jux·ta·po·si·tion | jəkstəpəˈziSH(ə)n/ | noun
- the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect. Example: “the juxtaposition of these two images”
Juxtaposition. The word has been swimming around my head for several weeks. The best month of my entire career filled with some of my proudest moments as an educator happening at the same time big decisions are being made by the “powers that be,” changes that will profoundly affect what happens each day in Room 123. As my colleagues, students and I celebrated our love of reading, the inevitable pendulum of change swept through, rattling my hopes and dreams for kids to become lifelong readers and lovers of literacy.
As mentioned in my previous post, my school celebrated with the theme “Reading is its own reward.” The bucket-list wish to stage a small-scale “flash mob” came true during our kick-off event. A talented crew of performers (we will likely need to keep our day jobs) danced and sang, “Darling, darling, read with me, oh read with me” to the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.”
Parent surveys gave an enthusiastic “thumbs up” to the surprise entertainment and, once again, a month of literacy-filled memories were in the making.
The days flew past as the paper trophies multiplied. Kids and teachers were reading and nominating books in droves. Doors were decorated with reading-related themes. Books were awarded to lucky kids in every classroom each week. Authors came into our classrooms via YouTube videos and Skype visits. A writing/art contest was held to select the “Crossover Crew”; two-dozen prodigious (as in getting Kwame’s autograph) artisans (as in creating a high-quality product) who would get to spend some one-on-one time with the author of a book they adored. And then came the day we had been planning for since November.
Best. Teaching. Day. Ever! Friday, February 19th. Kwame Alexander was in the house. Kwame actually brought down the house. In all my 25 years of teaching, I can honestly say this day was the best. Thanks to generous funding from Penguin Random House, who sponsored Kwame’s visit and Scholastic Reading Clubs, who helped provide copies of The Crossover for every 4th and 5th grade student, I am convinced this was a day that will be a lifelong memory for the kids and their teachers.
The energy and excitement shook the shelves in the Media Center as our 4th and 5th graders hung on his every word. They recited words from The Crossover verbatim, chimed in during a lively call/response rendition of his latest picture book, Surf’s Up and had plenty of questions for this award-winning writer.
One of my favorite exchanges of the day came from a thoughtful young man who asked Kwame about his TV viewing rules. After hearing that as a boy, Kwame was not allowed to watch TV and his parents pushed reading so much that he actually hated it, this curious kid wanted to know what the rules were for Kwame’s daughter. The answer was a good one. Each chapter of reading equals 15 minutes of TV. The questioner was apparently impressed with this idea. Later in the day, he announced to his teacher that he liked the plan so much that he was going to apply it to his own reading and TV viewing life. I’ve always believed that books change lives. This author and this book changed an entire school community. If you work in a school, I highly recommend bringing both to your students.
The culmination of our month-long literacy love fest brought 500 readers together to reveal the winners of the coveted Tiger Trophy awards. Our theme “Reading is its own reward” was reinforced with students and staff performing in our “EP Tigers Read” video.
Amid thunderous applause and an abundance of cheers (if our gym had rafters they surely would have been shaking), the book titles were announced. Feel free to insert your own drum roll before you read the following list of award recipients:
Kindergarten picks: Harry the Dirty Dog, Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues, Rainbow Fish, and Henry’s Wrong Turn
1st Grade picks: Zoom, The Snow Queen, The Book With No Pictures, and Duck, Rabbit
2nd Grade picks: The Jungle Book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today, and When I Feel Angry
3rd Grade picks: Dog Breath, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and Bone
4th Grade pick: The Crossover (triple award)
5th Grade picks: The War That Saved My Life, Everyone Loves Bacon, and The Crossover
The Flip Side
When the confetti settled and the joy that had been tap-dancing in my heart subsided, I pondered the recent activity in my district regarding adopting a new reading curriculum. This is where that flip side of the juxtaposition coin comes into play. The reality is that the fall of 2016 will bring about vast changes in the way business is done in hundreds of classrooms across my district. The curriculum adoption process has determined that our current state of curriculum is sub-par. The data indicates that our test scores are simply not good enough. A “core” reading program (no longer referred to as a “basal”) at the price tag of $3.2 million is being touted as “the ticket” to fixing the problem. As a proponent of a growth mindset, I am someone who embraces change (over the years I have taught grades 1 through 5, in 12 different schools in 8 different districts and lost count of the number of times I changed classrooms). I typically do not take a skeptical stance going into a new initiative. Yet I cannot seem to ignore the questions that are tugging at my heart:
- Will weekly skills tests help my students gain confidence and grow as readers more than reading conferences, readers’ response notebooks, and small group reading sessions do?
- Does a one-size fits-all curriculum that promises to improve test scores also foster a joy of reading among my students?
- Will following the teacher’s manual with “fidelity,” as expected by my employer, allow any room for me to make informed decisions about what happens in my classroom based on my years of training and experience?
- Do the publishers of this “core program” know my students better than I do, so much so that the vocabulary lists and pacing of lessons (pre-determined and pre-selected for the entire year) will meet their wide range of needs?
- Will the set of anthology texts (again, pre-selected for the entire year) be more interesting and engaging than the authentic literature and award winning trade books my students and I are interested in reading?
- Where does the quality and expertise of the practitioner fit into this “ready to go” curriculum? In other words, what about our beloved read-alouds and book clubs that are cultivated from my extensive reading, networking, and knowledge of children’s literature?
And there you have it, the juxtaposition of my role as an educator. The elation of witnessing hundreds of kids pumped up about books, authors and reading sitting side by side with the trepidation of witnessing decisions that may or may not be in the best interest of kids. Stay tuned…I will be searching for answers to these questions and you can bet that I will be sharing more about this topic in future articles.