Planting the seed for change. A few weeks ago, I talked to my students about how it only takes one person to make a difference in the world…one person who cares enough to solve a problem and help others.
I introduced to them a man named Jadav Peyang from India.
Most people have never heard of him but he is known as the Forest Man of India. He started planting trees by hand in 1979 after a heat wave and monsoon wiped out the natural habitat of his village. He was a young kid back then and asked the elders what he could do to help protect the animals and the people from these disasters. “Is there something we can do to help fix this problem?” The elders answered, “Of course, there’s always something we can do.” They gave him some bamboo shoots for planting to provide shade for the animals and protect the land from erosion. Jadav planted the bamboo shoots. And he has planted every day since.
At 47 years old, Jadav has not stopped planting. Today, there is a forest bigger than the size of New York’s Central Park. Jadav’s forest is over 1360 acres today! Now, the animals are back and the erosion has decreased. He is a reminder to us- adults and kids- that one person can make a difference in the world. I hoped that my students would understand this idea and be inspired by this story.
Change blooms. As educators, we hope that our students learn something from our lessons. One afternoon, I was walking through a classroom (Ms. Almanza’s) and noticed some kids working on their computers, discussing a plan to help the people affected by the devastating hurricanes in Texas and Florida. It was a part of a class project but they wanted to see if they could do more. They asked me if they could actually do a fundraiser at school and send the money to a charity to help the victims. I immediately thought about Jadav asking the village elders and responded to them, “Of course, there’s always something we can do”.
Allie, Manmeet, Leuel, Andrey, and Ms. Almanza
Not only did they come up with a flyer that they posted throughout our campus and sent home to parents, they took care of the little details. They made announcements, bought candy for donors, prepared envelopes for teachers, made a video, and even went on a morning radio show to do promote their efforts.
These students have raised almost $2000 to help the victims of the hurricanes. They’ve also inspired others to do the same. Our teachers are now talking about donating our Scholastic dollars and bonus points to help other schools hit by the hurricanes.
Just like Jadav, these students remind us that one person (in this case, four people) can make a world of difference.
Click here for the video that Allie, Manmeet, Leuel, and Andrey made.
Click here for a link to an award-winning documentary about The Forest Man of India.
The Journey Trilogy, by Aaron Becker, starts with the book, Journey, and takes us on a magical odyssey with a lonely girl who finds adventure, whimsy, and redemption through kindness and loyalty. Her magical red writing instrument allows her to draw a door to a new world where she saves a beautiful bird from captivity, only to be caged herself. Her feathered friend repays her kindness and becomes a companion on her future adventures…In the next book, Quest, the girl, the bird and a new friend have an adventure when they meet a king who is captured and taken away through a magical door. They begin the adventure by drawing keys to that door and entering enemy territory to help save the king. Their new adventure requires them to solve a colorful puzzle. How will they save the king from the enemy? In the third book of the trilogy, Return, the girl is followed into the magical world by her father. He joins her in an attempt to save the king and her friend, both of whom have been captured by enemy soldiers. Will they be able to help their friends and collect all the colors of magical writing instruments?
As you read the descriptions of the three books in this marvelous trilogy, you may not realize that these books do not have written words in them. I repeat, there are no words to read in these books.
So why did we choose the Journey Trilogy for a theme of a reading lounge if none of the books have words to read in them? Here are a few of our reasons:
- Travel to another world. The three books in the trilogy: Journey, Quest, and Return remind us what good books can do for us. Good books can take us to a different world. Whether it is a magical kingdom behind a red door or a certain place and time in history, good books take us on adventures in worlds that we may never have a chance to visit. These three books do just that, even without a single word.
- Exercise imagination. Reading requires us to use our imagination. A picture book without words requires us to use imagination, also. It requires us to make connections with our thoughts and language. This is a literacy skill. We don’t know exactly what the girl is using to draw with- is it a crayon, a marker, a pen? We are required to imagine what it is and fill in the details. Throughout the stories, we are allowed to imagine what other things are possible. Where did the purple bird come from? What is it like in the box of trapped colors?
- Develop literacy skills. Using pictures to connect to the story (in this case, make the story) is a critical skill in reading. Students learn from early on that they need to use pictures as context clues. We “read” the pictures with kids first before they read the words themselves in order to connect them with the written story. In addition, pictures help emerging readers develop important literacy skills as they work on comprehension and predicting. As adults, we use the same skills when reading a newspaper, reading an online story or reading instructions to put together a piece of Ikea furniture. Using pictures as context clues is a lifelong skill.
