In this piece, teacher and parent, Grace Choi, gives us some creative ideas on how to help kids enjoy and succeed in reading at home. This is the first installment in the new blog series brought to you from the editors at Stenhouse Publishers, One Thing You Might Try . . .
I wonder if Friends actor, David Schwimmer, knows that his character, Ross Geller’s “PIVOT!” scene has now become the anthem of educators. Across the country, school looks different, and teaching and learning has had to pivot in many ways. It’s either happening in physical school buildings with necessary measures and precautions to limit spread and exposure of COVID-19, or school is happening in people’s homes. Including mine.
"Can I read to my pet fish?"
The other day, I was working from home while my daughter was engaged in virtual learning nearby. As her second-grade teacher prepped the class for independent reading, a little voice asked, “Mrs. Park, is it okay if I read to my pet fish again?” The response to this, of course, was “Of course!” And that prompted a chorus of little voices chiming in with, “I’m going to read to my dog!” “Wait, I’m going to read to my baby brother!” “I don’t have a pet. Can I read to my stuffed animals instead?” Suddenly, independent reading became even more exciting, and the children couldn’t wait to get started and were even more excited to come back and share about who or what they read to during that time.
Overhearing this exchange had me smiling ear to ear and got me thinking about all the possibilities we get to imagine as we rethink what school (and reading) could look like at home. Make no mistake, distance learning is HARD. It is difficult and strange, and it continues to feel like we’re building the plane as we fly it. But distance learning also invites us to think outside the box as we are literally invited into students’ homes.
Find a reading buddy! Even if that buddy isn’t a person.
While we can mourn the fact that students can’t easily pair off and buddy read in the corner of the classroom, we can invite students to find a buddy in their virtual-learning space, whether that buddy is a person, animal, or thing. My daughter is delighted to read to her dolls and stuffed animals during independent reading. These toys are her regular students when she plays school at home, and she now gets to actually bring them to school!
Find a spot, any spot!
While it’s sad that we don’t get to see our students cozy up in our carefully curated classroom libraries, we can invite them to find a reading spot at home and applaud their creativity. For some kids, including my own two, that means independent reading time happens cozied up in their beds. For others, it might mean sprawling on the floor or sitting in (or under, or behind!) their favorite chair in the house. Whatever space kids choose, instead of trying to control our students (probably unsuccessfully through a screen) and dictating what is or isn’t an appropriate spot or position, we can follow our students’ leads as they learn from home. It can feel scary to give students the space to make choices that look very different than the choices available to them in school. But we can also celebrate these choices students are making at home (who doesn’t love reading in bed?!) and trust our students to make them.
“But what can I read?”
One of the biggest hurdles we face as distance learning continues is figuring out how to get physical books into kids’ hands. There are plenty of virtual libraries that give students access to many books on the screen, but if you’ve spent time in elementary schools, you know that the classroom library is often the heart of the room.
Our school librarian is working hard to have books available for curbside checkout at school and she also visits different neighborhoods with boxes of books to check out. The kids are thrilled to have access to library books, but they’re also missing being surrounded by books in their learning spaces as they would be in the classroom. Even when children have at-home book collections, it can sometimes be tedious to pull from the same books every day, especially if the books you have are ones you’ve had for years.
Reading is reading—no matter what you’re reading.
Here’s where we get to be creative and reimagine what kids can read at home. Every year, I teach my kindergarten and first graders that readers read for different reasons: to enjoy books, to gain information, to learn more about topic, to learn how to do something. We can support and strengthen that idea by really and truly giving our students choice in what they read. And that might mean we think creatively about what “counts” as reading.
Remembering again that we are guests in students’ homes, think about the reading you do in your own home. Chances are, you’re reading this blog post at home on your phone. If you’re like me, you probably browse (a LOT) on your phone for other things: recipes, shopping, how-tos. You probably also peruse physical texts like cookbooks, catalogs, and mail. And, when you find some dedicated time, you settle down with a good book. All of that is reading. And all of that is reading we can encourage in our students in addition to the physical and virtual books we provide them.
Invite kids to expand beyond books.
Invite kids to look for reading material in their homes and model it by gathering materials you’ve recently read. Perhaps this will inspire kids to read material they wouldn’t otherwise consider acceptable, such as the following:
- Instruction manuals for LEGOs or board games: What a great example of how-to texts that kids can read and follow!
- Junk mail or catalogues: My kids live for looking through Val-Pack coupons or Coupon Clipper magazines and asking for all the random things they advertise. (Why a seven-year-old wants a gutter cleaning is beyond me?!) It’s a great way to start conversations about media messages and persuasive writing.
- Familiar board books: An old favorite book instantly brings feelings of comfort and nostalgia. And if a student can read a familiar book to a younger family member, even better.
- Family photo books: I always remind my students that reading the pictures is reading. And looking through photos is a great way to read photos and retell family stories. What a great connection to writing personal narratives, too!
- Cookbooks, menus, and recipe cards: I love looking through cookbooks and browsing all the recipes I’ll probably never cook. My kids also love looking through the photos (probably because it’s the only place they’ll see those meals . . .) and perusing the ingredients. Thinking about all the prices, quantities, and measurements is also a great connection to math.
- Cereal boxes and other packaging: Many of my breakfasts in the 1980s were spent reading cereal boxes. And many of my baths were spent reading shampoo bottles. This is reading!
- Old cards and letters: Is there anything like a handwritten note? I have stashes of old cards and letters that I love to revisit. I bet students would love rereading old birthday cards and letters they’ve received, too, and it would likely inspire them to write their own.
Once we open our eyes up to the reading materials that are available in our homes, we can help our students see the possibilities in front of them. And we, as teachers, can support all the different ways readers read. Naming these possibilities also values them and allows students and families to understand that all reading is to be honored; that Val-Pack coupons are just as valid a choice as a picture book from a home library.
I’ll say it again: distance learning is hard. But in this unique year, we can think creatively and let go of some of the control to give kids the chance to enjoy and succeed in learning at home. I can’t wait to be back in school buildings, but until then, I’m going to enjoy and cherish hearing about what and where kids are reading at home.
About the Author
Grace Choi is a Central Title I Literacy Resource Teacher in northern Virginia. She has spent her career teaching and coaching in primary classrooms and loves experiencing the brilliance of our youngest students. She believes that giving students choice is key to developing lifelong readers and writers. You can follow Grace on Twitter @MrsGraceChoi
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