OK. You don’t like Race to the Top or the corporate education agenda that all presidents subscribe to. Me neither. Maybe you don’t like a lot of President Obama’s policies and can’t wait for a new guy…or gal! I get it.
But how can you not appreciate the way President Obama has been practicing his reading of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak? He deserves some credit. At least he didn’t seem to be drilling children on the deeper meaning of the story. I don’t think he made kids sound out letters or ask them to repeat what he had just read over and over. What he looked like he did was read the story like a Shakespearean thespian auditioning for a summer play, and he seemed to trust the children to listen and enjoy the story and be the sole judges of his performance.
This is how storybooks should be read and I’m only sorry I can’t find the entire reading of his 2014 performance on video (you can see the 2012 version with the same book—hmm—must be his favorite), but it looks to me like he practiced to become a more polished and exciting presenter. Maybe he even put some time into this. Good for him! Especially since he most likely has a few other things on his plate.
Reading a storybook to throngs of children takes practice. It isn’t as easy as it looks. As parents and teachers it is critical that we read this way…. The emphasis on words, the inflections in our voices at just the right moment, not to mention the rolling of the eyes, can be thrilling to a child learning to embrace words as their own.
It’s all about channeling characters—helping them to come alive and developing the scenes. When you finish the reading of a storybook to children—they should be immensely satisfied and even more curious to learn about more stories! They might even want to read about Max and the monsters (characters in the Wild Things) on their own! How you journey through a book with children is one of the most pleasurable tasks involving teaching and/or parenting—and most important.
When my daughter was young I learned how to do this by observing a librarian who read to young children during story hour. I had been a teacher for many years, but I learned a lot more about how to read to young children by watching and listening to her.
She was so special that I drove a bit of a distance so we could hear her. Sometimes she had props that were coordinated with the story. One day she even brought out an old record player! Often she’d pull out some puppets. Or she would engage the children by giving them puppets or have them draw whatever they wanted on paper to tell about the story afterwards.
Sometimes she’d stop and ask a question, but it was only to enhance the story, not to drill a kid for meaning. She knew they understood.
The room in this public library was small, but welcoming. There were storybook characters painted on the walls. Children would sit enthralled waiting for her to turn the pages of the book.
She knew when to shout at just the right moment, making weird facial expressions, singing, laughing, and lowering her voice in worry when needed—that was a part of it too.
Talk about high expectations! She didn’t have to speak of them. She just knew every child in her presence would be more aware and participate. Why wouldn’t they?
Here was instruction at its finest—in books and words. Funny, whimsical, or sometimes serious—all there beckoning for those children to come and explore.
After the readings—time to check out the books—lots of them! I’d see children and their parents carrying bags of books out the door. We had plenty of our own!
So President Obama, three cheers for you, from a former teacher who is totally not in your realm when it comes to what you and your DOE are doing to public schools these days.
If only the President could see that what he did on Easter Sunday is very much key to what real schooling should be. It’s not about high-stakes testing, or drill, drill, drill. It’s about making the words come alive no matter what subject you’re talking about. It really is bringing joy to learning.
And, by the way, it carries over to middle and high school too.
Students like animated instructors who leap out of their seats to greet them. Who emphasize words—who make a subject come alive with their enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter if the words are fiction or nonfiction it is the way they are presented—it’s all in the language of excitement. It is just like acting!
Remember Robin William’s character in the movie Dead Poet’s Society? Or, what about the portrayal of high school math teacher Jaime Escalente in Stand and Deliver? Maybe you don’t like those movies, but you have got to admire teachers who are excited to be doing their jobs. They suck you in and you don’t even know it.
Unfortunately, and I would say this to the President if I could, if teachers don’t feel ownership in their profession they won’t be excited about teaching. They become embittered—just hanging in there to collect their paycheck, in order to keep their homes, or feed their kids. That’s what scripted teaching does to a professional. It wears them down…their words are lifeless.
You become a teacher so you can teach—not follow.
And many teachers right now feel disengaged in their teaching because they have been left out of the conversation for much too long. It’s tough to drum up excitement when you are never given a voice concerning your profession. It’s tough to teach when you believe what you are teaching and the way you are going about it isn’t right for the students placed in your care.
It is important to add, how do children manage without libraries and lovely librarians who often read to students like this in the past? Libraries, we know, are in trouble—school libraries especially. Here’s a website that tells just how much trouble school libraries are in across the country due to the loss of their librarians.
But for now I congratulate President Obama for a good reading presentation. May all children hear such great stories and have schools that embrace books and them with such enthusiasm.
And for parents and teachers of young children, here are several books you might be interested in. They are filled with ideas to help you make stories come alive for your children. One of the authors is Shirley Raines who recently retired from her post as President of the University of Memphis. I find it interesting that she was once a kindergarten teacher.
I will add them to the website under Early Childhood and Reading.
Happy Books and Reading for Spring Everyone!
Story Stretchers: Activities to Expand Children’s Favorite Books by Shirley C. Raines and Robert J. Canady
More Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s: Activities to Expand Children’s Favorite Books by Shirley C. Raines and Robert J. Canady
Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s® for Infants, Toddlers, and Twos: Experiences, Activities, and Games for Popular Children’s Books by Shirley Raines, Karen Miller, Leah Curry-Rood and Kathy Dobbs