When asked if she can read, Tina will say, “Yes, I can read.” And she can. Sort of. Tina can look at the words on the page and say them. She knows how letters go together to make sounds, how sounds go together to make words, and how words go together to make sentences. However, when asked the title of the last book she chose for herself, Tina can’t answer she only reads when told to do so. So, if Tina knows how to read, but doesn’t choose to do so, is she a reader?
When asked if he does read, Marcus will say, “Yes, I love to read. I read all the time.” And he does. Sort of. Marcus always has two or three books going at a time. He reads until his parents force him to turn the light out. He sits in the back of the bus with a book open. However, when asked to talk about something a book has caused him to think about, Marcus can only retell the story. So, if Marcus knows how to walk on words, but not how to grasp at the souls of them, is he a reader?
As teachers, the principal goal of our literacy program should be to produce true readers readers who not only can read, but who choose to do so. Readers who not only choose to read, but who can use books to deepen their understanding of the worlds in which they live.
While there are many paths a teacher might follow to reach this goal, one thing is clear; if our children are to become great readers, they need to be reading great books. Luckily, the past 20 to 30 years have produced a plethora of great children’s literature. With such an abundance of excellent books, we teachers (and parents) can provide reading experiences that will take students beyond reading for entertainment. We can identify issues and themes our students need to understand more deeply and select books accordingly.
I teach nine and ten year-olds in an over-whelmingly white, middle to upper-middle class community. For the most part, the students’ understanding of racism and segregation is limited to the basic stories of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. To help them dig deeper into what may be the single most defining issue of our nation, my teaching partner and I devote months of literature study to the intense reading of a few great books that deal with race.
We usually begin with Newbury Award winning Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. When a homeless Jeffery Magee arrives in Two Mills, he finds a city divided, literally, by race whites live in the West End and blacks in the East End. His own inability to see’ racial differences creates problems for the boy who comes to be known as Maniac and for those he grows close to. And his story opens our students to a sense that their own sheltered reality may not be universal.
Once we have them thinking more deeply about racial issues, we introduce our students to Mildred Taylor, an award winning African-American author who writes fictionalized accounts of her family’s history in Mississippi in the 1930’s. Her four short novels, Mississippi Bridge, The Well, Friendship, and The Song of the Trees, bring our students face to face with the brutality of racism.
As we read these books together, students are encouraged to choose independent readings from a collection including picture books, fiction, and non-fiction. Some of our titles include:
The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson
Witness, by Karen Hesse
Mr. and Me, by Kimberly Willis Holt
Me and Rupurt Goody, by Barbara O’Connor
Iggie’s House, by Judy Blume
Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson
Leon’s Story, by Leon Walter Tillage
The Watson’s Go to Birmingham -1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis
These books help our students gain a deeper understanding of the issue of race. These books allow our students to develop empathy for those whose daily lives are filled with prejudice and bigotry. These books are truly teaching aids.