Postcard from Planet Esme|
by Esmé Raji Codell
Planet Esmé (www.planetesme.com)
Bridging the Gap Between School and Home
Using Children's Literature
How am I supposed to be involved in my kid's education if I work full time?
What should my child read next?
What can I do to help my child do well on reading achievement tests?
These were just a few of the questions I heard from parents when I was researching my book How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, and a few that I am sure ring familiar from your report card pick-up meetings! Teachers and parents have a common bond: they want the best for the children. Unfortunately, another common bond that teachers and parents have is too many demands, too many daily duties that bog down schedules and create stress. Children's literature can be a bridge over that troubled water.
The concern about grades and achievement on standardized tests masks the frustration along with the real and genuine desire on the part of both teachers and families that reading become not just a skill, but a lifestyle and a lifelong joy. I wrote How to Get Your Child to Love Reading with the hopes that we could use children's literature to change shared blame over education into shared responsibility. I hope that any teacher's job will be made easier by sharing this book with a parent, because that parent will be empowered to make their house a book house, using the resources that are already available to them! Meanwhile, here are a few small touches and traditions that you can add to your classroom culture that will allow for many positive exchanges throughout the year. I hope these ideas can support the daily read-aloud and exposure to print that research proves makes literacy dreams come true, and help your students read the message clearly that school and home are not that different: they are both places where reading happens!
Add flashlights to the school supply list.
Let the children bring pillows and have SSR in the dark classroom with their flashlights as a special treat. Fun, of course, but it will also condition them to think of the flashlight as a reading tool. Then you can instigate "Flashlight Fridays," when children can bring the flashlights home and read under the covers for an extra half hour as part of their homework. Reading with this gimmick becomes painless and popular during those tricky intermediate years, when time actually spent reading drops precipitously, and, not surprisingly, so does reading achievement. The eyebrows that this special supply request may raise is also a chance for you to raise this point with parents, who will probably be glad to let their kids stay up once the benefits are realized. And no, there is no research that suggests reading by flashlight harms vision…as long as there are batteries installed, of course! If your population cannot afford flashlights and batteries, hardware and home improvement stores may be willing to donate.
Change the way reading is rewarded.
Many big businesses offer reading incentive programs that are well-organized and seemingly generous, offering things like free pizzas and passes to amusement parks when children have read a certain amount. No wonder so many schools participate. However, consider that there is something vaguely insidious about such promotions. After all, do we reward every ten pizzas eaten with a free book? Besides the confusing mixed message that we send children by linking the potentially pleasurable act of reading with corporate branding, oftentimes it is a strain on families to actually redeem these rewards. What family is going to go get a personal pan pizza for one child, and not the whole family? The reward has actually pressured the family to patronize a restaurant in order to reward reading, which seems kind of odd. Another example: the child does not generally earn a family pass to an amusement park, he earns his own ticket, but of course, the child cannot drive himself there and supervise himself, so the parent gets to buy an adult-priced ticket, too, along with tickets for all the younger siblings and perhaps a friend or two who may not have participated in the promotion. After admission, a few hot-dogs and a tank of gas, the free pass may have actually cost well over a hundred dollars. Which is fine, if you've got it. But wouldn't it have been nicer to choose the reward, instead of having the reward choose you?
Many parents are unaware of how much these promotions may really end up costing them, and once they know, they may be very willing to make a small donation towards creating a reward that the whole class can enjoy. Then, you can set your own reading goals and modify them to fit the individual needs and reward schedule of your class. What child wouldn't look forward to an end-of-the year book-themed masquerade? The class pet that you were planning on getting anyway is extra coveted when it's thought of as a class reward. A field trip that even Miss Frizzle's class would envy (such as to a ballgame, bowling alley, a candy factory, a favorite museum) is another way to tell a whole class "congratulations for meeting your reading goals." Or keep within the spirit of literacy with a trip to the bookstore to choose their own books or books for your classroom library, or how about a visit from a real live local author (visit regional chapters of www.scbwi.org for contact information)? Such proposals may be considered by your PTA.
Individual reading achievements can be inexpensively rewarded with coupons that need to be signed by both teacher and parent to be redeemed: homework-free nights, an extra hour up past bedtime to be spent reading, a favorite breakfast, a chance to borrow a valuable pop-up book from the teacher's own collection. These kinds of coupons are also helpful for keeping children with low interest or ability engaged, because they reward smaller steps toward the goal. Let parents know that they can also send letters to their children c/o the school to help encourage their children to keep reading. A note that says "I'm proud that we finished that chapter book together" delivered to the classroom is worth its weight in pizza. Be sure to check out www.BookAdventure.com, a very useful and exciting site that allows teachers and families to create their own reading incentive programs based on the individual needs of the child, with progress tracking available for both teachers and parents. Families may prove more invested in the reading if they are more personally invested in the rewards,
Create a Paper Trail from Home to School and Back Again
With weekly homework sheets, you can also send home a week's worth of plain labels that you have decorated (literature-based rubberstamps available at www.kidstamps.com) and the words "last night we read…" Children can wear the label on their clothes with the title and author for easy conversation pieces between them, and also a quick way for you to check that the most important assignment of all, read-aloud, occurred the night before. By making these stickers an expected part of the wardrobe, you are communicating to parents that we are starting every day as readers, and children are never fully dressed for school without that bit of time and support from home! A variation on this with older children is a sticker that reads "last night I read with," and they need to collect the autograph of the younger child who they read aloud to!
When I worked as a school librarian, I liked to run off little sheets that said "Today we read (__title__) by (__author__) and I really liked it!" If a student really liked what we read that day, they could take the flyer home to share with parents. Many parents came to me expressing that this little bit of communication was very helpful to learning about their child's taste, and that they were more willing to invest in books when they knew it was a title that they knew their child already really enjoyed and wanted.
Many parents would love to come and visit or volunteer in your class, but aren't sure what exactly they could do. Some parents are intimidated, upbringing or culture discouraging them from interfering in the classroom business. Some teachers don't like it either, because thinking of tasks that a parent can do can take more time and energy than just doing it! Asking that every parent come in at least once to be a guest reader in your class is a way of putting out a welcome mat and meaning it. Let them sign up for a date to read at open house! Parents can read books that were their favorites when they were kids, or look at the section "Your Job" in How to Get Your Child to Love Reading for over thirty suggestions for books that go with everyday occupations. If parents are not native English speakers, there are tons of books that are written in other languages (visit www.asiaforkids.com and www.bilingualbooks.com for a sampling), and they can read the book in their native language and have it translated thanks to a little teamwork from their own child. Some books have the English translation right there on the page, an example being Moon Rope/Un Lazo a la Luna by Lois Ehlert. If parents work, then grandparents, aunts and uncles, even older siblings and family friends can make an appearance. Where there's a will there's a way for everyone to participate in classroom read-alouds, and the children are usually very proud and excited to have a family member in the spotlight.
Some schools have systems where kids can phone in to receive a recording of their homework assignments. Use the same messaging system to let kids phone in for a cliffhanging chapter in a serial read by you, the principal, custodian or lunch personnel. A comprehension question can be asked over the school intercom the next morning to see who listened in! This whole-school literacy boost costs as much as a local phone call!
Another good way to use the phone is to have "phone buddies," in which older students can get service points by either reading a younger student a bedtime story over the phone or listening to a child read to them at a reasonable set time, for a reasonable set time. It is helpful, but not necessary, if each "buddy" can have a copy of the same book. This creates school community across the grades, a break for parents and what kid doesn't like getting a phone call?
Parents don't mind getting a phone call, too, especially when it's not about a problem. A friendly three-minute call just to say hi and let a parent know what a good listener Johnny was during storytime, or how Janey read aloud to the class today, is greatly appreciated and helps to promote the household harmony that ultimately helps children concentrate on what they need to succeed. Close the conversation with parents by noting how the support from home makes all the difference, and thank the parent for reading aloud every night, as that really is the best thing they can do to help their child achieve in reading. "But of course, you know that!" (Well, if they didn't, they do now.)
Start a birthday donation tradition.
A great way to increase your class library while promoting literacy is to start a class birthday tradition! Ask parents instead of bringing cupcakes or other treats to school on a child's birthday, that they send a wrapped children's book the child can open in front of the class after a rousing round of "Happy Birthday to You." The book can then be donated to the class library with a bookplate that reads "In celebration of __(name)__'s __(age)__ birthday." Of course, the birthday person has first dibs on checking it out, but ultimately it's like the whole class gets a present! Half birthdays work for those that celebrate in the summer.
