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Sometimes All It Takes to Spark Literacy Is a Little Effort

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation
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I have always loved books, and love reading. When I was a child, I told my mother I was born reading, but she just laughed. My mother taught me to read when I was three. She was of Native American descent and wanted to make sure I was able to go to school in my own community, and not at a boarding school. She made personal storybooks for me. I read highway signs. We wrote about our adventures, and I drew pictures. (What I love about books is how they make pictures in your mind.)

When I first started teaching, I thought about ways to help kids learn to love reading. I took a course from a librarian who had us reading stories with flashlights (scary stories), bedtime tales, and adventures -- just so many ways to tell stories. We selected poems to share, and made a picnic lunch with the favorite foods of a main character from beloved children's books.

I would often read aloud to children to get their imagination and ideas started with a really good book. But I wanted my students to want to create and tell their own stories. Therefore, I allowed the students to select their own topics based on personal interests. The storytelling process became a creative and artistic endeavor that included not only words but pictures and personal drawings, too.

There was a parent who would find paper from the trash of a print shop and make little books for us to use in the classroom. I felt that drawing made writing easier for those for whom words were hard to come by. I would tell them to explain the picture, and we would write the words. They would read their stories to me. What a joy it was to hear their stories! And they had hand-drawn books to take home.

I learned to know my children a lot better through these stories. Sometimes I would tell my own. It created a bonding. Reading aloud teaches children to listen. When you listen to a child, and remember what they share, it makes a big difference, particularly to minority children, who sometimes feel out of the loop. (The problem for many at-risk children is that they do not own books, and do not practice the habit of reading for pleasure. I always tried to help them own reading as a delightful, personal thing.)

One magical year, when I was first on the Internet, a person I met online inquired as to whether she could help me create libraries for my students. She would give a book to each child in the class, and, after they completed it, she would send them another book to read. She was a suburban mother, not a wealthy woman, who, with her daughters, did this work to help at-risk students. She and I would think and plan online together: What book would most of the kids like to read, and what book would they finish? We would make lists and discuss this task. We worried about whether the kids even wanted a book to own. We decided to have them create a personal library.

This is how it worked: First, each student received a personal letter from the woman and her daughters. Each child in the class responded to the letter, and was rewarded with a book. At first, we received all the books in a big package, but we then thought it would be exciting for each child to get a personally addressed package.

We worried about the children who lagged a bit on the books. But when the mail came and others got their books, most of these kids were inspired to read and finish their books. They just read at different rates. I started worrying about how much the books were costing the benefactor, because some of the children started and finished books in record time!

After completing their books, the kids would write to the benefactor and discuss their impressions. This communication with their special friend outside the classroom was critical.

At the end of the year, these poor kids had a minimum of thirty-two books, and one child had fifty-two -- and this was in addition to all the required reading that we had to do. Reading and writing just became natural for those children.

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Jackie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading is something I also love. At a conference I attended recently, someone told a story about a retired teacher who helped him learn to read. I am reaching an age at which retirement is coming closer. The idea of opening the doors of reading to children who are struggling is an appealing one. My entire life be poorer if I did not have the gift of reading.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks Jackie. I have always loved reading too. I was pushed into technology by the possibilities and the connections and links.. but opening the doors of reading is such a wonderful thing to be able to do. I taught next to a teacher who always had the most difficult students and we decided to combine our efforts, she delivering the nuts and bolts of the daily grind in teaching and I got to do the magic. But how this happened is another story.

I was given the gifted and talented and the ESOL students, based on the fact that they would be out of the classroom most of the day. Well, the students in ESOL had a talk with me. They promised their mothers that they could work in the classroom if only I would teach them. They did not want to go to ESOL. Deloris Davis, my teacher friend laughed and said...ok, we will teach them all. So we had gifted and talented, and ESOL and struggling readers.

This time the magic was using Kidsnetwork, which I think is no longer a project, but was one of the beginning projects. We had students--girls and boys--who could navigate the technology, and those who could do the math, and the math came easy with the use of computers but most of all, the children wanted to read and write and communicate to students in diverse places all over the US. So we had personal reading, regular text book reading, and reading about project-based initiatives... and we read a lot. Many took the letters home to read to their parents who were immigrants, or not. The project brought us to many more types of reading and communication. The project was on water, the estuary we chose was the Chesapeake Bay, and stories about the Bay. So many books, so little time. And, we wrote , the kids did, their own grants to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation so we got, through their planning, fieldtrips, books, videos, and special excursions to the Smithsonian Research Center. But the reading..the reading was more than anyone could have asked kids to do.

The National Geographic gave us atlases and books, and the ability to branch out to read about places on the map... and to read the stories, the personal stories of others in one's own time and place... extraordinary. We had the help of Dr. Valerie Chase at the Aquarium in Baltimore as well with hands on lessons. ( and we had an eat a crab lab.. fun!!!!!)

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is a goal of many teachers to find new and creative ways to get their students excited about reading a writing. I love how you were able to find a parent that was willing and able to help your students create their own classroom libraries. Parents like that don't come a long every year.

Matthew McCann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For several years now I have used BookCrossing in a similar way in my classroom. Not all students show an interest in bookcrossing and those that do, sometimes abandon the profile and bookshelf page. I can honestly say though, that BookCrossing is one element that has made my classroom an exciting place.

I am going to borrow from Bonnie Bracey Suttons practices and encourage kids to keep a library of books they want to read and books they have read. I think this is a fantastic way to foster reading in the classroom.

My administrators have discouraged letters to outsiders for fear of student safety. I understand that. In order to protect the security and safety of my students I now ask them to write letters and use only a first name. I then mail the letters from the school, using the school address. That way, the kids are still protected from outsiders.

Ironically they feel stifled by this. Many of my students have social networking accounts. Therefore this activity is usually preempted by an internet safety discussion. We even study an article about a teen who was endangered because his online activity was too revealing. It's a great lesson.

Thank you Bonnie for sharing your practices with us. It is very exciting.

Matthew McCann
Senn-Thomas Middle School
Herculaneum, Missouri

Kaydeon Anderson's picture

My first experience with the discipline of literacy began at a tender age. At such a point in my life I saw the world through stories which painted pictures in my head. Without a doubt, they were indeed fun but also were partially the foundation of a very limited vocabulary. Soon the pictures would come alive; as my speech pattern slowly developed sometime after enrolling in kindergarten. Though I was embarking on a new frontier of learning I found that it was immensely challenging to relate pictures to words. I went on to the elementary level as a struggling reader. Even though I was unable to read at my grade level I had developed a love for books and the desire to read. It wasn't until my mother's friend came for a family visit with us she found out that I was struggling with reading. She spent three months with my family and during those three months, she spent every evening teaching me to read. She bought me story books and she took the time and effort to guide me. Shortly after I became an independent reader.I would read magazines newspapers, books and other prints as I now had a deep love for reading. As a prospective teacher one of my goal is to get my students engage in daily reading and model the reading process for them, I believe that students will be interested in reading when their teachers show interest in reading.

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