From the Office of the Future of Reading

Please join me in welcoming today’s guest blogger, Erica Shipow. Erica is a 5th grade writing teacher and librarian at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Boston, MA. When she was four, she threw a book down the stairs and was instantly reprimanded by her mother, who told her that “books are our friends.” She is happy to have made friends with so many books since then. You can find her on Twitter.

Erica Shipow

I did not expect to be inspired on the last Monday of the school year. Honestly, my thoughts this year were focused less on learning and more on keeping my classroom from self-imploding as we counted down to summer. Not quite knowing what to do, I turned to one of my old standbys – picture books. This time around, I chose Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer.

Rules of Summer came out just over a month ago, and it is already generating lots of buzz (including snagging a Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Honor last month!). It is a story of two brothers and their summer “rules,” and in true Shaun Tan fashion it shows so much more than it tells. The text in the book is comprised of a series of simple statements: Never leave the back door open overnight, never forget the password, etc. Where the depth of the story develops is in the illustrations, which use abstract images to convey the true spirit behind each “rule” and to develop the relationship between the older and younger brother.

When I first saw the book, I figured I would just read it quickly to my 5th grade writing students and then have them create their own “rules” as a fun end-of-year activity. I knew that there was a lot happening in the illustrations, and I told my students that they would have to “look deeper” to figure out what was really going on, but I wasn’t sure that they would really understand or care about the story or the abstract images. I was so, so wrong.

My students went NUTS for this book. By page two, they were already leaping up, hands in the air, shouting “I know! I know! I get it!” By page three, they had started to create a storyline. By page four, they were asking me to turn back to previous pages because they had noticed recurring images. And on each page, they pointed out things that I never would have noticed on my own. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my students so excited, so curious, so fearless – they freely admitted when they didn’t understand certain pictures, and they took risks in interpreting what they saw and challenging each other’s interpretations. It was inspiring, it was authentic, and it was AWESOME.

Generating this sort of enthusiasm is not always easy. There is a lot we have to do day-to-day in our classrooms, and sometimes we worry so much about making the most out of the time we have that we overplan and overscript and overassess. If we really want to see our kids as readers, though, and in turn have them see themselves as readers, we have to hand the reins over to them. We have to let them experience the sheer power of finding something new and cool and weird and making some sense out of it. Whether it’s with picture books or novels or nonfiction texts or graphic novels or whatever, we have to give students ownership in figuring things out. That’s what the true joy of books is all about – not necessarily finding the meaning, not completely understanding the meaning so that you can spit it out in an essay or on an exam, but actively creating that meaning – and the more we can connect our kids with books that let them do that, the more joyful they will be.

I felt as if I was in your classroom, Erica, soaking up your students’ enthusiasm. Thanks for this great remember to let kids take the lead in their own learning!