Dog Man to The Rescue: How Book Access Saved My Third Grade Student by Renee Bowman
Teachers, you already know the student I am about to describe. The one who arrives halfway through the year from out of state, with a mother unsure of which grade her son was in just last week. The 9 year-old who carries a chip on his shoulder as if he were 29. The third grader who tries as hard as he can to avoid schoolwork, eye contact, and friendships. The boy who, beneath the bravado, is just a scared, insecure child unsure of where he fits in this new setting.
The script almost writes itself. You can envision this child’s future before he even approaches puberty. But often in life, there’s a plot twist. The role I’ve been cast in Shawn’s life is his librarian and Title I interventionist, which has given me a vantage point to be able to honestly say that Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man books, and the loosening of traditional library policies have drastically changed Shawn’s trajectory.
Day 1: “I don’t read.” After benchmarking him later that same day, Shawn is reading two grade levels behind his peers.
Day 7: “I don’t read because I don’t check out books. I don’t have any at home. I don’t want any at home.”
Day 15: “I don’t check out books because the last ones were left in my mom’s car. The car went to the pound.” Later that day, Shawn gets suspended for fighting.
Day 22: “I don’t have to pay for those books in my mom’s car at this school? Oh.” Walks toward books about sports cars.
Day 29: “I can’t get a book. I left that sports car book at my dad’s house… Hold up. I can still get another book?” Walks toward Lego books.
Day 36: “I can’t find the Lego book or the sports car book.” Walks away, head down. Comes back after I call his name. “You mean you’ll still let me get a book?” Smiles. Walks to graphic novel section.
Day 38: “I know it’s not my library day, but can I trade out this Dog Man book for the next one?”
Day 39: Email from Shawn’s homeroom teacher: “I don’t know what is going on with Shawn, but he won’t put that Dog Man book down! He proudly told me he read it last night, for a second time, to his mom!”
Day 41: Visit from school principal during small group reading time. Shawn can’t wait to show principal how many Dog Man books he’s read. He signs the Principal’s Book of Awesomeness.
Day 43: Shawn comes racing into the library 5 minutes before the bell rings, looking for his Dog Man book. He can’t find it anywhere and he wanted to read it to his little sister tonight. He suddenly blurts out, “Oh yes! I know! I left it in my Math Lab class. I snuck it in when I didn’t think the teacher was looking!”
Day 45: Shawn notices the books in our reading group are getting more challenging and interesting. He gets excited when a prediction is true or a character does something unexpected. He loves to use the globe to locate the habitat for any books on animals we read. He feels comfortable asking me questions he’s always wondered about, such as why he never sees baby chicks hatch from the eggs in his refrigerator.
Day 50: While emails and calls home to Shawn’s mom still go unanswered, Shawn tells me that the words in the books he reads in his classroom are getting easier. I assure him that it’s because he’s becoming a better reader. He looks at me skeptically, but then nods. “Dog Man. Tell your other students to read Dog Man,” he says.
What’s the moral to Shawn’s sudden change, and how is it relevant to all educators? Shawn needed access to books. The kind of books that spoke to him, that he chose. Will I ever get that sports car book or Lego book back? Probably not. But what would have happened if Shawn had never attempted to read Dog Man? He would have continued to associate books as something not for him. Not for his house. Not for his lifestyle.
Because he really wanted to know what the words on the page said, he used the pictures, prior knowledge, growing phonics skills, and his sense of humor to decode the words and grow as a reader. He recast himself as a child who reads books, instead of the troublemaker, the fighter, the struggling student. To himself, to his family, to his teachers, and to his peers. He began to carry books with him. He wanted to talk about this book to his friends, his siblings, and other caring adults, including the principal that had suspended him only weeks earlier.
Dav Pilkey, thank you for being the author that saved my student’s life. To all the authors reading this, thank you for the work you do so that our students have the courage, the desire, and the ability to read.
Teachers and librarians, as the end of the school year approaches, we’ll understandably grow frustrated knowing many books won’t make their way back to our shelves. Let’s think of those missing books as stepping stones on the way to changed lives and lifelong readers. Train yourselves to look for promising talent and know when to lighten up and put just the right book in the hands of the students most in need of a happy ending.
Renee Bowman’s weekdays involve switching hats- from school librarian in the morning to Title I teacher in the afternoon to mom and wife in the evenings. Her weekend hat allows her to be one-half of the blog Raising Real Readers, along with her sister, as they help parents navigate reading in our age of distraction. She’s looking forward to wearing her summer hat during the annual pilgrimage to Nerd Camp! You can connect with her @raisingreal on Twitter and @RaisingRealReaders on Instagram and Facebook.