To Read or Not to Read… Now That’s a Question!

Mango
Yesterday
one of my apprentices brought me a gift. She simply handed me the sunny little
package and smiled. Actions really do speak louder than words, but in this case
the action was sparked by the whisper of words. And that whisper was echoing
all the way from Elizabethan England, a whisper from the Bard himself.

This
particular apprentice has been part of my high school literature and
composition workshop for three years. When her parents came to me for help at
the beginning of her sophomore year, she was on her school’s “at risk” list. But,
after meeting this girl, I knew she was not at risk. This girl was not
interested in words—not the reading of words, not the writing of words, not the
speaking of words. This girl was not interested because she could not imagine what
in the world words had to do with her.

I
receive calls on a regular basis from parents deeply concerned by apathetic,
and often dangerous, behavioral tendencies in their uninspired adolescents.

My
heart breaks each and every time.

The
solution to this dilemma is a complex choreography that can only be
accomplished longitudinally, one step at a time. But the dance can’t begin
until I teach the dancer to read. I’m
not talking about phonics—this is not about learning to decode language on the
page. Truth is, illiteracy is much more than an inability to decipher letters
on a page. I’m talking about the insidious kind of illiteracy that begins with
three small words, “Books are boring.” This is the kind of illiteracy that
shrinks possibility.

Choosing
to read is courageous.

More
than one parent has asked me, “What have learning to read and write got to do
with promoting individuality?”

Great
stories are chock-a-block with possibility.           

Possibility
has the potential to spark curiosity.

Curiosity
leads to imagination.

Imagination
fuels dreams.

Over
the years I’ve mentored countless young people whose GPA does not reflect their
potential. And this particular apprentice was no exception. So I began as I
always do, I handed her a book.

Great
stories contain the potential to be instructive and experiential. For those who
know how to use them, books will spark curiosity, evoke imagination, and foster
creative critical thinking. Because the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual
components of a story are inseparable, a single story can profoundly impact an
individual. A great story may encourage us to revel in the beauty of creation,
coax us to embrace heroism, fight injustice, may inspire us to love our
neighbor as ourselves. No matter the case, great stories hold the potential for
the reader to glean wisdom. Great stories encourage us to persevere in the
complex tasks we encounter while reaching for life’s potential.

I
took this high school sophomore by the hand and stood with her at the first
page of a book, “In this particular story, as seventh grade comes to a close,
Allegra Leah Shapiro has been selected as a finalist in a prestigious violin
competition and this stirs up all sorts of inner conflict…”

            Why
does summer have to be so hectic?

            What
does it mean to be half Jew and half gentile?

            Why
is soprano, Diedre, crying?

            How
can I be a twelve-year-old violinist and have time to be a friend?

            Why
is my brother so annoying?

            How
has Mr. Trouble lost his song?

            What
is this gift from
Bubbe
Raisa
?

            And
what of this great-grandmother I’ve been named after?

            Will
I be able to dig deep enough for Mozart?

            Can
I undo what has been done?

I
read this to my apprentice believing with all of my heart that Allegra, might
be able to inspire her, if she dared to read between the lines and listen, “You
are not alone.”

The Mozart Season,” I tell her, “is a
quiet story, one filled with resounding music that just might change your
life.” I leave it there, hand her the book and ask her (well, okay, require her) to read a bit so we can
discuss the story in a week.

I’m
always hopeful, but when a week has passed, I know she might still be at the
starting blocks. This particular type of race is never a sprint.

A
week later I ask, “So have you completed the reading?”

“Well,
no, not really, I mean, well…”

“This
was required reading.”

“I
just really don’t get it.”

Obviously
this is not about decoding the words on the page. This girl knows how to read, thing
is, she has no idea how to be inspired by a story, has no idea how to embrace
the universal truths, let alone apply them to her life. This girl has no idea
how to animate a character like Allegra.

So
I read the opening paragraph on the first page of chapter one: “In Mr. Kaplan’s
studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair. On one side of it is a violin. The
other side says, A teacher is someone who
makes you believe you can do it
. Somebody who took lessons from him a long
time ago made it. When I was little, I couldn’t read it clearly because
needlepoint letters have odd shapes.”

“Seems
to me Virginia Euwer Wolff is using pretty plain language. This is not
Shakespeare!”

“Um,
I don’t know.”

“Has
anyone ever told you that a great story is a mentor?” 

She
is about to roll her eyes, but surprisingly trusts me instead, “What?”

With
I sigh of relief, I don’t miss a beat, “If we dig deep enough into the heart of
a story, dig to its very core, we always discover a treasure. And I believe
that this treasure has the power to inform our life. A book leads us by the
hand on an exploration of discovery that will make us a richer person.”

“But
my mind wanders when I read.”

