Books. There could hardly be a more wonderful word. Yet, what can I possibly say about books that hasn't already been said by people far more eloquent than I?
I give you a story about a book, a bunch of teenagers who hated to read and barely could, and a teacher who plays a small role.
The class was a reading class, so the going was always going to be uphill. These kids had not known success with books. They did want to graduate from high school. More or less. This was a night class, the last class of the day at 7 p.m. The students came to school from working machines in the Rose Toiletpaper Factory, from babysitting siblings, from packaging tortillas in the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, from pruning trees, and from tar-and-gravel roofing. They were tired and crabby and acted like hungry ten-year-olds, not near grown-ups. To help them get through that last hour, the teacher stocked a drawer in her desk with Slim Jims, cheese crackers with peanut butter, packages of nuts, granola bars. She did whatever she could to tame the dragons.
The first part of the hour the pupils read short, high-interest material, one step above their tested oral fluency level. Fluency matters to comprehension. That was the hard work of the hour.
At the halfway mark, the teacher arranged chairs at the front of the room, while the students put away their folders, got out their copies of Buried Onions, and came up to sit in a reading circle. It was story time, the cozy time left over from early elementary days when reading was still done in community. The teacher had marked a few words on the whiteboard behind her, words she'd identified as need-to-know for that evening's passage. Before the students opened their books, they talked over the words together. Then she asked "Will someone do a recap from last night for the ones who missed class?" It was a trick, of course, to develop their summarizing skills.
Buried Onions. Written by Gary Soto who grew up in a Fresno barrio and sprinkles words like chola, mi primo, carnal naturally, essentially, throughout the story of Eddie, who's trying not to end up dead like his cousin and uncles by attending community college. Eddie, who makes ends meet by painting stenciled house numbers on curbs. Eddie, whose employer's pickup gets stolen while Eddie's in charge of it. Eddie whose people are named Lupe, Juanito, Jesús. Relatable? Oh, yeah.
The teacher tells them the seven skills of good readers, reminding them as they go which skill they're using. This is meta learning––learning about learning. Visualizing is one of the important ones. "Now let's visualize this for a moment," she interrupts the story. "Eddie's abuela just came out onto the porch. What do you see?"
"She looks like my grandma. Flowered dress, a big old apron, curly gray hair, big nineties glasses." A couple of kids giggle.
"She looks like my grandma. Long gathered skirt, white blouse, squash blossom necklace, turquoise and silver bracelets, rings. High-top Converse," a Navajo student says.
No one mentions that Eddie is Hispanic and she's just described a Native woman. They know it's what she saw when Eddie's grandma stepped onto the porch. They're good with that.
They move on. At an anticipatory point, the teacher stops them again. "Good readers make inferences. Eddie is standing there, watching his boss's truck disappear. We know something about what kind of kid Eddie is. What inferences can you draw about what he feels as he sees those taillights disappear? How would you feel? What do you think Eddie's going to do?"
Just before the bell rings, the teacher reminds them, "Good readers ask questions. Write me three questions about what we read tonight or something you're wondering about. We'll talk about your questions tomorrow."
These are the things people who love books do without thinking. Conversely, learning to do these things can grow into a love for books. Teachers plant seeds and hope.
The class holds a little celebration when they finish the book—cookies and punch. "We should've had onion rings, Miss," one of the girls jokes, and everyone laughs. Good feelings all around. They did it. They read this book about a guy like them––a guy like them who goes to college.
Then one of the boys––the one who tears down tar and gravel roofs all day, who comes to class with black dust covering his face except around his eyes––asks, "Miss, do you think I could borrow one of the books? I want my dad to read it."
This. This first love of a book, wanting to share it with a person you love. Thinking someone you know will enjoy what you enjoyed. Trying to sound casual and get past a lump in her throat, the teacher says, "That's great, Marcos. I think we can make that happen. Let me know how your dad likes it."
"I will." He grins.
The word BOOKS was brought to you by a friend who goes nameless here, a friend who was a member of a book group I once belonged to.
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