Books as Breadcrumbs

Last April, I began writing this blog consistently every week upon the invitation of Ruth Ayers.  It was April 10th to be exact – my 64th birthday, and Ruth invited me to join her  SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog  group, because I had replied kindly to one of her blog posts. This is my 37th blog post since then, and I’ve been thinking about connections.  Specifically, how do people connect us to ideas and how do those ideas make us grow – give us hope and courage? On my blogging journey, I discovered many fellow-bloggers with many amazing, funny, and heart-wrenching stories. I’m indebted to all of them because their experiences help me take on new perspectives and make me see the world in ways I had not yet imagined. One such blogger is Julie K. Cox who writes about family, teaching, writing, and most of all reading. I have found that whatever books Julie recommends, I immediately seek them out. 

On Julie’s recommendation, I have read Emily P Freeman‘s A Million Little Things and am currently halfway through her book, The Next Right Thing.  I find her voice both calming and enticing. She beckons her readers to take action gently.  And though she is much younger than me with a totally different lifestyle, I find myself following and considering and feeling like I’m following the right path. Emily talks about the time when she and her husband were in the midst of trying to figure out the next right vocational step.  She talked about how instead of following answers, they began to follow arrows – signs that would lead them to the right decision.  I smiled to myself when I read that. I thought, That’s what I have been doing with my students these past forty-two years!” Only instead of arrows, I’ve laid down some breadcrumbs in the form of books, which they follow until they set down their own breadcrumb trail of books that lead them to new adventures and interests.

Much of my teacher life has been working with struggling readers and writers.  They would choose to do anything else in the world rather than sitting down to read or write.  They would even consider cleaning their rooms or doing the dishes!  But just as Lorraine Skovron, my 5th grade teacher, set me on a path as a lifelong reader with her first breadcrumb, Misty of Chincoteague, I knew I could find the right book to set my students onto their own reading paths.  I knew if I listened very closely and got to know my students as people with unique interests and desires, that I could find books that would connect them to their experiences and to new ideas. 

A number of years ago, I worked with a little girl who was Dyslexic. Reading came hard to her, but she was tenacious and resilient.  I admired her spunk and courage and kept feeding her books.  One day while she was working hard to decipher a text, she slammed the book shut and declared, “I hate reading!”  I took her hands into mine and said, “Oh no, you don’t hate reading!  Reading is hard, but the stories are worth it. You LOVE stories.”  She smiled and nodded, “Yes, I do love stories. Can you read to me?”  And that’s what I did for the rest of the session. I read to her and filled her mind with questions and wonder, helping her restore her energy for reading.  I will never forget that day.  I learned how to help struggling readers balance the focus needed to read the words with the joy those words presented in the form of story.  The story was the key, the story was the breadcrumb or arrow that would lead to a rich life of unbridled ideas.

This year, I work with both struggling and gifted readers and writers.  The arc of my work keeps me on my toes and makes me reflect on what moves I make to push my students forward.  What arrows or breadcrumbs am I laying down?  The first thing I do when working with students is to listen to them and give them space for them to tell me who they are. As Parker J. Palmer says, “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”  Sharing my struggles and successes with students help them to open up and share what is easy and difficult for them.  Then together we plan next steps to reach our goals.  This is true for students who have learning differences and students who find academics easy and are searching for more and more challenges. 

Last week, one of my gifted 5th grade students who is reading at the 8th grade level reached a plateau in writing.  She had written a twenty-seven-page mystery and was spent.  Usually, she has a wealth of ideas from which to draw, but for the past few weeks, she didn’t want to write.  She said she was empty.  I let it be because as her tutor and not teacher, I could give her that luxury for a bit.  However, I felt the time had come to nudge her, but nudge gently.  So I asked myself, how exactly I should do that. And as often happens the answer came in the form of poetry.  I asked Maren if she’d like to write a sensory poem about winter.  She eagerly agreed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. After some discussion and revision, Maren wrote this final poem.

Winter Joy

 The snow falls hard outside my window.
 The ice makes the roads slick and cold.
 Neighbors grab their sleds and laugh 
 As they tumble down the hillside.
  
 A large SUV slips down the road, 
 Its roof piled high with skis. 
 An eager little face peeks out from behind the window, 
 A baby doll clutched in her small hands
  
 A toddler, too excited to wait until spring,
 Toddle-bikes down his driveway. 
 His mittens, attached to his coat by yarn,
 Sail behind him like tiny woolen kites.
  
 A woman in a thick coat 
 Passes out warm hot chocolate
 To shivering little faces
 That light up with joy. 

Then I thought, let’s take this poem of which she was so proud and turn it into a story. I asked Maren to choose one stanza that stood out for her the most.  She chose the last stanza. From this stanza, she started a new short story project. This is how she began:

A woman in a thick coat passes out warm hot chocolate to shivering little faces that light up with joy. Sitting down on sleds, they laugh and joke with one another as they drink. A teenager with dark brown hair poking out from under his patterned hat throws a snowball into the trees. The wind whips through the trees, as if calling the children. They put their cups onto the porch banister and zoom down the hill. Faster, faster, faster, until they fly through the air and land in one big pile, laughing and shaking snow out of their boots. 

