Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Lesson from Bad Kitty and a Think Sheet

It was one of those moments that moms dread.  I was waiting blissfully ignorant outside my son's classroom door.  It was Friday, a minimum day, and the sun was shining.  It seemed like a perfect day.  Perfect, that is, until his teacher appeared at the door and, as she said goodbye to each student, made eye contact with me and beckoned me with her finger.  One look at my son's face, all thoughts of perfection quickly vanished.

As it turned out, it really wasn't that big of a deal, not to me at any rate.  Jack had received a "think sheet" because he had been talking during Read to Self time.  His teacher informed me that she had given multiple warnings to the class that there was to be no talking, but Jack continued.  I expressed surprise.  Jack loves to read, and as I told his teacher, when he's reading it is very hard to get his attention.  I asked if he had been free to get up and move, and she assured me that he was, that he had chosen to remain where he was.

For Jack, though, getting a think sheet was akin to the end of the world.  Any corrective action is interpreted as "everyone hates me."  There is no talking to him when he gets in one of these moods.  As we walked across the playground, he put his head down and tearfully refused to discuss the situation with me.  All I wanted to do was assure him that I wasn't upset with him.  I told him I loved him.  I tried to hold his hand.  Each attempt on my part only made him walk faster, trying to put more distance between himself and me.  Frustrated that I had somehow ended up the bad guy in this scenario, I got in the car with him and drove home in silence.

Silence gave me time to think, however, and I began to wonder if there was a little bit more to the story.  Before leaving for school in the morning, Jack had tucked Bad Kitty Vs. Uncle Murray into his backpack.  Only just recently had Jack discovered the Bad Kitty books.  Two nights before I had to repeatedly tell him it was time to go to bed.  "But I want to read," he whined.  It wasn't just an attempt to manipulate his book-loving teacher-mother either.  He really wanted to keep reading.  How do you say no to that?  It was after 9:00 p.m., though, and knowing how difficult he would be to get up in the morning, I did say no.  He reluctantly went to his room, telling me that he didn't want me to rub his back like I usually do.  I knew something was up.  Sure enough, moments later his father and I could hear him laughing from down the hall as he continued to read his book.  Bad Kitty had been his constant companion ever since.  When he wasn't reading it, he was talking excitedly about it.  Which made me wonder:  Had he been talking during Read to Self time or had he been sharing his book with his friends?  Once he calmed down, I asked him if he had been reading Bad Kitty in class.  He admitted he had been and that he had been reading it to his friends.

This bit of news got me to thinking some more.  About reading and students and classroom expectations and just how realistic and effective this whole "silent reading" thing really is if in fact our goal is to create genuine lifelong readers.

Don't get me wrong, I fully support Jack's teacher's decision to have him fill out the "think sheet."  He and I will talk about the importance of following directions, of being respectful, and of not distracting others during reading time.  But I started asking my teacher-self some hard questions.  Have I made reading solely a solitary act?  Do the practices of my classroom support the natural inclinations of 8-year-olds and encourage a love of reading?

Several years ago I made the conscious decision to make sure that independent reading time was scheduled on a daily basis.  I begin each year by going over expectations and having my students practice for increasingly extended amounts of time, building stamina.  One of the expectations, of course, is that there is no talking.  I have always felt such a sense of accomplishment when my class can sit and read for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.  I also have changed my routines so that I now begin each day with a read-aloud.  I talk up books and reading every chance I get, and I am thrilled when I see students' growing stacks of books on their desks and their choosing to read whenever they have a free moment.

 I do give my students opportunities to read together, but the truth is, when I do, it is an assigned story with an assigned purpose.  I am dismayed by the realization that I never give them an opportunity to simply share what they are reading with one another.  There is no time in our day when a student can simply lean over to a neighbor and say, "Hey, listen to this!"  I picture the multiple desks with their stacks of Wimpy Kid books.  How many of those students would like to share their reading with each other?  How many more kids would get interested in reading the books if they were given a chance to hear parts of them read aloud by an enthusiastic peer?  I want so much for all of my students to fall in love with reading.  Thinking of Jack's excited voice repeating the exploits of Bad Kitty, it occurs to me that I have an invaluable resource in my classroom that I have failed to tap into.  I can go on forever about books and how much I love reading, but no doubt my students think that because I'm a teacher of course I love reading.  How much more powerful for students to see and experience the enjoyment that other students get out of it!

I can't help but think too about my own independent reading practices.  Most of my reading is indeed a solitary act.  However, when I am reading something that really speaks to me, I often will read part of it aloud to my husband, often interrupting his own reading.  It's just too good not to share.  It's kind of like watching a movie by yourself.  Isn't it much more enjoyable when you have someone to laugh out loud with?

So, thanks to Bad Kitty and a think sheet, it appears that it is time to re-imagine my class and routines once again, so that my students might share books and develop a love of reading with each other.  And, honestly, I couldn't be more thrilled!

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