In the United States October is harvest month and each year for the last seventeen I have done my tiny part to help glean perhaps the most essential harvest of all; a love of reading.
My family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa U.S.A. in 1998 and our two boys started attending school at Nixon Elementary in August of that year. In October of 1998 I participated in my first of seventeen (and counting!) consecutive “AMERICA READS Reading is contagious” celebrations. This program brings reading volunteers into the local metro schools for the purpose of sharing books and a love of literacy with the students and has been around since 1997. While some look forward to Halloween as the highlight of October for me it is America Reads Day!
Cedar Rapids is home to me. I have lived here longer than any other place, my children attended school here and this is where we have connected with numerous organizations that offer fantastic opportunities for fun, learning, growth and empowerment and reading does all four! I read at Nixon Elementary for a variety of reasons. When my children attended school there between 1998 and 2004 the connection was obvious but Nixon is also where I made the most use of a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education that I earned in 1986 by joyfully substitute teaching there whenever my “real job” work schedule would allow. My connection to Nixon was cemented firmly to the foundation of our neighborhood school and just as Cedar Rapids is home so is Nixon Elementary.
Over the years I have developed my reading day schtick. The routine includes always reading to the fourth graders two books from two authors. One of the books is my favorite read aloud book Double Trouble in Walla Walla by Andrew Clements with illustrations complements of Salvatore Murdocca. It is a word romp of onomatopoeia and rhyme and at nine or ten years of age the students not only enjoy the word play but also have a greater chance of catching the gift of presentation that is Clements’ Double Trouble. The other book is a selection from Patricia Polacco.
Polacco has quite a few funny books but as she is my contrast to Clements on America Reads day I always select one of her moving and poignant powerful tales about her personal history. Frequently I walk into the classrooms toting Thank You, Mr. Falker, Pink and Say and Mr. Lincoln’s Way and choose one of these three books to read. My routine has been honed to the point where I always read Polacco first because I end up crying while reading her books and then Clements because this book always leaves the room laughing uproariously: “Always leave ’em laughing” is a good slogan for reading aloud to fourth graders!
I make a connection with the students for a lot of reasons. A big part is how many similarities there are between Polacco’s life and mine. As I tell the students we were both born in Lansing, Michigan, we both moved to the coast when we were about ten years old, we both love to read and write and we are both dyslexic. Her tales of family tragedy or overcoming our shared disability inevitably choke me up as I read and I always warn the students, “I’m probably going to cry when I read you this book. That might make you uncomfortable and you might giggle from discomfort; that’s okay if you do, even though it is kind of rude.
“Seeing a grown man cry while reading isn’t something you’re used to and when we’re uncomfortable sometimes we laugh, even though we’re not trying to be mean. I won’t be hurt or offended if you do, but try not to. I cry a lot when I read.”
Students aren’t used to that kind of honesty from an adult and now that my children have been out of elementary school for ten years there are no children there who know me any more so here is a grown man who’s also a stranger crying in front of them. Definitely not an everyday school experience!
I love it when the kids ask me about dyslexia. I tell them that I didn’t learn to read well until I was a bit older than they are now. In the summer between fourth and fifth grade I received extensive two on one training from some graduate students at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois where my father was a professor and this turned my reading life around just as Mr. Felker, the real life Mr. Falker, did the same for MS Polacco when she was 14. I can see the cogs turn in some of their eyes as they think, “Wait a minute! This guy just said he can’t read and he’s going to read to us? This is going to stink!”
I am a trained reader. I took a class in reading aloud. I got an “A.” I am also an amateur thespian; I love to act! One of my fondest memories of America Reads day was when my presentation of Walla Walla made a teacher fall off his chair. Literally! (I had not yet learned the importance of leaving ’em laughing so I opened with the Clements’ book. Walla Walla lends itself to dramatic presentation!) On a good year each class has a parade of volunteers that comes in to read. I give each character a recognizable voice and go facilely back and forth between speakers (usually at least!) so when I give distinct voice to the four characters in Clements’ book plus my own voice for narration it can be a pleasantly shocking experience. I’m confident that my visits leave a lasting impression.
Literacy fills my world. Only sleep and work consume more of my time than does writing, memorizing lines for theatre and reading. I cherish the written word and I hope I can instill that love of reading and writing in others because, as Patricia says at the end of Falker, literacy is sweeter than honey, especially to those of us who had to work so hard to achieve it.
For more on AMERICA READS Reading is contagious:
Andrew Clements’ official publisher’s page:
Patricia Polacco’s personal page: