Category Archives: Reading

Favorite Letter-Writing Books

This is the time of year (Valentine’s Day) when many preschool classrooms explore themes related to writing notes and letters. For many programs who have a policy of not explicitly celebrating holidays, this is a way that teachers address the seasonal topics that can arise. I’m of the opinion that letter-writing at any time of the year is one of the very best activities to incorporate into your household or curriculum. It’s a unique way of connecting with people we care about while developing literacy and community skills. In our age of technological communication, there is something extra-special about putting pen to paper, sticking a stamp on a letter, and visiting an actual mailbox or post office! Allow me to put on my grandma hat for a moment and ponder whether kids today will learn how to properly address an envelope, look up a name or number in the phone book, or write an actual check. Are these lost arts? They don’t need to be.

Every preschool classroom (and home) should have a well-stocked writing center as well as a system in place for exchanging messages. In general, children love exchanging messages. In fact, who doesn’t? When I sift through the mail and find a hand-addressed card from my mom among the bills and junk mail, my heart skips a beat. If you need ideas and inspiration for creating, expanding, or maintaining a writing center, I suggest taking a peek at Pinterest (search terms: preschool writing center, writing center, preschool mailboxes), with the warning that you can easily lose hours down this rabbit hole.

There are countless beautiful books for all ages that center around writing letters or exchanging messages. Below you’ll find some of my personal favorites for preschoolers.

Dear Annie by Judith Caseley. Our heroine, Annie, has exchanged letters with her grandpa since the day she was born. This is a lovely catalog of their relationship, as well as providing great examples of the process of sending and receiving mail. A simple story at its heart, it provides rich fodder for class discussions about writing, adventures, and grandparents. Every child will be inspired to write a letter of their own to someone special.

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak tells a similar story of a grandmother and grandson, with the twist being that the grandmother writes in Korean and the little boy expresses his message with pictures. This is a gorgeous story about cross-culture communication (and cross-generational) that speaks to preschoolers who can’t fully “write” their messages. It’s an essential addition to the classroom library of every diverse program.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Farmer Brown’s cows have begun sending him typed messages with their requests. This is a laugh-out-loud funny book about some ingenious barnyard animals and their sophisticated negotiation tactics. Children who feel empowered by putting pen to paper will particularly enjoy the message and the story can prompt some wonderful conversation about how to peacefully express wants and needs and how to meet in the middle. I have found this book to also be a great springboard to talking about different ways of communicating (what if you couldn’t speak? how would you communicate?) and what typewriters and keyboards are for.

A Letter to Amy by Ezra Jack Keats. This is the story of a boy who wishes to invite a girl to his otherwise all-boy birthday party and he wants to send her a written invitation. On his way to mail the invitation, he runs into the girl and knocks her down. He worries that she won’t wish to attend the party. The story may not seem highly relevant to today, but I think the work of Ezra Jack Keats is timeless. Preschoolers in particular are at a heightened awareness of boyness and girlness and that storyline will appeal to them. It will prompt passionate discussion about what should be done when you knock someone down, accidentally or not, and how friendships can start in the most unlikely of ways.

From the Frog and Toad Are Friends story collection by Arnold Lobel comes the perfectly lovely story, The Letter. Toad mournfully describes the time of day when the mail is delivered as the saddest part of his day, as no one ever sends him any mail. Frog immediately realizes what needs to be done and he sends Toad a letter. This is a classic tale of friendship for any age but resonates with particular meaning for small children. This short story is best for small group readings and is really enjoyable as an audiobook.

Send It by Don Carter follows the journey of a package cross-country. The simple but engaging book is wonderful to have on hand for independent reading while a classroom explores the ideas of writing and sending.

Tell me: what are your favorite books about corresponding?

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Reading For Meaning

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and while it provided me with much to think about in terms of technology and brain development, an unexpected bonus was that it also gave me much to think about in regards to reading. Carr spends a good amount of time looking at the historic evolution of technology, including the period of time before and after the printing press. He examines how the act of reading, and specifically “deep reading,” changed the shape of human brains and society. He goes on to examine how we’re losing our ability to deeply engage with the written, printed word in favor of attempting to absorb an endless stream of snippets via the Internet.