“Mine
too.”

“Really?”

“Yes.
I’ve worked to slow down when I read, worked to build habits that help me ponder
words, phrases, passages, peculiar shape, sound and meaning. And this work,
this habit of being, has enabled me to value reading. Truth is, I’ve learned to
love stories because I’ve discovered that stories enrich my individuality. I
know you can too. I want to help
you through this book because there is embedded treasure just for you. I want
to help you do the work of extracting that treasure because your individuality
matters. You matter”

She
is beaming, but only for an instant. Then the work began.          

That
was three years ago. We made it though The
Mozart Season
in much the same way that Allegra got through the violin
competition, gathering strength along the way. We read Pictures of Hollis Woods. We read Milkweed. We read another and another. Last fall we read The Screwtape Letters. This fall we
tackled Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet

So
when my apprentice handed me the bag of snacks smirking the slogan, “Much ado
about Mango,” I know she’s learned to read, really read. I hear the violins and
see Allegra smile, “Remember,
what’s down inside you, all covered up—the things of your soul. The important,
secret things . . . The story of you, all buried, let the music caress it out
into the open.”

– Kim

Discover Literature!

Blackbird & Company Literature Discovery guides are an integrated approach to mastering language arts skills. Each guide is a reading and writing journey. Our titles span a wide range of genres and represent what we believe is the best of classic and contemporary literature on the market today.

The Literature Discovery Guide will do just as the title suggests, guide your student through a close reading of a story. The reading of a single book is divided into four sections to help pace the reader. Each week, as students explore one section of a great story, they will not only discover the components that writers use to tell great stories, but will practice crafting words to bring shape to their own original idea sparked from the weekly reading.

We understand that it is easy for the study of a piece of literature to overshadow the story itself. With this in mind, our goal is to lead the reader through each piece of literature in a way that plumbs its depths while keeping its intrinsic value intact. We further understand that reading has the profound potential to pique the reader’s curiosity and to spark a new idea in the mind’s eye. For this reason we provide weekly occasion for the student to bring shape to a new idea through a directed writing activity. The ultimate goal is to create a routine, but not just any routine, a purposeful routine. We believe that the right kind of practice over time develops a habit of being regardless of the subject being tackled. A habit of being in language arts, once established, will not only create an appetite for great stories but also the skill and tenacity to pin down great original ideas.

Bbco_levelsLevel 1 guides are recommended for a wide range of lower elementary students (grades 2-3) who have acquired the foundational skills necessary to independently read and respond to a simple piece of literature. Because there is a vast age range at this level, books have sophisticated content at an emergent reading level. Each guide is designed to be completed in five weeks, which allows students to work through six to eight units in a typical school year.

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Happy Birthday Robert McCloskey!

Blueberries+for+Sal

"ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk"…

Onomatopoeia! When you read these words, don't you instantly see the little tin bucket in the hands of Sal and hear it filling up with blueberries? Or when you're at the park and see a momma duck with her ducklings, don't you think about Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack and their adventures in the Boston Public Garden? Thanks to Robert McCloskey and his captiviating, classic stories, Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings, I do!

McCloskey was born on September 15, 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio. At eighteen he moved to Boston on a scholarship from the Vesper George Art School, then later moved to NYC to study at the National Academy of Design. I find it interesting that he considered himself an artist and visual storyteller before a writer and in his own words, he reveals, “It is just sort of an accident that I write books. I really think up stories in pictures and just fill in between the pictures with a sentence or a paragraph or a few pages of words.” Here's to happy "accidents!"

McCloskey wrote and illustrated seven other must-read books including Lentil, Homer Price, One Morning In Maine, Centerburg Tales, Time of Wonder, and Burt Dow, Deep Water Man. Burt Dow is a personal favorite for it's Jonah-esque inspired story, brilliant use of 60s pop color, and Jackson Pollock style paint drippings!

Burt

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Mccloskey_bnd_LRG copy From Blackbird & Company:

Great stories have the ability to instruct, inpsire and enlighten and Blackbird & Company's Discovery Guides provide a rich framework for incorporating literature into your core curriculum.

Explore and celebrate Robert McCloskey with your young children by using our Earlybird Author Unit. It is a six week guide, designed for 1st and 2nd graders that takes them through five of his classic stories while working through entry-level literature discovery exercises, complete with vocabulary, comprehension, character analysis, journaling and creative activities.

For your 3-5th grade children, our Homer Price Literature Discovery Guide provides a comic, nostalgic romp through McCloskey's small town America with the one-and-only Homer Price. In six short, imaginative tales, we follow Homer on his hilarious escapades, where challenges most certainly arise…but where things seem to always turn out ok!

For more on McCloskey listen to a short interview with him from the The Horn Book Radio Review.