Saturday, May 19, 2012

What I Learned From a Second Grade Book

Yesterday was my volunteer day in Molly's classroom and as much as I love going into the classroom and helping out, yesterday morning I was a bit frazzled, like most moms are at the end of the school year. There's a lot going on. It's not that I didn't want to go, but that there is so much on that "to-do" list that needs to get done. I was thinking of all the things I could get done if I didn't go into the classroom. It's funny how the things that bring us the most joy are the things that we are so quickly to let go of when we get stressed out or overwhelmed. But I made it in and I was sitting in the library reading with two little girls. The book we were reading this week was Nikki Giovanni, A Special Poet. It was a small leveled book, a "just right" book for these two girls. Some of these leveled books are not exactly gripping tales. They can be a bit bland and predictable. Even though at this level, we are trying to teach the kids how to predict, what some of these books lack is a sense of connection to the reader. I don't seem to care if Johnny can't find his dog or that the Smith family is moving to a new neighborhood. They lack that sense of "story" that you get from real literature. 

But this week was different. Nikki Giovanni is a real person. We read how when she was a little girl she would sit on her grandparents' porch with them and just listen to them. She would listen to them talk about their day, listen to them tell stories to each other and to her, listen to them tell the news of the neighborhood. She would just sit and listen. She saw the world a bit different than the people around her and when she got older she put her observations into words, she expressed herself in words, in poems.

As I sat there in the school library reading with these two little girls, I made a connection to this second grade leveled book. I am almost finished reading The Storytelling Animal, the grown-up book I'm reading right now. This book discusses why, as human beings, we are drawn to stories. Our stories are everywhere, not just in books. They are the stories that we tell at the dinner table or on the front porch. They are the stories we tell by our facebook statuses and our blogs. They are the stories we tell on Monday mornings when we share what we did this past weekend and the stories our kids tell to each other in the lunchroom about how their team won the big game. Stories, why are we so drawn to them? Well, one reason the author discusses is that it is social practice for our kids. 

The author gives an example of practice. He talks about when they started using flight simulators to train pilots. The statistics show that after simulators were used to train the pilots, the crash rates dropped for these new pilots. The simulators gave these new pilots an opportunity to make mistakes without hurting anyone. They got to practice in a safe haven. That is what reading fiction does for our kids socially. They get to practice real life situations in the safe haven of the story. They get to ask themselves questions; What would I do in this situation? How would I react if someone said something like that to me? What would I do if I saw someone in trouble? Would I help them out? They get to practice socially through stories. They get to practice life.

The telling of stories themselves used to be a very social encounter. The printing press was not invented all that long ago, and before there were books, people had to gather together to hear a story. They would not go "see" a play, but "listen" to a play. Everyone would gather together and listen and they would laugh together at the funny parts and gasp together at the scary ones. I thought of this as I was sitting in the library yesterday reading how Nikki Giovanni sat on her grandparents' front porch and listened to their stories. I thought of my quest to get my kids to read more. I thought of my quest for us as a family to eat dinner together. I thought of how we go around the table and tell our day's stories, the highs and lows. I love when my kids ask, "Do you want to hear something funny that happened today? Do you want to hear something weird that happened at school?" My answer is always, "Yes!"

I read somewhere that the two most important determining factors on how a student will do on the SAT's is the amount of reading that student does and if they have family dinners together. At family dinner, kids learn to listen to a story, they learn how to tell a story, they learn how to have a conversation, they learn social skills. It's so much more than just the food on their plates.

Yesterday morning I was overwhelmed and frazzled and wasn't focused at first on the book we were reading.  You would think it strange that I can learn a lesson from a second grade leveled book, but Nikki Giovanni reminded me to see the world a little differently, to listen to the world around me and today I'm going to be more like Nikki Giovanni. 

I never heard of Nikki Giovanni until yesterday. I went home and goggled her and found out not only is she a poet, but she also teaches at Virginia Tech. So when I ask my kids at the dinner table, "What do you know today that you didn't know yesterday?" I will have my answer and I will tell my story about Nikki Giovanni.

I love children's books! 

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