Yesterday afternoon I attended the Elementary Section Get-Together at the Chicago Hilton. The get-togethers are always fun to attend since they provide me with the opportunity to catch up with people like Karen Caine, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, and Franki Sibberson who I only get to see in-person at NCTE. In addition, attending the get-together gives me the chance to meet new people, some of whom are in attendance at their first NCTE Convention (this is my fifth). In addition to socializing, the Elementary Section Get-Together is a chance to listen to the winner of NCTE’s Outstanding Educator Award. This year’s award went to Kathy G. Short who is a professor, an author, and the director of Worlds of Words, which is “an initiative focused on encouraging thoughtful dialogue around literature to open the world for children” (NCTE 2011 Convention Guide, pg. 39).
Kathy Short spoke about the power of stories. Stories bring people together in a critical way. Stories illuminate what it means to be alive and to thrive as we walk through life. She reminded us that stories, both oral and the ones we read to children in books, help us to understand life.
One of the most important things Kathy Short said, which bears sharing in this forum, is that, “If we try to teach every book kids read, then we lose the power of story for understanding life.” She is so right! Too often teachers are guilty of trying to cram as much as possible into the curriculum. There’s so much to do that we try to use a book in as many ways as possible. We use it as a mentor text for reading and writing. We pull vocabulary and spelling words from the text. We lift sentences from the book and use them for grammar instruction. We try to teach so many things with the books that we read to children that sometimes we forget that stories are meant, first and foremost, for us to enjoy.
On page 8 of Ralph Fletcher’s book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses, Fletcher reminds us to:
Read at lease once for pleasure. The mentor texts we learn the most from, the ones that have the biggest impact on our own writing, are the pieces we truly enjoy.
We must take time to enjoy books before we use them as teaching tools with our students.
Let me take this a step further. We have to make time and space in our classrooms to read books just for fun. I know it’s really hard to have “just for fun books.” In 2008, I had “Picture Book-Palooza” in my fourth grade classroom. It was an opportunity for me to read stories aloud to my students and for them to soak them in, enjoy them, and use the stories to make better sense of their own lives. While it was my hope that my students would adopt some of the books I read as mentor texts, it was my greater hope that they’d just sit back and enjoy the stories I shared with them. (Click here to look at the books my fourth graders and I read “just for fun.”)
Finally, stories create community. This morning, I had the privilege of having breakfast with six women who have been participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge for the past couple of years. We sat around the table and shared stories about working with children, about our home lives, and about the places where we’re from. I had only met one of the six women (Ruth — but I know you knew that) before this morning. However, I felt as though I knew them well since I have been reading the stories of their lives during thanks to their participation in the Slice of Life Community. How wonderful it was to finally have the chance to meet some of the people I’ve been sharing stories with for the past three and a half years!