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Pam Allyn

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Voices and Choices: The Secrets to Summer Reading and Writing Success

Posted: 07/26/2013 4:00 pm

Kids Reading

Let us emphasize the importance of children's voices and children's choices in both reading and writing experiences throughout the summer months.

Summer is an ideal time to empower children to master control of their reading lives. By supplementing the reading lists that are sent home with time for the child to match his passions to his reading, by searching those very lists for genres and topics that will truly interest a child, we give a child the sense that he is curating his own reading life. The miracle of technology is that it brings us apps like Storia and Reading Rainbow, which load up multiple titles that are just right for kids, allowing them to peruse, explore and build personalized virtual bookshelves.

Additionally, as parents and educators we can incentivize our children throughout the summer months to read more minutes. Stamina is a highly underrated aspect of a child's reading growth. I often tell the story about how I read Anne of Green Gables so many times in one summer that I knew exactly when Anne drank the cordial and when Marilla softened up. Those pages, torn and tattered by the end of my thousandth read, represent for me how I learned to read faster and stronger. To this day, I thank that book and many others for teaching me the value of rereading, and building speed and strength.

If we celebrate only the kind of book a child reads, the particular title, the assigned genre, we miss the point that the child must ingest words themselves, whatever those words may be, and as many as possible. With the celebration of minutes read, not the title but the time, we are helping the child see the value of stamina building, of rereading familiar text, and reading text she loves, as a means to a wonderful end: the building of permanent reading muscles.

Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out, and storytelling is what links both: it is the soul of literacy. The most powerful tool that we have to strengthen literacy is often the most underused and overlooked, and that is a child's own stories. This is something that every child has regardless of their socioeconomic background. Many years ago, Paolo Freire noticed that very poor women in rural villages in Central America were able to learn to read and write much faster when they used the stories of their own lives. By writing their first sentences and then reading them back, by telling a story to a friend, they were able to increase their literacy skills exponentially.

Let us create summer story gardens for all children, where every child can comfortably share her own experiences in a way that feels powerful and strong and connected -- from texting ideas to one another to written or visual responses to texts one is reading or to what another child has written, all in multiple genres and modes: narrative, informational text, opinion and argument. Providing children with prompts and notebooks or online folders to archive their writing is a great inspiration for the summer months too. Modeling this both in school and at home with our children: the idea that we care about what they are thinking and want them to be reflective about it is very powerful indeed.

In this past year, I have heard educators speak of the Common Core as if it devalues students' own stories. I don't see where this is the case. The Common Core is a wise document, one of the wisest education has ever had. The Common Core does a glorious job balancing narrative, informational text and opinion writing. If a child is to be truly "college and career ready," he or she must know the value of framing his or her own stories in all of these genres. Not to write endless streams of meaningless small moments that lead nowhere and frustrate the expansive mind of the young child, but to really and truly use one's own experience to craft genre, to write for multiple and authentic audiences and to tell the kinds of stories that will take our breath away,

Our greatest heroes of American culture are all people who have known well how to write and tell stories that change us and shape us. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was a retelling of the American story. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same in his great speech "I Have a Dream." These were both examples of what remarkably talented writers do with the idea of story: crafting it, honing it, making it deeply personal, but also recognizing audience and what that audience needs right then, right now. People like Steve Jobs, Sonia Sotomayor and President Obama recognized long ago that writing and telling the stories of their own experiences dovetailed with the resonance of the work they did, and do, and make people more likely to listen to them and follow their ideas.

What is more "college and career ready" than knowing how to tell, craft and communicate one's own narrative? Nothing. Just look at the college application essay as one example. The Common Core really captures this intention, especially in the earlier grades, where teachers are expected to cultivate a literary sensibility in students, and help them write literary narratives about a personal or imaginary experience. This storytelling is a gateway into new worlds and it is a way to self-empower by seeing new versions of oneself and one's possibilities in the world. The act of writing stories, of telling stories about one's self, one's community, one's texts, one's inquiries and research as well as one's world, is not just about expression, it is about transformation.

 

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