillips Exeter Academy in 1781, said it best:

“Goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and both united form the noblest character and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”

I have two stories to tell you.  One highlights the goodness, which can only come from emotional development.  The second highlights the knowledge, which can only come from cognitive development.  Both stories are founded in words, language, storytelling, and reading.

Story One:
I am reading the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web.  Charlotte died when we read aloud at chapter reading last week.  The children were sad and had many questions.  That happens every year.  Today at chapter reading, the spiders in Charlotte’s egg sac hatched.  Baby spiders were everywhere.  Wilbur was thrilled.  And then… the spiders, the aeronauts, sailed away in the warm wind.  Wilbur was frantic, as these baby spiders, Charlotte’s babies, were his whole life.

I was reading with passion, as I always do.  Wilbur was losing everything.  Everything. Did I have a worry in my voice?  You bet I did.  Did I read with a steady calm?  I did not!  Because, I need to make the words come alive.  That’s how I help children understand and develop goodness and heart.

And then I looked over at Mia.  She had the quivering lip, the tears in her eyes.  She didn’t want to cry.  Well, crying is a good thing.  I put the book down.

Me: “Mia, are you sad?”
She shook her head.  She couldn’t say any words.
Me: “I feel so sad.  Do you need a hug?”
Mia couldn’t jump up fast enough to get a hug.  And it was a long hug.  Yes, we both cried.  Tears are a good thing.

Then the floodgates opened.  Every child felt the same way.  Every child needed a big hug.  Words weren’t necessary.  E.B. White had already provided those words.

Story Two:
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.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty-five years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I was a live guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I am highlighted in the seventh edition of Jim Trelease's million-copy bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
This entry was posted in books, chapter reading, children's books, Death and dying, E.B. White, Early Education, Expressing words and feelings, Inspiration, Jim Trelease, Kindness, reading, reading aloud, reading aloud, storytelling, wonder and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Language, Literacy, and Storytelling – Part 5 – The Conclusion

  1. As an author, I can’t help but applaud the works of Tom O’Neill and you, Jennie. Well done.

  2. I love that others are waking up to how important this is. I told you earlier that I read to my children and as they started reading, we read to each other until the day came the teachers were calling me in because they were growing books in their desks. They could stop reading. 🙂 They still read voraciously. So do I. Great story here.

    • Jennie says:

      You did this all along with reading, Marlene. And the teachers called you. You are a wonder and a role model. I just need to clone you for all parents. Really. They’re so busy and their children are so over scheduled, that they can’t stop and see the forest for the trees. Well, they even have a hard time seeing the trees. Sad. Thank you for reading, and for your ever-wonderful and very insightful comments. You’re the best!

  3. I still love being read aloud to after my grandma passed on. And I love to read aloud too. I can’t remember if I told this story or not, but I always loved to read aloud to my children when they were going to bed. One night it was after the children were supposedly off to dreamland and I thought sure I heard my daughter reading. Now she DID learn to read honestly at two years old – at least some words. But I heard her reading one of her children’s stories. I went into her room and asked her which book she was reading. She showed me one of her little Golden Books and then asked me if I would love to hear a story. I said yes enthusiastically, so she sat up and we looked at the book together as she read. She read it word for word to me. She had actually memorized the whole story, and was so proud to be reading it to me.

    So yes, it is wonderful to read aloud to the children. Do you have a spare tissue? I think I need one! Good for you and good for Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. too. What a wonderful heart-warming read. I wish I had someone to read aloud to me today! I truly miss it.

  4. Ritu says:

    Oh I just love the reaction you got to the ending of Charlotte’s Web 😍

  5. Opher says:

    Hugs and stories!

  6. Mia sounds lovely! Hugs and tears are important.

  7. I used to tell stories to the monsters in my closet at night — hoping to convince them not to eat me when I was little and probably tasted yummier. Probably another reason I write Horror today…

  8. beetleypete says:

    Two more great stories, Jennie. But you have yet to ever tell us a bad one! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

  9. As always wonderful work. I am once again fascinated about your way teaching the youngsters. Happy Halloween and best wishes, Michael.

  10. Darlene says:

    Both great stories exemplifying the importance of reading out loud! And letting children know it is OK to cry is wonderful. There are so many messed up adults who were not allowed to show emotion as children.

  11. Luanne says:

    Your blog posts tend to get me all revved up and this was no exception! The ending of CW is so special to me with the new lives of (I think it is) Aranea, Nellie, and Joy just beginning! That quote about knowledge and goodness I also love!

  12. I love your stories! Reading aloud and in person is so important! 🙂

    (And I think, at the start of your story, you meant to say ‘classroom’ instead of ‘bathroom.’)

  13. Dan Antion says:

    In addition to all the benefits you mention, reading aloud is a great way to get to know people. I can imagine a child feeling anxious about being sad – maybe I’m too sad – maybe I should be more grown-up about this – only to see that you were also sad and realize that it’s OK. I think that happens between parents and children. I remember a story that I didn’t like to read, because I thought it was scary. Our daughter didn’t seem scared, but I think it meant something for her to see that it’s OK to avoid something if it makes you uncomfortable.

  14. I agree with every word- I believe reading makes the difference in every subject -and emotionally as well. Godspeed my friend!

  15. sjhigbee says:

    Another fabulous post about the core of what we should be doing in the classroom, Jennie – inspiring and firing up children’s imaginations. Helping them fall in love with literacy and regarding books as their friends…

  16. Pingback: Spidey’s Serene Sunday – Part 194 | But I Smile Anyway...

  17. dgkaye says:

    You are certainly opening a huge door for these children Jennie. I had tears feeling little Mia’s emotion. ❤

  18. A lovely post, Jennie. Reading is definitely the heart of everything we do in life.

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