About a month ago I had read (in its entirety, even when I got scared of the graphs) this Slate article: How People Read Online: Why You Won’t Finish This Article and I’m still thinking about it today. Even as I type, I’m thinking about how you may not finish this post. I’m speculating as to how your eyes may track across your screen. Have I taken away enough potential distractions with a spartan blog design? Don’t blame yourself if you can’t reach the end. I don’t blame myself and I’m ultimately the one tasked with keeping you engaged. After digesting Carr’s findings, I understand that it may all be a little bit out of your hands by now, if you’ve spent enough time mixing with digital media and rewiring your brain to swallow snippets rather than paragraphs. I’ve already given you two links, suggesting to your brain that it opt out of what I’m about to share about reading. But if you, like me, really care about reading, you may wish to read on.

I learned to read before I was four. I don’t remember how it happened, but I do remember not being able to read and then being able to read. One of the first times my mom realized that I could read was when we had taken our cat to the vet and I was sounding out the words displayed high on the wall: cat, dog, fish, bird. This moment was somehow so important in my early life that I can picture the vet’s office in my mind and that was one of only two times in my life that I was there. When I ask my parents about my learning to read, they don’t talk about this instance, but they remember other times when I took them off guard by reading signs aloud. Once I started to read, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. It was such a heady feeling — like I suddenly, independently had access to all sorts of material that hadn’t made sense this way before. I tried to read everything. I remember a few years later, at six or seven, I pulled Gone With the Wind from a shelf and leafed through. “I think I can read this,” I told my dad, “I know almost all of these words.” I read a few sentences aloud. “There is more to reading than knowing the words,” my dad explained, “Part of reading is being able to understand and think about what you read.” I nodded sagely and filed this information away because it seemed important, even if I didn’t understand it then.

I understand it now. In fact, now more than ever, having learned a thing or two over the years about the development of literacy and how our brains work (not to mention a thing or two about Gone With the Wind). Something to keep in mind, as we actively teach children to read at younger and younger ages, is that the act of reading doesn’t mean much. It’s the complementary tasks of reflecting, recalling, making connections, and finding meaning that really matter. It’s those things that make the human brain so unique and wonderful. It’s those doors that we need to keep open for children, because inside there is where all the magic happens. (We also need to trust that sometimes that magic needs to happen independently.) (Oops, there’s another link. I just lost a few more of you.)

A few quotes from Nicholas Carr on reading deeply:

“In the quiet spaces opened by the prolonged, undisturbed reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

“What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning.”

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.”

I don’t always read deeply, and, like Nicholas Carr, I have a legitimate concern that I will read less and less deeply the more I engage in Internet reading, browsing, and mindless immersion. I have done the research and I know that my attention span and focus are being compromised by technology. I also know that we don’t need to read deeply each time we read in order to reap the intellectual benefits. We just need to unplug. We can dip our toes in the frothy and frivolous and we’re still building better brains than if we were pointing and clicking through Scientific America. What we need is the quiet and the opportunity to reflect.

A few tips for reading deeply:

  • Read something that challenges you. Not something that bores you.
  • Read something unexpected: poetry, if you don’t normally delve into poetry; try fiction if you’re a non-fiction kind of reader and vice versa.
  • Take notes.
  • Pause. Reflect. Resume.
  • Talk about what you’ve read! Not only with others who have read it, although that can be wonderful.
  • Make time and space for reading. It doesn’t have to be hours of time and it doesn’t have to be silent space, but it does have to be relatively uninterrupted by email and it does have to be relatively consistent (aim for daily).

I’m dismayed at regular intervals by reports of fewer people engaging in book reading than ever before. But I’m not sure this is true. I’m personally meeting more people who are readers, who are proud to be readers, and who introduce me to new books and new ideas all the time. This is encouraging, not only for me personally as a reader, but for society in general. Children need to see us reading (books! magazines! newspapers! cereal boxes!) and they need to think about us reading and them reading and what it means to be a reader. Children don’t become literate simply by learning to read. The literate know how to think about what they read and what they want to read and what they hope others will read.

“Literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole but also in the individual who is striving for fulfillment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write. Literacy means far more than learning how to read and write. The aim is to transmit knowledge and promote social participation.” From UNESCO Institute for Education

What about you? Are you reading deeply or are you sticking to the shallows? (Hint: if you made it this far down a page, there’s hope for you.)

