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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

The Best 25 Cents I Ever Spent

Children's literature sparks the imaginations of students—and inspires meaningful teaching.

When I was 10 years old, I found a book that was also 10 years old: How to Teach Reading with Children's Books by Jeanette Veatch. The skinny orange paperback looked like a children's book itself—32 handwritten pages with lots of pictures. "First, get LOTS of BOOKS! BIG books, little books, paperbacks, FAT books, thin books, fairy stories, cowboy stories, mysteries, silly stories. . . ." In comic-book style, the book depicted a teacher in a bouffant hairdo dressed like a robber, "borrowing" books as necessary. It also depicted her creating reading centers and using small-group instruction, dramatization, conferences, choral speeches, and hands-on activities.
Hmm, I thought. I bought the book for 25 cents.

Teaching in the Real World

Ten years later, I found myself in the role of student teacher, trying to do the things that seemed so appealing in that little orange booklet. I didn't believe that teaching with trade books was terribly radical; how could it be? I had read about it in a book that was as old as I was. And yet, I found that the approach was consistently met with opposition. My professor explained that when we begin to teach reading, we should teach from textbooks as a kind of crutch until we acquire more confidence in our techniques. I queried whether that was truly a good idea. If you give a baby a crutch with which to learn to walk, wouldn't that baby walk rather funny for a long, long time?
My professor replied that I had extended her metaphor further than she meant to have it extended.
I apologized.
"But," she offered, "if we are going to use metaphors, think of the textbook as the skeletal system. It is fine for you to add muscle to the bone, and textbooks are that bone. You wouldn't want to teach without bone, would you? No, of course not; you'd be all slumped over and not much good to anybody!" She smiled. "Then you'd really need a crutch!"
She had extended my metaphor further than I meant to have it extended.
She went on to say that the principal's job was riding on the student's standardized-test scores and that textbooks were a good way of ensuring that our standardized-test scores would be up to snuff.
I raised my hand politely, and when my professor saw that no amount of waiting was going to make me put it down, I inquired: If the principal's job is riding on standardized-test scores, and I am not a principal, why should I care?
"Talk to me about it when you've been in the real world a while," my professor sighed.
The "real world." I had heard about such a place. From all accounts, it was a widely populated place of misery and inequity, where every vice and cruelty resided and where lodgings were inadequate and overpriced. The real world seemed to consist of two continents: School and Work. I couldn't believe that people actually lived there.
In the repetitious discussions that followed—about reality, preparing children for reality, and what is realistic to do—I found myself becoming more and more isolated while my teaching fantasies became more ornate. If I was going to teach reading without a textbook, like the beloved bouffant-headed bombshell in my 25-cent book, I would need to plan—as if I were preparing to set up a classroom on a deserted island, somewhere between the continents.
I imagined that I and approximately 30 children would be shipwrecked à la Robinson Crusoe and that we would happen upon a shore full of desks and chairs, bulletin boards and shelves. And lo! What is that coming in on the tide? Why, a crate of children's literature specially selected by Madame Esmé! We are saved! We are saved! We are saved!
Fade to end of year. Helicopter rescue of 30 children and one teacher dressed fashionably in loincloth. Back to civilization. Standardized-test scores show no evidence of trauma. Roll credits.
Utterly unrealistic. Teaching without textbooks would also entail paying out of my pocket for a classroom library. Hard work, too, making up questions and tests. And, of course, the personal risk: If my students didn't get the skills they needed, the teachers in the next grade would string me up by my esophagus. Textbook teaching is team-teaching, I was told. Align or resign. But I was still young and inexperienced. So I needed someone to prove to me that textbook teaching is better in practice.
Nobody did.
Instead, the transcendent powers of trade books insistently made their case.

The Power of Children's Literature

I documented the experience in my journal during my first year of teaching.

September 27

After lunch each day I read aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.
I was reading The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she has a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses . . . a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.
Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discreetly showed me he that he was missing half a finger. It was a very macabre moment, but I didn't flinch.
I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."
"I . . . I only have nine and one-half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.
The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"
"Yeah, me, too!" said Kirk.
"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!

