I’m still relishing the memory of spring break. Surrounded by mountains and plenty of sunshine, I stumbled upon a literacy oasis that up until then, I had only visited in my dreams. Almost a month later, I am still intrigued and inspired by what I experienced. I knew instantly that this magical place would be the topic of my next Bookology contribution. In fact, I believe I have enough material for a year’s worth of articles about this very special sanctuary of learning. I invite my readers to relive the day with me, now and in the coming months, as I share my take-aways from Zaharis Elementary School, a place where people “clamor to bring their children… because of [a] unique approach to teaching and learning.”
Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook, I seized an opportunity that I knew I couldn’t pass up. A few days before I was scheduled to kick off spring break by boarding a flight to Arizona, Donalyn Miller posted that she was also heading to the desert to present at the Zaharis Literacy Conference, Echoes of Learning, in Mesa, Arizona. Those of us who have read The Book Whisperer or Reading in the Wild or are Nerdy Book Club members knew that this would be worth investigating! I looked up the school’s website and quickly discovered that for just $50 I could attend the one-day conference that featured Donalyn along with keynote addresses from Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Frank Serafini. I’ve had the privilege of seeing all three of these highly respected literacy gurus in the past and knew that I couldn’t go wrong. Spring break or not, I would be going back to school on my first day of vacation. If the conference had consisted of just these three exceptional people it would have been enough. I had no idea that so much more awaited me.
From the moment I strolled through the front doors and scanned the hallways, I could tell that Zaharis Elementary was not your average, run-of-the-mill kind of school. Throughout the day, literacy conference attendees were encouraged to take tours, visit classrooms, and meander through the hallways to get a closer look at the school and how it operates.
The very first thing I noticed was a beautiful mural of two kids reading while sitting on a pile of books. A plethora of author’s autographs filled the spines and covers of the painted books; Jack Gantos, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Patricia Polacco, Grace Lin, Mary Amato, Michael Buckley, and more than a dozen others. Clearly, I had discovered a place where literacy was alive and well.
I rounded the corner and spotted a huge wall filled with framed 8 X 10 photos of Zaharis staff members. Maybe not such an unusual display, until you consider the large heading painted above the frames: Our Legacy – A Love for Literature. Every staff member was holding their very favorite book in their school picture. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “What a simple and inexpensive way to promote a love of reading.” There is a reason Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine selected this school as one of the “25 Coolest Schools in America.”
Once I signed in for the day and met Nancy, one of the friendliest secretaries ever (she hails from the Midwest, having lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota), I wandered from room to room and visited with several extraordinary teachers. I learned quite a bit about this amazing school and realized that my first impression was accurate… this was truly a place where promoting a love of literacy gets top billing. I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to think about polishing up my résumé and moving south!
Another notable display worth mentioning was a wall filled with framed book covers. Captioned Our Mentors, this sizable collection of professional learning titles showcases the commitment Zaharis staff makes to honing their craft as teachers and learners. Since opening their classroom doors for business in 2002, teachers at Zaharis have engaged in book studies with nearly three dozen mentor texts. Included are such gems as On Solid Ground by Sharon Taberski, In the Middle by Nancy Atwell, Going Public by Shelley Harwayne, Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller, About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland, and of course, Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.
In between breakout sessions that were led by classroom teachers, I took part in a guided tour of Zaharis led by school principal, Mike Oliver. Mr. Oliver’s unparalleled passion and expertise easily qualify him as one of the most solid literacy leaders I’ve ever encountered. His refreshing approach to teaching and literacy learning tugged at my heartstrings as I wish every educator and every child could benefit from this type of mindset. His words resonated so strongly with my personal beliefs:
“What is a reader? What does it mean to be a reader? That’s a question that we ask all the time. The reason that question is so important and our response to it, is it largely determines who our children become as readers, whether or not they pick up a book of their own choosing and how successful they are, really resides in our response to ‘What does it mean to be a reader?’ You look at schools across the country and in so many of them, they drown in a sea of worksheets… 5 – 6 per day is over 1,000 worksheets a year. Yet there’s no research that shows that there’s a correlation between how many worksheets kids do and how successful they are as readers.”
I was also quite enthused about Mr. Oliver’s philosophy of how to recruit and hire top-notch teaching talent. As we paused in front of the Our Mentors wall display, he explained that the first several interview questions always center on reading. Candidates are asked to share what they are reading for personal pleasure and for professional growth. If unable to respond easily and fully, the interview is, quite frankly, over (though the remaining questions are still shared out of respect). As Mr. Oliver pointed out, how can we expect someone who doesn’t appear to value reading to be responsible for instilling a love of literacy in children?
Oversized classrooms that look more like furniture showrooms, complete with sectional sofas, cozy reading nooks and floor to ceiling book displays would make any kid or teacher swoon. As much as I love the idea of relaxed, homey learning environments like those at Zaharis, it might be a tall order to transform most traditional classrooms into such well-appointed spaces.
However, the real heart of the learning that happens in this literacy oasis located in the Arizona desert, comes from the careful integration of kids and books, skillfully woven together by the teachers, not from a scripted program or pre-selected curriculum. Please check back next month for the next installment on Zaharis Elementary, a feature on using picture books with first graders to teach a civil rights timeline and an innovative approach called “Mystery Readers” to help 2nd through 5th graders learn how to analyze oral reading.
I’ll close with the words that comprise the Zaharis mission and values, every bit as eloquent and uplifting as it is child- and learning-centered!
Learning, caring, rejoicing and working together to create a more just, compassionate, insightful world.
Our school is a family. We care for one another and value each other’s voice.
We are all learners and our passions are contagious. We unite as we celebrate each other’s growth, achievements and successes.
It is important to share our stories. This is one way we merge heart and intellect.
We value children’s brilliance. Their feelings, ideas, gifts and talents are respected and shared.
Smiles and laughter make everything easier. Love serves as a motivator until desire to learn is cultivated.
We understand that when learning travels through the heart, it inspires greater meaning and purpose.
Learning is a social experience. We make meaning together through collaborative dialogue.
We learn through inquiry. The learning in our classrooms mirrors the work that readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists do.
Students and teachers have time – time to think, time to wonder, time to explore, and time to share their findings — together.