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Favorite Nap Reads

When I was teaching in a full-day preschool program, one of my favorite times of day was nap time. Not for the obvious reason (all the children sleep for a couple of hours and teachers get to catch up on paperwork), but because of the routines we had established in my mixed-age classroom. Each student was responsible for getting their napping mat, blanket, and comfort item and taking it to their designated spot to set up for sleep. The younger children needed help with putting on sheets and laying out blankets, and sometimes the older children would assist them. It was a point of pride to get the sheet fitted over the mat properly and they would congratulate one another on their efforts. Each child wanted to be “tucked in” in a different way — some with their blankets wrapped around them (“Make me a taquito!” they begged), some with their blanket laid gently on top of them (“Float it over me like a butterfly,” one girl instructed), some with it simply beside them. Before we dimmed the lights, each child would go to the library and choose a book to “read” on their bed before sleep. Another book would be chosen, sometimes by a child and sometimes by myself, to be read aloud when they were all settled and their own books set aside. We would choose books that were peaceful in tone, but interesting enough to generate some quiet discussion and eager anticipation of the ritual. The best part of the routine, in my opinion, was the nature of the reading. It differed from our usual booksharings in that the children were laying down in the dark, unable to see the book and examine the pictures. I would encourage them to close their eyes and see the story in their minds. One especially enthusiastic little boy would exclaim each day, “I can SEE it, Maestra! I SEE the pictures IN MY HEAD!” Magic. These were some of our perennial favorites.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. This classic is near and dear to my heart for personal reasons. As a child, I would go on walks at night with my dad, looking for owls in the woods near our house. This book is visually beautiful, but also a lovely, peaceful story with evocative language. If you haven’t shared this with a child, I encourage you to do so. It can prompt the most wonderful discussions and explorations (nature, night, winter, snow, hikes, etc.). Also try Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

Amos and Boris by William Steig. Call me sentimental (guilty as charged!), but I think this is one of the best books ever written about friendship, love, and courage. Amos is a mouse who is rescued by Boris, a whale. Years later, Amos is faced with the opportunity to help Boris. Who could believe that a small mouse could come to the aide of a whale, such a massive, noble creature? There are layers of gentle, moving lessons in this lovely book. William Steig has been a favorite of mine since I was small and I also had great success sharing and reflecting on his story of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble with this age group.

Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney. Little llama has trouble going to sleep alone in his bed and his mama offers him reassurance. Preschoolers who are away from their moms and dads for an entire day love the reassurance of knowing that their parents are thinking of them and loving them every moment that they are apart.

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. This classic has stood the test of time so well. My students related to this structure of this family unit, the idea of saving pennies, and they loved hearing about a mother and about love. Terrible things happen in the story, but also wonderful things and preschoolers appreciate a true-to-life tale. This is a well-told story for any time, but it lends itself to snuggling up for nap.

How Do I Love You? by P.K. Hallinan. There is nothing more reassuring than drifting off to sleep knowing that you’re loved. This simple, rhyming book tells children that they’re loved on their “very best and very worst of days.” My students would request this one again and again. I recommend the bilingual version.

When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth by Jamie Lee Curtis. In my experience, children love to reflect on their youth. This book always prompts fun discussion, but it’s also just fun to listen to, like all of Jamie Lee Curtis’s books for children. Preschoolers will find much to identify with and mine always found it very affirming of their own routines and habits. When it’s no longer naptime, engage with some of her other titles including Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day, Big Words for Little People, and (my personal favorite), Is There Really a Human Race? (my nieces cannot get enough of the illustrations in this one).

A few classics that require no introduction, but should not be overlooked: Caps for Sale, Where the Wild Things Are,Harry the Dirty Dog, Little Bear, and of course Goodnight Moon, which most of us can recite by heart but truly stands the test of time for a soothing bedtime read.

What are your favorite naptime reads?

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Favorite Sensory Books

As a follow-up to my post about reading physical books, here are a few of my favorite sensory books for all ages.

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. This book is so much fun to read and explore, and it also demonstrates a powerful lesson about mistakes and resilience. It’s pretty irresistible for ages 3-103.

Scanimation books from Rufus Butler Seder amaze me. They have won awards, are sold in museums all over the world, and continue to dazzle adults just as much (if not more) than children. I advise you to start with Waddle, then Gallop, then Swing. Or vice versa. Try them all. You’ll come back to them again and again.