January 6

The time machine! Really, an old refrigerator box covered with aluminum foil, with a flashing police-car light rigged at the top and various knobs and keyboards screwed and glue-gunned on. Inside, a comfortable pillow for sitting and a flashlight attached to a curly phone cord. Maya helped me install a bookshelf inside the box with a power drill.
The idea: time travel through books.
I left the machine in the classroom, buckled and locked closed with lots of signs all over it: "Top secret!" "Under construction!" "No peeking, this means YOU!" "Danger! Highly radioactive!" and the like, to build anticipation. The big question buzzing: Is it real? Does it really work?
A tricky question. I recollect clambering over laundry bags in the back of my parent's closet, eyes closed, one hand groping, praying that I might enter C. S. Lewis's Narnia. Or, moving forward delicately, eyes closed again, toward the mirror in our dining room, in the hopes that I might go through, like Alice managed in Through the Looking Glass. Alas, my head bumped the back of the closet, my fingers could not penetrate the glass. This did not negate that such adventures were possible, only that I was not among the lucky ones to be so enchanted.
"Yes, it really works," I offered, acting slightly perturbed that they would ever doubt me.
In the weeks before winter break, children from other classrooms have popped in to deliver messages or borrow things, and they stared bug-eyed. "Is it real? Does it really work?"
"Yes, of course," the children sniffed, now annoyed at the skepticism.
Then, the next biggest question: Who would be the first daring hero to risk his or her life in the contraption? In the interest of fairness, this seemed best left to chance, even at the risk that some terrible realist like B. B. was chosen, who I imagined would announce, "It's nothing but a box full of books! It's a fake!"
It turned out that JoEllen was chosen. We sent her off with much fanfare, pressing buttons and turning knobs feverishly, double-checking for accuracy that the Medieval Period was properly set, making her promise that her mother would not sue me should something . . . unexpected . . . occur.
"Like what?" asked JoEllen.
"Being eaten," I ventured.
"Oooh!" The class crooned enviously.
"Yes, I hear that dragons possibly existed," I began, "though people may have believed that because of the inexplicable presence of dinosaur remnants found during the period. Still, if you'd rather give up your spot. . . ."
"I'll risk it," JoEllen said quickly.
"You're on school time," I reminded her. "In the event that you return in one piece, I expect a full report on what you saw."
In she went. The doors closed. On went the police-car light. "Back to work!" Silent reading time.
In a half hour, I retrieved her. She came out, breathless. "What did you see?" Everybody wanted to know. JoEllen paused. For thought, for effect, I'll never know.
"A joust."
"A what?"
"Two guys. Fighting on horses. Their armor clanging as they rode. Even the horses wore armor on their heads. The guys carried two big sticks. Everyone was watching and cheering, like a sport. One of the guys died, ran through with a stick. . . ."
The class was impressed. "Write it in your journal before you forget," I suggested. "Who's next?"
For the rest of the day, the kids took turns in the time machine. So far, nobody has said, "It's just a box full of books!"
After school, I shut the lights to leave and saw the machine with its red light still carouseling around. "Their armor clanging as they rode," I remembered. The words, the detail—they seemed different from what JoEllen regularly produces. I couldn't help squinting suspiciously at the silver box before turning it off.

Preparing for the Real World

As a teacher, one of my jobs is to indoctrinate children so that they succeed in the real world. Some people consider conformity to be the real world, but I disagree. Reality is a much smaller place than that. It exists not as a landscape of individuals, but within an individual's landscape. The strongest word in the language of that landscape is realize, or bring into being. When I think of reality in that way, I understand that it is not a place. It is a power. It is the power to make real, and everyone has it, streaming behind each dream like the tail of a kite. What greater power could I hope to pass on to children?
Children's book authors and illustrators consistently manifest the imagination into the tangible in the form of wonderful books. These artists generously give me and the children I teach the vehicles to navigate out of the places where majority rules. What vehicles? A boat, perhaps, like Max had in Where the Wild Things Are; a hot-air contraption like Professor Sherman's in The Twenty-One Balloons; a car to roll through Milo's Phantom Tollbooth; or a plane, even a crashed one, like the one in St. Exupery's The Little Prince. Perhaps I don't need a vehicle, just a ticket, like the golden one necessary to enter Wonka's factory, or the train ticket that allows Harry Potter to make his connection on Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, invisible at first and then appearing only to those who are meant to see it.
These adventures exist in the imagination, I know, but I want my students to know the real people behind the books who are committing real acts of art. I believe that literature helps children see something communicated in all things; see our similarities before our differences; and resuscitate an interest in and value of our world that is deadened by media hype, tripe, and the lies and biases of race and class. The daily exercise of reading aloud goes beyond preparing for standardized tests. It prepares children for all the unstandardized tests that life will administer.
Every teacher is entitled to have faith in the approach that sustains her or him in the face of teaching's adversities. That faith, coupled with practice, builds the risk taking, the documentation, and the ownership of content that make up the underlying skeletal system of classroom teaching. Such faith in an approach comes from the journey, not from a mandate.
I was blessed with a faith found in a 25-cent orange booklet, an approach to teaching that, for me, has been worth trying, worth advocating, worth staying for. Through children's literature, I am motivated to teach and am reminded every day that I am preparing children for lives that I hope will have some of the excitement usually found in books. Really.

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