If the socioeconomic situation makes donation of books difficult, consider sending a note home with book club order forms (like the ones available through Scholastic.com) suggesting that proceeds from purchases from the forms will go towards supporting these birthday library additions. The company is very generous with bonus points and it is easy to acquire extra books to wrap and distribute on birthdays without dipping too deeply into your own pocket. With all the stresses and demanding work schedules that families have, these little personal traditions that make school more of a "home away from home" are often greatly appreciated.
Ask how many kids in your class used their library card this week. Now, how many kids used their Blockbuster video card. Wow! Obviously we are living in a society that likes its visuals! Use that to your advantage by showing weekly videos of books that have been made into movies (visit www.planetesme.com/hollywood.html for ideas) and making the books available afterward. The predictability of the story after seeing the plot played out on screen gives reluctant readers confidence, and they will rush to experience the story again in print. Invite parents and serve popcorn! Isn't it nice to get together for something so relaxed?
Book clubs are great ways of getting families to increase their reading for pleasure, but the variety of schedules that families keep can make them exclusionary to working folk. Create an on-line book club using a chatboard and parents who have to miss the meeting can still share insights and questions with the group. An inexpensive and simple chatboard host is www.boardhost.com and is also useful for posting what read-aloud was shared in class, who the next guest speaker scheduled is, and great titles you recommend.
Create homemade books.
Having parents come in to take dictation from children and then bind their stories into books is a very helpful task for those who want to volunteer. You may want to offer a special bookmaking workshop so that parents and children can see how it can be done and to empower them to make these special literary keepsakes in their own home. One of the most successful ways to teach children to read is by using their own writing; children who are struggling may actually turn a butterfly stroke when it comes to communicating their own words. Make a classroom library of titles authored and illustrated by your own, and instill a sense of tremendous pride and accomplishment in your classroom community, no matter what age your students may be. Warning: these books may end up being the most dog-eared in your collection! Over a hundred story starters available at www.planetesme.com/creative.html. Children who read more write better, and vice versa, so kill two academic birds with one stone!
Send home storytime friends.
Bring a stuffed animal to school to be your classroom's reading mascot, and send it home nightly with a disposable camera (good thing to put on your teacher wish list anyway!) and a journal. Families can take a picture reading with the toy and then date and sign a single page in the journal with the title and author of the book they are reading. When you get the photos developed, you will have some scrapbook to show at report card pick-up, a family album that brings all your classroom families together as one community of readers! A wide variety of literature based stuffed friends is available at www.merryhearts.com.
Host monthly "open mike" poetry readings.
Get out that old "Mr. Microphone" from the cellar and dust it off and make a regular party out of children sharing the best that language has to offer: poetry! Hints for great sources for rhyme schemes at www.planetesme.com/poetry.com.
Some other great books for the school/home arsenal are The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (how'd you know I'd say that?), Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight by Jennie Nash and Mem Fox's Reading Magic. But the most affecting resource of all is the great example you set every day by the wonderful things you do to connect children and books. By reaching out and creating an expectation of literacy, you don't only communicate with the parents, you communicate with the parents your students may someday become. There are things you will do this year that the children will hold in their hearts until the day their own children come to them and say, "Read to me!"
And then they will remember, somewhere inside, that someone did it for them. And they will turn the page.
Happy Reading Always and have a great year!
Esme Raji Codell
Site Director, PlanetEsme.com
Also of Interest:
What Did You Do Over Summer Vacation?
Check out prize-winning essays at
http://www.hippiehotel.com/house.html, website of author Rosemary Graham, author of the hilarious new novel My Not So Terrible Time at the Hippie Hotel!
Plan for a Special Year!
A new on-line teacher's guide is up for Sahara Special at
Cart in Some Books!
"Everyone, including employers, needs to take responsibility and become actively involved in the education of our young people." This was the mission that inspired Judy Koch Buchanan, a former teacher who inherited a manufacturing company, and decided to support her worker's efforts by creating a lending "book bag" library in the factory. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that she has formed an amazing foundation to promote family literacy using this model. Please check it out at http://www.bringmeabook.org! Teacher videos are also available!
For a printable version of this article click here.
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