Fluffy Chick and Friends by Roger Priddy is a perennial favorite in my program, along with the others from the same line: Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle. When my friend Anelie visited from Germany with her baby (now toddler), Finn, he had the book in German and we compared notes on how the verse, which I had read so many times that I had it memorized, differed in the translation (turns out the German version is less poetic). Cloth books can be pricey to buy, but these particular ones hold up very well to repeated machine washings and all the brutality groups of babies can inflict on them. Take my advice and never run Squishy Turtle through the dryer by mistake, however.

I really can’t say enough wonderful things about Sandra Boynton’s books for children of every age. They make people happy and they’re always a lyrical, enjoyable read. They’re designed for reading aloud, which puts them in the sensory book category, I think, along with the likes of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess. Your Personal Penguin is one that I know for certain comes with a digital song download to enhance your experience. Perhaps some of her others do as well?

Roger Priddy and Eric Carle teamed up to create a series of “Slide and Find” books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Slide and Find, which adds a level of interactivity to the traditional story that can’t be beat for toddlers. This book has been tried and tested in my program and it’s a hands-down success. I recommend it for both shared reading experiences and solo discovery (great for a car trip, when little hands are big enough to support the fairly heavy book). We have tried a few of the other “Slide and Find” books and also enjoy Priddy’s Trucks, which will hold attention and appeal through preschool.

Another delightful Eric Carle sensory experience is The Very Quiet Cricket, recommended for ages three and up. My preschool class never tired of the surprise of hearing the cricket sound at the end of the book. It prompted many thoughtful discussions about crickets, insects, and sounds. As a result of discussions started by this book, we spent one lovely afternoon relaxing to an insect sounds CD, eyes closed.

I’m not a huge fan of the “Play-a-Sound” books, with the panel of sound buttons to the right of the story. In my experience, they distract (like an enhanced e-book) from the book a little too much. I like my books a bit more simple. However, this version of Puppy and Friends is not too offensive and provides a great tactile experience as well. Recommended for toddlers, rather than infants (there is a little too much happening at once for the younger audience, in my opinion). Priddy offers a whole line of “Touch-and-Feel” books, sans sounds, which appeal to infants, including On the Farm and Mealtime.

Tails by Matthew Van Fleet has become a really popular sensory book — I see it everywhere! With good reason. It’s a wonderful concept (children are drawn to animal tails) and beautiful execution. It’s not as sturdy as a board book, which is something to be aware of with infants and young toddlers, but it’s a very tactile experience.

Was this post helpful to you? Let me know and I will follow up with more reviews. Please share your own in the comments below!

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Reading in Our Changing World

Mari Passananti posed the most interesting question in her blog post, “If You Read But Your Child Doesn’t Realize It, Does It Count?” She writes,

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children’s educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial.

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here’s the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count?

What do you think?

I love this question and the dialogue that it can prompt. The Pew Research Center reports that parents prefer physical books for their children, even while they value e-readers for themselves.

Parents of minor children do not necessarily read more than adults who do not currently have minor children (“other adults”), but they are heavier consumers of audio books and e-books. Sixteen percent of parents have read more than 20 books in the past year and an additional 13% have read 11-20 books while two in ten parents (22%) report no reading in the past 12 months. [more]

In-person focus groups by Pew revealed what I would have speculated:

  1. Parents want to recreate for children the shared reading experiences that they themselves had as children.
  2. Parents want children to know that they’re reading, so choosing a physical book seems a better choice than a device that could be used for other activities like games, Facebook, etc.
  3. Parents value the sensory experience offered by physical books as opposed to e-books.

As a teacher and reader, these are the same things that I argue in defense of physical books. Although a study conducted in Germany found there is no difference for your brain between reading a print page and reading a screen, readers often insist that the experience is different. (Please note that the study in question involved adults, not children.) That’s because the act of reading a book is more than your “reading behaviors” and eye-tracking. The act of reading a book may be the experience of turning pages, smelling paper and glue (and maybe some mildew or smoke or other traces of the book’s journey through the world), marking it up, and sharing it with others — it is undeniable that there is a difference between passing a book to a friend over coffee, with your dogeared pages and broken spine, than sending a link via email. I fully, deeply acknowledge the sensory pleasures of books and reading, even while I do the majority of my reading via e-reader these days. My house is still packed with books, stacked on tables and floors and overflowing their shelves. If I love a book, I want to see a physical embodiment of it in front of me. I just do.

But we’re not talking about me or us as adult readers. We’re talking about the experiences of children and what children need to be successful readers. An opinion piece by Amira Hood entitled Physical Books Provide Tangible Benefits mentioned a study reported on by The Guardian.