A small boy in an old camouflage patterned jacket watches from the top of a tree a few meters away, his sandy hair tousled, a content little smile on his face. His own sled, duct-taped and patched in more places than the sled actually shows, lay at the bottom of the tree. Unable to resist, he ignored his mother’s constant reminders to stay away from the other kids and found himself swinging off the branch. He took the frayed rope in his hand and ran up the hill. His small voice was hardly heard among the loud children, but he was accepted into the tight-knit group without any problems. Up and down they go, flying faster every time as they developed new paths and balanced different ways on the sleds. 

I am so eager to see how this story will unfold.  What choices will Maren make?  How do the books she’s reading influence her writing style?

This week, I worked with a gifted 1st grade girl who reads at the 3rd grade level.  We have read two books in the Paddington series:  A Bear Called Paddington and Paddington Abroad.  She loves them!  It is hard to find books for a gifted 1st grade reader which will support both her intellectual and emotional growth.  A Peruvian bear dressed in a funny hat who gets into all kinds of trouble was just the ticket.  After reading the books, I asked Lily to write a sequel.  She chose to write Paddington in China because she knew a lot about living in China.  She dictated the story to me as I typed.  It has two chapters so far and is fifteen slides long.  Her choice of vocabulary was amazing and her style of writing shows just how much attention she gives to author’s craft. Lily is a deep thinker.  I asked her to write a bit on her own when we were not meeting together.  When I looked at her work I found this portion:

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Brown.  “The only way to know is to ask the pilot.”

Judy and Mrs. Bird ran up to the pilot and asked when their conversation came to a stop, “Paddington, why did you run over here to talk to the pilot?

The pilot and Paddington exchanged mysterious glance. “Nothing,” the pilot said,” We were just talking about when the plane was going to take off. It has been delayed a little because the engine broke!”

What the pilot said was true, but it was not all.  What they were really talking about was the best places to go in China because what Paddington really wanted to see was a Chinese person speaking Shanghainese.

“Fine.” Mrs. Bird answered.   In her mind though, her suspicions were raised; almost nothing at all did her eagle eyes miss, and she had seen the glance that was passed between them.  She still didn’t want to offend Paddington so she didn’t say anything.  Almost everyone was depending on her eagle eyes except Paddington so without her saying anything the matter was soon forgotten, at least for the time.  The pilot hurried over to the plane engine and checked it several times before rushing back to the Browns and declaring, “THE ENGINES ARE FULL OF MARMALADE!”

I am getting used to her incredible use of language and her agility with dialogue.  What surprised me was her use of a semi-colon. I asked Lily who taught her how to use a semi-colon.  She said, “I read a lot and I noticed authors using that mark when they had two sentences and wanted to put them together.  It can be used instead of and.”  I chuckled.  I told her that she was indeed correct.  Then she asked me what the mark was called again. I told her it was a semi-colon.  I am in awe of not only how much Lily can retain, but of how much she can figure out all by herself.  When I was in 1st grade I was still trying to decode the mysteries of the alphabet!

Yesterday, we had ten inches of snow, and we got a much hoped for Snow Day.  Bright and early, I received an email from Lily asking me for another book series recommendation. Here is a natural reader.  She is a reader for life. On her snow day, she is asking for books!  In fact, when I asked her what she thought she was going to be when she grew up, she told me that she did not have to be one thing.  She intends to be a doctor, an artist, and a writer.  I have no doubt that Lily will achieve these goals.  I also wish for her days of playing in the snow and the sun. I hope I can lay down some brilliant breadcrumbs to make her journey sweet.

8 thoughts on “Books as Breadcrumbs

  1. oh the joy of turning around a reader and a writer… love what you shared here about taking Julie’s suggestions and then really doing the same with your students… I loved that you dropped everything and just read… when schools get back that’s what I really could just do…volunteer just to read and write with the kids…not assess, not manage, just the joy xo

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  2. I always love your stories of leading your students with breadcrumbs, and I loved seeing the way you helped Maren find her love of writing again. The Paddington story was so much fun! My kids always love writing about their favorite stories, and I enjoy watching their craft choices and talking about them. Introducing students to literature is such a beautiful, lucky job.

    And thanks for your sweet words! I’m so glad you’re liking Emily P. Freeman. I’m on a different life path from her too, but her books just have such wise guidance. Happy reading!

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  3. Wow! I love the glimpses you give into your time with the students — your relationships, thinking, reflections, joy, struggle. So beautiful and powerful. I particularly enjoyed when you took the hands of the student who declared she hated reading, and told her “No you don’t.” and then proceeded to read to her. You are a gift!

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  4. I’ve enjoyed Emily P. Freeman’s podcasts. Her voice is so soothing. Now I’m thinking I may need to check out her books.
    I love the image of you laying out brilliant breadcrumbs for your students. You keep doing it!

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