- Art appreciation. Picture books help develop an appreciation for art. Do you remember some of your favorite childhood books? What images do they conjure up for you? Most of us can still appreciate the whimsy of a Dr. Seuss illustration or the sweet pictures of Charlotte, Wilbur, and Fern by Garth Williams. Picture books are often times the first exposure children have to the world of art. And we believe that reading and art go hand in hand in enriching the lives of children and adults!
Introducing the Journey Trilogy Reading Lounge…
This reading lounge could not have been completed without the dedication of 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Kendra Barrett. In collaboration with the Reading Lounge Committee and funding from our PTA and the Winn Foundation, Ms. Barrett and her family spent countless hours planning, designing, building, painting, and creating a magical space for kids to read. If you’ve read the Journey Trilogy, you may feel like you were thrown into one of the pages upon your visit to this reading lounge.
Below is a photo of the man who made this possible! Jack (Ms. Barrett’s dad) spent days and days recreating the magical forest of Journey. Thanks Jack- you’re a Brilliant Bronco!!!!
More about the author/illustrator Aaron Becker
Aaron Becker has created a magical world in which we are all lucky to be able to visit. Check out his website: http://www.storybreathing.com/
Want him to visit your school? He can’t visit everyone but he’s made himself available to all schools (virtually)! Here’s a free author’s visit on http://www.storybreathing.com/free-virtual-school-visit/
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go”. – Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss was selected as the theme for our second reading lounge. Our team of first grade teachers and parents really did a great job putting this all together. Again, Ikea of West Sacramento helped with the design and donated all of the furniture. OSH donated the paint and supplies.
For this lounge, we had a special “reveal” for kids on live TV. This room was covered up and students did not have access to it for a couple of weeks. We wanted the first time kids saw the room to be recorded on live TV. Good Day Sacramento, a local morning show, came out and featured this reading lounge. They recorded a few segments and one was the actual “reveal” of the lounge to students. For some reason, we could not locate that clip. If you are curious to know how the kids reacted to seeing this lounge for the first time, it could be described as “shocked and excited”. We do have the introductory segment. Check it out here.
Steven Layne planted the seed a couple years ago. A group of us Barrett Ranchers went to a reading conference in Sacramento and heard him talk about the importance of developing lifelong readers. Not only did he talk about engaging students in reading books but he captivated an audience full of educators by engaging us in a read-a-loud of one of his own children’s books. After the conference, I got everyone his book, Igniting a Passion for Reading, and we started a small committee to do just that. We named it the “Spark the Fire” committee and our main focus was to come up with fun ideas to get kids excited about reading and books. One of these ideas, the reading lounge, was born from one of our earlier brainstorming sessions.
In Dr. Layne’s book, he talks about the idea of creating reading lounges in schools. It makes sense if we want kids to read more that we get them great books to read and create a space that allows them to engage in books. Dr. Layne warns in his book that there are systemic roadblocks (or excuses) to creating reading lounges in schools. The first roadblock is that there is no extra space. While we didn’t have extra classroom space, we did have shared pod areas that were used for small group work and storage. We have 8 of these pod rooms on campus and each of these connect with three classrooms. Space was not an issue for us. If we didn’t have the pod rooms, we would have looked at the computer lab (which is quickly becoming obsolete with the use of Chromebook carts in the classroom). Here is a photograph of a pod:
The second roadblock that Dr. Layne warns us about is the excuse of not having any money. In fact, at the reading conference a few years ago, he told every attendee that the principal always has money somewhere. I remember this exact moment because all of my teachers turned back at me with some raised eyebrows! Yes, we have some money but we didn’t have enough. When we make reading a priority, we will find the money.
Our idea was to convert all 8 pod rooms into reading lounges. The vision? The reading lounges would foster literacy, offer a quiet and safe space, create a sense of eagerness and imagination, and associate reading with leisure and pleasure. Each reading lounge would have a theme based on a book or author. One classroom articulated their vision of what their reading lounge would look like based on Aaron Becker’s Journey, Quest, Return trilogy:
“My students imagined an enchanted space with lanterns, little white lights and a huge magic carpet that they could sit or lay down upon to read. Painted on the walls would be a red hot air balloon, a beautifully exotic bird with purple feathers and two large trees, each one featuring a magic door at the trunk’s base. These two magic doors, one being red & one being purple, would symbolize their secret passage into the fantastical world of books!”- Ms. B., 2nd grade teacher
Of course, we needed the furniture, paint, hardware, supplies, and books. Did I mention books? We had some money but not enough money. This is where the community comes in….(to be continued).