This is an age where, according to a study reported by the Guardian UK, children are being deprived of the joys of reading a physical book. The study determined that when children used e-books, it “prompted more non-content related actions (eg behaviour or device-focused talk, pushing hands away)… Children reading enhanced e-books also recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

Even though the campaign to get kids to read is nothing new, new attention is being drawn to the subject due to the many lifelong dangers presented by e-books for both children and parents. “Some of the extra features of enhanced ebooks may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall.” In the article, researchers say that the priority of “literacy-building experiences over ones intended ‘just for fun’” will give children a better foundation.

The study in question looked at so-called enhanced e-books, which offer bells and whistles not found in physical books, which frequently distract from the reading experience. The thing I found most interesting from the study was the report on non-content-related actions. “The enhanced ebook was less effective than the print and basic ebook in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. When adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalisation by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.” I think this is really the most important aspect of the study because it gets to the heart of this discussion as it highlights the parental behavior. Are you teaching your child to use an e-reader or tablet or are you sharing a story? There have been studies in the past that reveal the same sort of behavior-correcting actions with physical booksharing. We know, in child development, that the best booksharing with young children allows for them to skip pages, to “read” back-to-front, to stop “reading” the story altogether to talk about the picture of the dog or to ask questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” When we bookshare, we don’t just open to the first page and read each word on each page from front to back until The End. It’s a shared experience, a conversation, a dance. When parental corrections intrude on the experience, they intrude on literacy and relationships with books.

When we read with babies, they learn how to turn pages (fine motor!), to track with their eyes, to make meaning of symbols, to understand conversation. They also hear our hearts beating, feel our arms around them, feel the rhythm of the language from our throats and chests, hear emotion, and — often, I hope — taste, smell, and feel the book itself as a physical object. Many of these aspects of booksharing can be effectively created with “basic e-books,” that present the words and pictures without the bells and whistles. A large portion of the sensory experience, in terms of holding a physical book, will be lost, but will a child miss them? A child will choose the sensory experience of a parent’s arms over the sensory experience of a book just about any day.

The question becomes: Do we want our children to live in a world without physical books? Will this happen? It could, but I think it will be a long time coming, due to our own nostalgia. Parents who were raised on physical books can’t resist passing that tradition down to their children. Last night, my husband leafed through one of his childhood books before bed, having unearthed it from a closet in his parents’ house while they packed to move. He was transfixed, a wistful smile on his face. Books, like so many sensory experiences, can be portals to another time. We live in a nostalgic society. For example, Polaroid cameras are very in (again). I have a weakness for old typewriters. My generation obsessed over 60s and 70s fashion and now I see young kids in 80s-style clothing. In this kind of world, books will never fade away.

readers

So what are parents to do? READ WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Read books, real books! Go to libraries. Read e-books. Explore enhanced e-books and resist the urge to correct what your child may be doing “wrong” in the process. Listen to audio books. Read store and street signs, magazines, newspapers, online articles, letters, junk mail, cereal boxes. Read, read, read. Model reading: read cookbooks, read warning labels, read driving directions, read books and read e-books. Write, and model writing. Make lists, leave notes, draw maps, send letters, and write down stories. Type. Let your children type. Most surveys seem to indicate that in the era of e-books, people are reading more. Let’s go for it, full-force. Don’t let the bells and whistles of brain-draining technology distract you. Your child’s brain will develop at a rapid pace, so make sure that yours continues to work at it as well.

Literacy and a love of learning don’t develop in a bubble, with an iPad. They’re developed through curiosity and enthusiasm and relationships. Follow your child’s passions and consciously bring books and reading into the equation. That’s your job, in fostering a future reader. And if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay tuned!

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The Nonfiction Debate

This morning I read a piece in The New York Times about the Common Core Standards‘ nonfiction requirements: What Should Children Read? With the implementation of Common Core Standards, the article reports, fully 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles, which is quite a shift from where the focus seems to have been in recent years. My memories of assigned readings throughout my public and private education, from elementary school through university, primarily involve works of fiction (one notable exception being The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank). I do have fond memories of reading Scholastic’s Weekly Reader publication in class, as well as reporting on “current event” articles from the local newspapers from time to time in fourth and fifth grade.

