The situation is frightening. Teachers are being laid off, libraries are losing their state funding and choices are being made (in the great state of Texas and elsewhere) that negates the importance of reading, learning, and thinking to our society as a whole. The harsh budget cuts have been telling. In my town, for example, while the sports teams remain intact, the high school library does not. The school librarian has been laid off and they are removing the library books from the building. This is the decision made by the board of education in the name of doing what is best for their highly touted school with the motto, “A Tradition of Excellence.”
The overall outlook is indeed so grim that I was happy to have the chance to refocus my thoughts on my small little corner of the planet—a fifth grade classroom with eighteen 10 and 11 year old children. I was in charge of the classroom for two weeks; I concentrated on doing my best to get them thinking and stretching their minds in that short amount of time. I piled up my favorite nonfiction from my collection and then I went to the library and borrowed even more. I chose mostly books I had read by authors I admire. I knew they were quality books and I knew my students would enjoy them. Now I just had to figure out how to convince them.
At first, I selected a book for each student that I hoped would generally match both their reading level and their interests. I told them when they finished that book, they could come up and make their next selection from the heaping piles that I had placed on the desks. Then we engaged in a conversation about how to choose a book and going beyond the overwhelmingly favorite method of judging a book by its cover. Our motto become front, back, blurb, pictures, captions.
Well, I certainly got my share of begging, pleading, deep sighs, and eye rolling when I handed out the books. I gave the history buff a book on Barbarians and the girl who never stops drawing Jan Greenberg’s book on Vincent Van Gogh. OK, so far. But I got a long argument from one boy about how he already knew enough about Edison and wasn’t much interested in reading a whole book about him and I got the death glare from the girly girl when I handed her a book called, “Bull’s Eye” by Sue Macy with the picture of a girl with a gun on the cover. “You’ll like it. I promise,” I said as she sulked back to her seat.
Over the next two weeks we talked a lot about main idea, interesting facts, and nonfiction in general. We made a big chart to post the books they had read. They wrote the main idea down on post it notes and gave the book a rating. I’m happy to report that every book (except one about Pirates) got a good or great rating from the fifth grade readers. When I asked them to share something about the books they had read, hands were raised enthusiastically to be the first to share. Kathleen Krull’s “The Boy Who Invented TV” was a favorite among many. From Marfe Ferguson Delano’s book “Earth In the Hot Seat” one girl quoted statistics about how many cans of soda the average American drank in a lifetime and we were all duly grossed out. One boy was so enraptured by Jim Murphy’s “Truce” that I actually had to ask him to stop talking after a while and let someone else have a turn.
There were some great moments of book sharing and enjoyment. The Edison know it all wound up loving the book and explaining to everyone Edison’s role in the early days of movie making. The artsy girl read only the Van Gogh book for two weeks. On the last day she told me she had almost finished it last night but her Dad had made her turn the lights off and go to bed. And, yes, girly girl stood up proudly to share her new found love and appreciation for Annie Oakley. She even gave a great mock demonstration on how Annie used a mirror to shoot over her shoulder and behind her.
I loved to hear and read what the kids thought of their books. But more than that, I loved to watch them come over to the piles and sort through to make their selection. By the second week, they came to believe they’d find something they’d like. They had learned from experience that this was a chance to read some things they might not have known how to find or probably would not have chosen for themselves on their own. I was glad to have the opportunity to give them access to some really interesting book choices. They deserve nothing less.