Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
I admit it. For the longest time, I treated Twitter like a date for a root canal. Then Colby Sharp got me connected. And am I glad he did! Otherwise, I would have missed out on knowing Katherine Sokolowski, fellow Nerdy Book Club member and teacher extraordinaire (follow her: @katsok). Katherine’s from the Land of Lincoln and teaches in the same town in which she grew up. As someone who was the new kid nearly every year of her school life, I am so in awe of that kind of stay-puttedness. (note: I just invented a new word) Not only do we get to chat with Katherine today, we also get to meet one of her awesome students, Matt. Let’s dive in!
First, the getting to know you bits:
Katherine, where do you teach?
In Monticello, Illinois. It’s a tiny town in Central Illinois (5,000 people) and I grew up here as well.
This is my third year in fifth grade, thirteenth year in this district. (I taught fourth grade for ten years.)
Matt, what grade are you in?
Fifth Grade. I’ve been at this school for two years, but have been in this school district since Kindergarten.
Here’s the embarrassing part that I force all my interviewees to do–
A Peek at Your Past
Mrs. Sokolowski in 5th grade
Favorite school lunch as a kid:
Matt: Chicken Nuggets
Best friend in grade school:
Times you were the new kid in school:
Teacher who inspired you to stretch:
Katherine: Jan Tuck – first grade
Matt:Mrs. Sokolowski (and this is not just because she’s sitting right next to me now)
The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:
Katherine: Not care so much about what others thought of me.
Matt: Get straight A’s
Katherine, as a teacher who’s passionate about books, it must kill you to hear kids say they don’t like to read. How often do you hear this? Why do you think you do?
Each year I’d say 1/3 of my students tell me they don’t like to read or they say they do, but I know they are just telling me what they think I want to hear. I think many students haven’t found their way to books they enjoy. When they have to force themselves to read what is assigned or what they cannot connect to, I think they have a hard time imagining that reading could be something they enjoy.
You shared with me that one of your students didn’t see himself as a reader, though he was devouring graphic novels right and left. Tell me about that.
In that instance I was talking about the student I have with me, Matt, but it would hold true for many kids. I think they often haven’t enjoyed reading before and immediately connect with graphic novels but don’t see it as “real reading” because it’s fun. There are pictures and they seem like comic books. I also think some parents get worried they aren’t “really reading” and try to help them get away from graphic novels. I always share the fact that my husband is brilliant, a successful engineer, and reads a steady diet of comic books. Reading, of any format, is encouraged in my classroom. Matt is a fabulous example. He rocks our reading class.
What roadblocks do you see placed between kids and books?
I think there are several roadblocks. Our kids are so busy, they are involved in much more than I was a kid. That limits their time to read.
At my students’ age level, not as many parents read aloud to their children anymore; parents feel that since their students can read, read alouds aren’t needed. I think the shared story as part of a family ritual is important. It helps children see their parents as a role model for reading.
Also, I think that having the choice to read is critical. When we use whole class novels we aren’t reaching all of our students. Not only do they not all at the same level, they have different interests. If there’s a book we really want our students to experience, why not do it as a read aloud and encourage them to find what they love to read for independent reading?
What are the strategies parents and teachers can use to help kids recognize their innate desire to connect with story?
Great question. As a parent and a teacher, I feel it is my job to be a role model for my children and students. I talk about what I am reading a lot. I let them see me cry as I read. I tell them I am exhausted because I HAD to stay up late to find out what happened in my book. I let them see how I connect to reading.( my emphasis: Kirby)
I think this helps them find a reason they should connect. I talk about my reasons for picking books – and abandoning them when I cannot. I let my reading life open up so my students and my boys can see it. I think this is something all parents and teachers can do. The more I share of myself with my students and kids, the more they open up too.
What would you love to say to the parents of your students about the importance of reading?
I think, as a parent and teacher, having my children consider themselves readers is absolutely critical. Reading correlates to success later in life. But I think Nancie Atwell said it best when she said:
There’s nothing better for you – not broccoli, not an apple a day, not aerobic exercise. In terms of the whole rest of your life, in terms of making you smart in all ways, there’s nothing better. Top-ranking scientists and mathematicians are people who read a lot. Top-ranking historians and researchers are people who read a lot. It’s like money in the bank in terms of the rest of your life, but it also helps you escape from the rest of your life and live experiences you can only dream of. Most important, along with writing, it’s the best way I know to find out who you are, what you care about, and what kind of person you want to become.
So I think reading is a gift that can help our students succeed. But reading also taught me who I was, just as Ms. Atwell said. I wouldn’t be the same person I am without books. Reading makes me a better person.
Matt – Mrs. S. said you described yourself as someone who didn’t like to read. What does that mean to you?
I really can’t read books that have a lot of pages or that have big words. When the print is small I have hard time.This made me feel like I wasn’t a reader.
How did it feel when you realized you’d read 18 books in the first two weeks of school? (I’m sure you’ve read lots more books by now!)
Good, because last year in the first two weeks I hadn’t read any books. Now I’m on my 34th book.
What could authors do to help you and kids like you enjoy reading more?
Make graphic novels because it is something I’m interested in. Also, anytime pictures could be in novels it helps. (Like Wonderstruck.)
What do you think gets in the way of kids reading books for fun?
Not knowing what books to read. Also, when I get to choose books to read it makes it more fun.
I’m going to leave space below for Mrs. S to interview you, Matt, and vice versa about what you both like about graphic novels.
Mrs. Sokolowski and uber reader, Matt!
Matt – what is your favorite book this year?
Well, Earthling by Mark Fearing.
Why did you connect to that?
It took me awhile and it is a graphic novel, but I understood it and it was funny.
(I like long graphic novels like Ghostopolis.)
What do you think makes a good reading classroom and teacher?
A nice teacher that doesn’t yell so much, I like teachers that are kind. Also it helps if teachers like to read.
Is there anything you want to ask me? Could you get more graphic novels?
Anything else you want to say?
A lot of graphic novels.
I really, really appreciate Mrs. Sokolowski and Matt for spending this time with us today. If I could say anything to Matt, I would say thank you. Because he has encouraged me to explore graphic novels more. Though I devoured comic books as a kid, as an adult, graphic novels have been a bit of a puzzle to me.
I know I am going to sleep better tonight knowing that yet another of our country’s amazing teachers has made an indelible bond between kids and books. And I’ll sleep better knowing thoughtful, curious and generous kids like Matt will soon be in charge of things.