I have been an avid reader since before I can remember. I was hungry for books. The most exciting thing about summer was going to the library just about every other day and walking out with a pile of books taller than I could see over. I couldn’t explain my love; my need. The only understanding I have of it now, is that literature is magic and that magic is unexplainable. I was Anne of Green Gables, overwhelmed by the beauty around me and longing for a bosom buddy. I was Esperanza Rising adjusting to a new life and class system. I was Scout, newly exposed to the injustices in To Kill A Mockingbird. Books began to feed me and grow me and change me. But the most amazing thing about books is that they don’t just live in your solitary soul. They draw you to other people. They call you to pay it forward. This is a story of how I answered that call.
The first time I was handed one of Mo Willems “Elephant and Piggie” books, it was by my mother, an elementary teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs). Much of her work centers around turning students who have almost NO English language skills into talkers and readers. I squealed along with the story and Piggie’s many facial expressions. I laughed at the ending. By the time I turned the last page, my other hand was reaching for every other single one I could find.
It was then that I had a question. I could clearly see how effective these books would be with ELLs and low readers, but my hopes are to teach in 3rd-5th grade. Would they even like them? I decided to rent my college’s collection of the books and bring them into my 3rd grade student teaching placement and see how different kids responded to them. Mostly, I was curious if some of my advanced readers would even be interested in what they call “baby books.” So I hand “There’s A Bird On Your Head” to one of my students reading at a 4th grade level. I’m pretending to work on something but really, I’m watching her face. Slowly she starts to smile, then I can hear her chuckle, and then she’s laughing and running over, saying “Miss B., this is so funny! Look at this Piggie! Look at her face!” She gets it; she sees the magic, too.
Later, it’s free time. The students are zoned in on some arcade game on their computers. I find my lowest reader in the class. I ask him if he’d like to read with me. I’ll read the parts of Piggie, and he’ll be the Gerald the Elephant. On our very first read-through, he’s got the character of Gerald down. I immediately channeled my inner Piggie, sweet, funny, innocent and equal parts insane. With every page we are becoming more and more animated and my student has not made a single mistake. We are getting louder, breaking out into fits of laughter occasionally. A few of the students around us have lost interest in their computer screens. They are watching us with goofy smiles on our faces.
By the end of the book, he wants to do another. We pick “I Will Surprise My Friend!” and a few more students are recruited. No one is staring at their computers anymore. What follows is a mini-production for the class. We are crouching down and crawling around a chair (our boulder) and the students are watching and laughing. After we finish they run at me, and the six books are snatched and little productions are formed. I hear “I want to be Gerald!” “I HAVE to be Piggie!” and everyone is in love with reading at that moment in time. I sit back, sweating from my acting exertion and watch all my students make crazy faces and twirl around the room.
Eventually my cooperating teacher comes back, we return to academics for the last hour of the day and I can’t stop beaming. Everyone takes glances to my desk where the books rest. We get ready to dismiss and I catch one of my students trying to stuff the books into his backpack. He freezes when he sees me. He’s considered a trouble-maker and is punished often. I just smile at him and tell him that he could borrow these books if only they were mine. I tell him that we can read them together the next day. He wails “BUT TOMORROW IS SATURDAY!” I tell him, “Monday, then, it’s okay.” He returns my smile and nods his head.
Soon it is time to dismiss and today, this magic day, the buses are all running late and the internet is out from a rain storm. I pull out “Elephant’s Cannot Dance.” They cheer. I decide that I can’t bear to tell one of the eager hands raised that they can’t play a part this time, so I assign them all the role of Gerald. They dance and laugh and read in unison. I heard one of my students laugh for the first time, after 15 weeks in the classroom. The bell calls for their dismissal and we line up. Usually the girls all clamor for a spot to hold my hand on the way out, but the two most shy boys in the class ask to please walk with me. Everyone hugs me before getting on their bus. Something has changed in their eyes, and reading did it. I swallow tears as I walk back into the school, never feeling prouder as a person, and thanking God I brought those library books to school.
Sasha is a reader, writer, dreamer, painter and teacher. She is currently a week away from graduating college and moving to Chicago to teach in the city. She has a unquenchable passion for literature of all kinds, but loves most reading with kids and passing on her favorite books, and thus has recently pondered becoming a librarian. Her teaching blog is “Giving Them Roots and Wings” found at http://srbstudentteaching.blogspot.com/