jux·ta·po·si·tion | jəkstəpəˈziSH(ə)n/ | noun

  1. the fact of two things being seen or placed close togeth­er with con­trast­ing effect. Exam­ple: “the jux­ta­po­si­tion of these two images”

Parking lot signJux­ta­po­si­tion.  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. 

Trophy wall

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.

Kwame AlexanderBest. 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. 

Kwame Alexander Crossover Fans

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.

Trophy case

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:

  1. 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?
  1. Does a one-size fits-all cur­ricu­lum that promis­es to improve test scores also fos­ter a joy of read­ing among my students?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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.

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David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
8 years ago

What a won­der­ful expe­ri­ence you brought to the stu­dents at your school! It was excit­ing just to read about it. I sore­ly hope that the changes being made in your dis­trict (a dis­trict dear to my heart) do not damp­en the joy and fun that read­ing should be…and which is what actu­al­ly turns chil­dren into life­long readers.