Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Teacher's Wish List

This is my post from January of 2011. It got a lot of comments because it hit a nerve. We are in this business, all of us, to help children, and to help ALL children. So even though most teachers and school librarians are taking a well-deserved vacation right now, and writers are taking off here and there (next month we're going to the Galapagos to revisit those gorgeous islands, and to speak), our hearts never take a vacation, do they? Speaking of hearts, knock wood, no more problems with that organ here. See you in the fall!

A Teacher's Wish List

When I was thinking about what I would write for this post, after a month filled with family medical stuff, which included intense nerve pain for a month (me); a middle of the night dramatic collapse (husband) followed by 34 hours in a NYC Emergency Room (if only I wrote for grown-ups I'd have enough material for the rest of my life just from the set of rotating characters in the bed next to us), I decided I would take the easy way out and ask some teacher friends of mine to give me a list of books they wish someone would write.

[By the way, so you pay attention to the rest of my post and don't worry too much about us, as I write this, my husband is walking around the apartment strapped to a portable heart monitor, which I've named Halle Berry so he doesn't hate it so much, and which I am convinced will show as that his AFib was not a common occurrence; and my pain has, in the first words of ?John Stuart Mill? (someone else?), somewhat abated. I have every reason to believe we both are going to be o.k., though I must say the most commonly used word around our place lately is "vulnerable"...]

Anyway, thinking I'd let some teachers do the work for me (which in no way reflects my history with teachers, I swear), I started with my friend Jane Ribecky Geist, whom I've known since fourth grade. Jane teaches fifth grade in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we both grew up. Her school is Union Terrace Elementary school. I visited there as an author many years ago and then volunteered in the reading lab, where I got to know the dedicated teachers and the circumstances of much of the student population. I have decided to start and stop with Jane today because what she wrote to me was so moving--and, incidentally, fit emotionally in a profound way with our last month (think vulnerability)--that I don't see the point in going farther right now. But I do hope teachers will chime in with their own wish lists and suggestions.

I asked Jane what was her wish list for nonfiction books for her kids, and here is what she said:

"I wish there was more nonfiction for kids on the unsung heroes in our history. I am just finishing Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I was telling my kids about it and they were enthralled! I even brought the book to school and selected sections for some of them to read. Any time we talk about history - and I mean truly talk about it, no Hallmark card renditions allowed - they don't want to stop! From the explorers to present day (thank you, Miss Laudenslager, for giving us background knowledge), there are people who made our nation what it is today, but they are not written about enough. [Note: Miss Laudenslager was our fifth grade teacher.] Spies, women who did their part, tales of defiance and survival - even the tricky strategies of the known people....when Washington decided to attack the Hessians (Valley Forge) and ignore the generally accepted policy of abstaining from battle on holidays...are excellent topics. My kids don't want to hear that everyone was smart, motivated, and morally sound. Let them know that these people may have been a lot like them. But they were passionate! And that is what allowed them to persevere - something kids in the Allentown School District must do everyday - continue to continue despite the hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives."

What Jane means about the "hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives" is this:

"Most of my kids are emotionally deprived, lacking almost any kind of attention - almost an after-thought by their parents....(due to their parents' struggles)

socially deprived

living at the poverty level


severely lacking in life experiences/background knowledge (some never heard of a groundhog, in 5th grade!!!)

very below grade level

lots with learning disabilities (due to mother's choices while pregnant or lack of nutrition when young or experiences sustained - eating lead paint chips - ??? who really knows...there's just soooo many of this type of child in our school)

often very street-wise

severe lack of boundaries within the home

First hand experience with a lot of violence - seeing dad burn mom, seeing sister shot in gang-related issue, shots outside of their homes, beaten/cigarette-burned themselves, often by those they 'love'

people doing drugs/drinking while kids are right there...."

And yet, they go to my friend Jane's class and she brings the world of history to them. However she can. And those kids, kids who get free breakfast and lunch at school, kids who probably have no books at home, have parents who work two jobs, or don't work at all, kids who have close relatives in jail, etc., these fifth graders are hungry to hear about success. They are captivated by heroes, real-people heroes with foibles and hard lives; people who make bad choices, who struggle and ultimately achieve success.

Let's see what we can do to help--fellow writers, publishers, librarians and teachers. Please, first of all, suggest some books you think Jane might be able to use in her class. Remember that although she teaches fifth grade, she needs books that are written on lower reading levels. (A quick aside, my friend who teaches fourth grade in a private school said she also needs books on historical and scientific topics on lower reading levels.) Second, let's all look for ways to write and publish books, on lower reading levels, about people these kinds of kids can relate to. As I finish this post (on Monday morning) my son just put "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor song on the stereo--

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth

Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong

1 comment:

CC said...

Excellent piece. Going to share this with my nephew, Josh, who is teaching English as a Second Language here in Phila.