Jean Anne Clyde, my dear wife, is also a retired teacher educator, who focused her university teaching on literacy. Recently, she volunteered at a school two blocks from our home. Every Tuesday she drags a suitcase filled with favorite kids’ books to the school. For an hour each week, Jean Anne works with primary school children, helping them improve their literacy–not just their reading and writing. At the end of her volunteer time, she returns with a smile on her face, eager to share about the children’s literacy connections, made during that day’s session.
This week’s debrief impacted me more than most. As she entered their classroom to collect her small brood, another child stopped her and asked, “Could you read with me today?”
That story automatically elicited an “Awww!” from me. Maybe this kid didn’t make the cut to get extra help. Or maybe she was seeking a break from the usual routine. But whatever her motivation for calling to a stranger for attention, I know this child and the others with whom Jean Anne works get way more than they bargain for. Why? Because Jean Anne does way more than help kids improve their reading proficiency, which means a higher-than-anticipated score on a springtime test. She goes out of her way to coach her assigned strugglers to become fully literate, avid readers of self-selected, personally-relevant books, and capable and confident writers who will grow to become lifelong learners and capable collaborators.
Does that sound like lofty outcomes for primary kids? Jean Anne doesn’t think so, because she agrees with Jerome Bruner, a famed educational psychologist who asserted over 60 years ago that “…any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”* Keeping that result in mind, she has been teaching toward her assigned six-year-old children’s fullest development.
So, what are the crucial reading and writing concepts (which probably will not be tested directly in March) that Jean Anne invests much of her time on? They are: selecting (and deselecting) books to read; writing heart-felt personal notes and stories for their teachers, parents, siblings and others; and understanding that EVERYBODY on the planet runs into words they don’t immediately recognize, and can learn to successfully problem solve that.
As I reflect on the way Jean Anne impacts local children’s literacy gains, I find myself professionally embarrassed and regretful for not staying in the game, for not volunteering at the school, for not doing something!
I have felt my teaching-self wither a bit with each passing year with a decreased frequency of my interactions with young students in support of their becoming avid and fulfilled readers and writers. While I often interact and have conversations with adults and teachers about literacy, that cannot replace the thrill of joyfully sharing a well-chosen book alongside a child, observing her struggle when she experiences a breakdown, and gently coaching her to clarify a misconception about print or reading or writing to get her going again.
Such relaxed one-on-one time with kids can help them to believe in themselves as learners and lead them, upon finishing one book, to gleefully reach for the next book, that they will select to read… all by themselves.
*Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.33.