Spring Break 2017

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.” 

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome
Don­a­lyn Miller and Mau­r­na Rome

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.” 

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

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.

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

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?

Mr. Oliver's Office
Mr. Oliv­er’s Office

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.

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School
Pri­ma­ry Class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School
First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School
First grade class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

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! 

 Our Mission

Learn­ing, car­ing, rejoic­ing and work­ing togeth­er to cre­ate a more just, com­pas­sion­ate, insight­ful world.

At Zaharis…

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.

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Sara Martini
Sara Martini
6 years ago

Awe­some arti­cle, Mau­r­na! I want to vis­it that school. It sounds amazing!

Kara Scheid
Kara Scheid
6 years ago

This is so inspiring!

Jodi Goff
Jodi Goff
6 years ago

Zaharis is an amaz­ing school! Both of my chil­dren have gone here since kinder­garten. One is fin­ish­ing her first year of junior high, and the oth­er will fin­ish her final year at Zaharis next year. We have been blessed to be with­in the bound­aries of this school, as my chil­dren have grown so much through the ded­i­ca­tion of these amaz­ing teach­ers and staff. This school com­mu­ni­ty tru­ly feels like a fam­i­ly. I know my chil­dren are encour­aged always to do their best in a lov­ing, car­ing envi­ron­ment full of peo­ple who real­ly care about them and want them to succeed.

Gina Moriarty
Gina Moriarty
6 years ago

We have also been lucky enough to send our 2 boys to Zaharis. Our boys both have autism, and went to Zaharis from Kinder­garten through 6th grade. They were includ­ed in all of their class­rooms and the staff at Zaharis made them feel loved and cared for. Their approach to lit­er­a­cy helped our kids make con­nec­tions and under­stand the world around them.