In September I was notified that a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council would fund a reading-writing residency in Bertie County. The grant allowed me to present five literacy trainings including professional development and modeling in all the classrooms.
My learning has been huge at a small school of ten classrooms that a friend of mine described as “the sweetest school you’ll ever see.” Aulander Elementary School is 95% African-American, 100% free and reduced lunch, has teachers who are 100% dedicated and students 100% eager to learn.
I went for the first time last December in a fog so thick that they delayed school one day. I felt as foggy inside getting to know a school and county which somehow felt like a foreign country. If you want a sense of the challenges in Bertie County, check out the documentary, “If You Build It” (http://www.ifyoubuilditmovie.com).
The teachers in the school were warm, the principal enthusiastic and the loving children were ready to give oodles of hugs. The school was once an “F” school, had improved to a “D” school and was striding towards a “C” ranking. The librarian (who is only at the school for two days) made room for me. As I looked around, I saw shelves of tattered books, some of which I hadn’t seen since my childhood.
That first session we focused on “Wondering Questions,” a learning activity I use to establish an environment that fosters creativity, thought and risk-taking. A wondering question has no right answer and so prompt any number of different responses.
On the first morning in the Kindergarten, I shared Ginger Foglesong Gibson’s Tiptoe Joe (Greenwillow), the story of a bear who quietly leads a pack of animal friends through different habitats to a surprise one discovers only at the end. The children loved repeating the choruses and together we made up hand motions to represent how the animals moved. They were better at remembering than I was.
But when we came to asking questions and imagining answers, I witnessed their struggles. I thought of Professor Dana Suskind’s Thirty Million Word Initiative, begun in reaction to the 1995 research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their fourth birthdays than others. How were they ever to make up for that loss?
Clearly, one of the ways to do that was the focus of a team of teachers working together and one of the project’s focuses was to align the writing and reading curriculum. I could see that the teachers were helping the children make progress when I visited a third grade classroom. These students’ questions and responses were thoughtful and imaginative after we read the story, Job Wanted (Holiday House) by Teresa Bateman. The hero of the story is a dog who seeks employment as a horse, cow, and then a chicken with a doubting farmer who finally realizes his gift. From their many questions, the children were most interested in what the dog’s name might be. This led to a collaborative piece of their original thoughts which you can see in the writing below.
Some of us thought that the dog had a name. It might have been “Hot Dog” because he was so skinny. Or maybe it was “Brownie” because that was his color. Someone thought his name might have “Helper” because how he acted. He could also have been called Alvin because he’s awesome like that singing chipmunk, or maybe he could be called Arlo, the last letter “o” standing for the opportunities he looks for. Others thought he was a wild stranded, stray dog. He probably had no friends, or owner and was shy, too.
In fifth grade I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness (Nancy Paulsen Books). One of my favorite read-alouds for older children follows Chloe as she rejects a new, poor girl who is trying to make friends and then regrets her unkind actions. I loved the sweetness of these children who chose to focus on answering the question that confused them most. Why would Chloe NOT want to make friends?
I left that first visit exhausted,exhilarated and hoping I could help the teachers make a difference.