Above is a picture of two pages from a favorite series of books- Pinkalicious. The other night I was reading this story with my daughter and we came upon the part of the story in which Pinkalicious tries to convince her family to buy a fake Christmas tree (a pink one, of course). She brings out an air freshener in response to her brother’s statement that he likes the smell of real pine trees. I thought it was funny and clever of Pinkalicious.
My daughter was confused.
I realized that she didn’t know what an air freshener was- especially the ones that Pinkalicious was holding up. We don’t have them in the house or car.
It was then that I realized that her lack of background knowledge caused her to miss an important part of the story and it reminded me of how important it is for students to have a good background of general knowledge to have good reading comprehension. It makes sense in this case and this idea is backed by reading research. Better readers have a good foundation of general knowledge (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Hirsch, 2003; Shapiro, 2004). They know more about the world and can make more connections as they read.
If a student has no idea what snow is, then reading a story about igloos and Eskimos will be hard to understand. If a student is familiar with snow- has played in it, knows what it feels like, knows how cold it is- then they will have a deeper understanding of a story about an Eskimo making an igloo to live in.
How can parents help students build background knowledge? Parents can make an effort to give children lots of rich experiences. This does not necessarily require lots of money. Activities such as taking a hike around a lake, visiting the library, or going to the beach can provide students with rich experiences. It is also very important to talk about these experiences with your child. Children should have a general knowledge of lots of things in the world around them. Parents can also access technology. While it doesn’t replace an actual visit to an actual museum, parents can explore the Smithsonian through an interactive website- visiting virtual exhibits and having important discussions with their children. If your child is learning about penguins, do a search and watch some YouTube videos on penguins. The more students know about the world, the more connections they will make when they read. When they make connections, they can understand more and think critically about what they read.
A school’s main priority is to educate students and provide them with the academic skills necessary to be successful in our society. It is equally important for schools to help produce good citizens of society. In other words, character is just as important as academics.
People with education, money and power sometimes lose their moral compass. Politicians, business and religious leaders, and celebrities have all had their share of disgrace- just look in today’s newspaper.
If we have straight A students who do not understand the values of honesty and fairness and grow up to cheat others, we have failed. If our students are accepted into the best colleges but don’t care about anything other than themselves, we have failed. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike”.
At our school, we focused on character traits every month so our students can understand what it means to be a person of good character. Respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, citizenship, caring, and fairness were all traits we celebrated this year. I want to thank the families who took our lessons home and helped their children understand that being successful in life is more than getting good grades. Good character cannot be only learned at school.
Our success as a community and nation depends on our ability to educate young people who are intelligent and compassionate citizens of the world. I believe that this will happen. However, the task is big and it will take all of us working together to be successful.
This may be shocking to you but you will rarely hear me say to a student, “You are so smart and talented!” What? The principal admits that he doesn’t give praise to students for their intellectual abilities? It’s true. I believe that talent and natural ability are over-rated. Some people may be born with a little talent in some areas but I believe that most success comes from lots of practice and hard work.
In fact, scientific research tells us that most successful people are the hardest workers who have put in at least 10,000 hours of purposeful practice into their craft (see the Malcolm Gladwell’s work). The coach of the NBA basketball team, Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott Brooks, went to my high school. People said that he was too small to play in the NBA but he worked hard and persevered. Legend has it that he would sneak into the East Union High School gym and spend 3-4 hours every night just dribbling the basketball from one end of the court to the other. He dedicated himself to mastering the details. When others said that he couldn’t make it, he worked harder. He made it to the NBA and learned the game inside and out. He studied the game so much that he eventually became a head coach in the NBA. A few years ago, he was voted Coach of the Year in the NBA. He took one of the worst teams and made it one of the best teams. He once said that his teams are good not because they have the most talent but because the players understand what it means to work hard and be dedicated to getting better.
What does this mean to our students? Students need to learn to practice until mastery. From the multiplication facts to the scientific process, students need to put in the time and effort to learn and master these academic concepts. Giving up is not an option. Research shows that students who are praised for working hard and putting forth outstanding effort are more likely to not give up when they are challenged. They are more likely to achieve more as they understand that success comes from working hard, not some talent that they are born with. So parents, the next time your child does well in school, instead of praising them for how smart they are, praise them for their effort and say, “You are such a hard worker! You must have studied and practiced a lot!”
Don H. Vu, Ed.D