I haven’t read the new standards in their entirety myself, but I imagine that teachers will have to take the good with the bad. One question that the debate over fiction versus nonfiction raises is why we want children to read certain titles and genres. As we engage in necessary and important debate, we must never lose sight of the fact that we want, more than anything, for children to read, full stop. A quote that particularly jumped out at me from the article this morning was the following:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

My initial response to this is visceral and biased because I have a deep and abiding passion for fiction and children’s self-expression. There is nothing like sharing a wonderful work of fiction and fantasy with children. It could be considered an imperative of human tradition, if we trace back fables, fairy tales, and oral storytelling through the ages. Nothing compares to the feeling of being carried away by imagination. And, as we know, if we want to successfully compete in the world of tomorrow, we need creativity! Additionally, fiction is tied inextricably to reality. It allows for seeing events and challenges through different lenses and can help children to develop theory of mind (that is, being able to see things from other points of view). The most successful schools will balance the development of all of the unique strengths and skills of children, including those who will one day lead us in business and those who will one day lead us in the arts. Our emphasis on self-expression does not need to undermine an understanding of facts and figures. In fact, self-expression can make for mathematicians and marketers who can reach other people more effectively.

I personally don’t relish the thought of living and working in a world devoid of self-expression. I prefer to engage with other people with rich imaginations and passionate interests on diverse topics. I love it when someone can share with me something from a book or article they’ve read. We’re so much more interesting, on the whole, when we’re reading and writing and just generally expressing ourselves.

The benefits of reading and writing fluently are seemingly endless and it is always a top priority in education, no matter your educational philosophy or stance on fiction versus nonfiction. We can all agree that we not only want children to read and write, but to enjoy doing so (because it is with this enjoyment that they will be most successful). Coming from a preschool education background, I find the debate a bit — dare I say?– silly. I believe that by the time children reach high school, it’s getting a bit late in the game to light their fire. By this stage of development, they should not only read and write fluently, but be able to select quality fiction and nonfiction that sets their minds and hearts ablaze. By this stage they should have encountered and been guided by numerous teachers, mentors, and librarians, showing them the tremendous diversity available in the written word and engaging and challenging them with discussion.

In preschool circles, we talk about creating for children a “text-rich” environment to encourage early literacy. This means that children see examples of text in many different contexts, from labels and signs to books and magazines. They have the opportunity to read recipes and follow printed directions. They read and draw maps. They observe teachers taking notes and writing reports and they have the opportunity to dictate descriptions of their own artwork and projects. When I was teaching preschool, I would often check out adult reference books from the library on topics my students were interested in, from sharks to rabbits to construction to pies. As passionate as children are for stories, rhymes, and imaginary pursuits, they are passionately hungry for nonfiction — for understanding exactly how real things work and fit together and what it all means. (Have you ever shown a princess-obsessed four-year-old girl a book of real castles or shared stories of true royalty? They’re hooked from the word go. Even infants prefer books with pictures of REAL faces, real foods, and real objects, as compared to illustrations — the very earliest level of nonfiction available in bookstores and libraries.) Based on my own experiences as both teacher and student, I don’t think it would be too much of a challenge to apply the same principles as children grow. High schoolers too have passionate real-world interests that teachers can cultivate and pursue through examples of nonfiction texts. Nonfiction and fiction sometimes compliment one another, as my own recent research into the life of Mary Todd Lincoln (my interest inspired by watching the movie Lincoln) has revealed — I have dipped into both fictionalized and fact-based accounts of her life to try to gain a better understanding of her as a complete person. Here is what appeals to me: an articulate, compelling piece of writing that invites me to learn something new.

We bathe young children in dozens and dozens examples of texts so that they will know what is available to them and how written language is utilized; so that they will see its value, I suppose. By the time we’ve grown up a bit more, we should be sold on it. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to be convincing high school students that reading is really a very good and important thing to do — they should by that time be fully invested themselves, as well as competent in researching topics of interest. Wouldn’t it be something if we weren’t telling them what to read but instead they were telling us what they’re reading?

Readers are better writers. If this is what we want for students (and I hope we do), we can certainly agree on Sara Mosle’s statement:

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing.

In all areas of curriculum, it would behoove us to focus on quality over quantity. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would also like to suggest taking a grand leap and trusting in students to pursue areas of personal interest — be it fiction or nonfiction — because it is then that true, meaningful learning begins to happen. We need to lay the groundwork, issue the invitation, and then give students the space for the magic to happen. When we want to learn something, when we feel that spark, the sky is the limit and even the most well-written standards can’t hold us back.

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