In January when I returned to Bertie for a second time, I had several new realizations. First, this school was year-round and most of the children were tracked out, so I would teach only the children who most needed help. I saw this as a marvelous opportunity to reach those who might fade into the background when I usually visited.
Second I saw it would be difficult to have the teachers understand the collaborative model I wanted to use. I know much about playful ways to teach writing and reading, but teachers are clearer about how their children best receive information and how group lessons can be translated to students’ individual writing. But the teachers were deferential and reluctant to jump in and co-teach.
The principal, Tracy Gregory, who had been tied up during my first visit, was not. She came to almost every classroom session I taught. In the kindergarten I tried to describe “juicy words” to children. Again their language and comprehension was so limited, it was as if I were speaking a different language. When the principal acted out a string of very vivid verbs, they began to catch on and when their teacher and I joined in, they finally showed glimmers of understanding. Later, the teacher said she’d seen the same need, knew her students needed physical, kinesthetic examples, but didn’t want to interrupt my lesson.
In the fifth grade classroom, we studied Nicole Davies’ The Promise (Candlewick), a lyrical story that begins in a harsh world with a heroine who has become the same way. When she robs an old woman, she gets only a bag of acorns. These lead to her transformation. The children were engaged in the story, but when it came to our written analysis, they were reticent to volunteer answers. At the end of the lesson it was principal Tracy Gregory, who knows the name of every child in her school, who had them review what they’d written and state specific examples of how their descriptive language brought our collaborative writing to life. Her questions helped them think more deeply about the text they’d read and what they’d written.
I began that day’s professional development session, “Here’s how I failed today!” I explained that I love failing as it is a gateway to learning and I had learned much.
Still how could I let these respectful teachers know that I wanted to co-teach with them? Ms. Gregory suggested that I have them teach and I take a support role. That made me nervous. If I were a teacher would I want to lead with an outside consultant who might judge me? How could I accomplish this?
Before I left I had a second learning. Ms. Gregory, fell in love with a book she’d borrowed to read aloud, Aaron Blecha’s Grizzle Grump (Harper Collins, ages 4-6). It’s the story of a bear ready to hibernate, a book jam-packed with oodles of fabulous verbs. She fell so in love with the book, I wanted to give it to her, but I also needed it for my teaching collection. In that moment, I realized that I was unknowingly failing the school by bringing glorious books and then leaving with them. The stimulation of new books was just the ticket to inspire meaningful, literary conversations with students.
At home I wrote publicists with whom I’d worked professionally to tell them of my plight. I asked for books that stressed African-American characters, were superb read-alouds, would lead to meaningful discussions, and specifically the titles that had been adored by teachers.
Their compassionate responses made me cry. And then the books came. Books from several publishers. Some even sent two. Boxes so big I couldn’t pick them up. I have gathered them and they are waiting for my last visit. I haven’t opened them, I want teachers to have that pleasure. The thought of it makes me smile.
And it got me thinking of how all the school libraries in Bertie County are probably impoverished. With the help of Johanna Albrecht, the children’s bookseller at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and Karin Michel, the librarian at Chapel Hill Public Library, my trunk is jam-packed with 18 bags of books ready to for high school and middle school classrooms and libraries. Bringing books is one way I can enrich this community and I believe new books might be key to increasing literary interest, discussions, and successes.