Books are—quite simply—magic.
In my own life, books have certainly had transformative power. The very act of reading and choosing books over other options has kept me from taking one life course, and instead, taking another: a very ordinary, we’ve-always-lived-this way-life—OR—a life of possibility and beauty. A life of new ideas all around you!—OR—a life of stagnation.
Instead: a life of dreams conceived AND a life of dreams achieved (with more to come).
Had I not become a reader, I would not have known who I could have really been.
So if books could do so much for me, could they not do the same for every student I have the privilege of teaching?
In my classroom at the end of the hall, I have seen their power. I have been witness to their wondrous force. I speak truth when I say that books can perform mighty, miraculous feats in fourth grade—feats that yield awe and wonder from all who watch.
Usually, that’s just me. (This is one of the reasons I feel privileged.)
The magic begins with a single book, pulled out of my bag at the beginning of Reader’s Workshop. Usually it’s a picture book, newly released – straight from the bookstore—but sometimes it’s a forgotten favorite, taken lovingly from the shelf in the library.
I sit in my wicker chair, place the book on my lap, and speak no directions. From around the room, fourth graders gather around me to sit in “their spots”.
The magic begins!
My students look up at me and study the cover. With hopeful eyes, they ask: what will you share today?
I start with the title and, usually, a simple question: What do you see?
At first, the words come slowly. “Its cover is completely green!” or “What’s THAT?” I read the words and like a magician, wave the wand over the top hat. I let the events and characters swirl around the room softly, resting gently on eager minds.
Then the story takes over. At one turn in the plot, a question is raised. This is part of the plan. We all stop to consider it, and it leads to a classroom conversation.
One student will reply—and another will agree or disagree. I will occasionally rephrase and redirect. I facilitate, steadying the volume so all can hear (they are excited to share), keeping things going, from one learner to the other, but modeling, too, how vibrant, healthy discussions are carried out. Mostly, I try to stay out of the way. When it comes to these discussions, I’m not a teacher first, but, a listener/fellow learner. I don’t rush the conversation. There is no other activity more pressing. I take in every syllable, because every word a child chooses to speak is a window into his/her world. In phrases spoken with courage and hope, ideas are brought forth that contribute to our collective learning, and take us to places we never thought we’d go.
Earlier in the year, I asked more questions than I do now. I wrote them out dutifully each night in preparation. I thought myself so clever for composing such wonderfully worded questions! This will make them think!
But always—-ALWAYS—my night-before questions paled in comparison to the thoughts they formed on the spot! Thoughts so brilliant and profound I wanted to record every one of them! (Sometimes we do—here, on our little class blog.)
So the magic lies in this: twenty-four learners (counting the teacher) in a room – each unique, each with different perspectives and needs—could all gather around a single book as if it were a campfire on a winter’s night. We go in different directions when the bell rings, we participate in different after-school activities, and some of us don’t like to share out! But with a book, we can all come together, listen to one another, and connect. As we interpret the story individually, we claim its richness for ourselves.
I pay it forward by making these conditions possible as much as I can, every day. I read. I seek out the books with a determination that astonishes even me! I do my best to listen to each learner every day. I make books more than just mini-lesson anchors. Of course, I use books to cover curriculum standards and address grade-level objectives, but I also have them do so much more.
What I do isn’t groundbreaking. Many teachers do this! But it’s my way of making good on a debt I’ll never finish paying. It’s my way of nurturing young readers. It’s my way of making sure the magic lasts forever.
Cynthia is a 4th grade teacher, team leader, and Language/Literacy Content Specialist for her campus. She is a Teacher Consultant for National Writing Project, and blogs about books and teaching at Teaching in Cute Shoes. Besides being a proud member of the Nerdy Book Club, she’s also an avid shoe shopper. On Twitter, she’s @utalaniz.