This week I am in Orlando at the International Reading Association’s Annual Conference. I’m here with my friend and colleague, Dr. Claudia McVicker, professor of education and literacy studies at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. Tomorrow we will be presenting at the conference and our session is a fun, interactive hour that features how to get kids excited about reading and writing in the elementary school classroom. This seems like an obvious topic for the conference but with so much focus being placed on testing, data-driven methodology and performance evaluation tools, our session is one of the few that resembles the fun, vacation spirit that is everywhere here in Orlando. We’re calling it “Camp Read and Write A Lot,” and we promise no boring lectures or Power Points. We even have colored construction paper and crayons for our participants, as well as fabulous prizes!
I’ve thought about the word literacy a great deal during the past few years as my work with professional development for educators has increased. It doesn’t matter, however, whether you are talking to teachers; the instant you say the word, literacy, reading is what comes to mind and, certainly at the International READING Association’s conference, there is much emphasis placed on reading. And, what a powerful thing reading is… wouldn’t you agree, my readers! A few weeks ago, I spent a little time talking to a friend’s 91-year-old father at a backyard barbeque. I love hearing stories of days gone by and this man was telling me of his Italian immigrant father’s life, and how he made his way in America as a man who died without ever learning to read. As he told me his story, my friend’s father repeated the matter of his father’s illiteracy and it was clear that this tragic fact had defined, and confined, his father’s life path. I can’t even imagine it, to tell you the truth. Reading truly is a doorway into new and exciting worlds.
Speaking of new and exciting worlds, yesterday my group and I went to Universal Studios where the Harry Potter exhibit opened up late last year. The only way I can describe this experience is to say that once you walk through the gate, you are completely in the world of Harry Potter. It was so real that it was dizzying—although dizziness, in my case, could have been a result of the simulated Quidditch game I experienced only moments after my arrival. But, it is an amazing replica of all the Harry Potter places you know and love… the train platform at Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and Hogwart’s School of Wizardry. Every detail is there, right down to the shelves of wands in Olivander’s, the, the talking portraits in the stairways, the Butter Beer stand, and the quirky candy and toys in Honeyduke’s and, from what I understand, Rowling had a big role in the exhibit’s design. It shows.
Make no mistake that Capitalism, with a capital “C,” rules the day at Universal Studios and, truly, you cannot walk ten yards without encountering another place to continue emptying your wallet. Unfortunately, this makes it easy to forget Rowling’s rather humble beginnings in publishing her world-changing books. The story of her many rejections by the likes of Penguin and Harper Collins, and the small initial print run of her first installment, are part of the glorious Harry Potter epic, though little kids begging vacation-frazzled parents for a Gryffindor robe or a Nimbus 2000 may not have experienced Harry through anything but movies and licensed products that have been made in China. They may yet be too young to realize that, not only an entire generation of children but, indeed, an entire planet, was irreversibly changed by a book. A book! The devoted, though, saw the pictures in their minds long before the first film hit the silver screen and they scrutinized the theatrical renditions against each and every word on the pages of their beloved books. For them, the books stand separate from the movies and all the plastic junk. And, they absolutely should.
Next door to Harry Potter is Seussland, another book-inspired place replete with the details of many other wonderful literary works that changed who we all are, as is evidenced by the many Thing 1, Thing 2 and Thing 3 t-shirts you can see walking around Universal. I am a huge Dr. Seuss fan and, walking past Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Star-On Machine, I lamented something I often do—that so much emphasis is placed on getting kids to graduate to chapter books by only the first grade when there are so many amazing picture books with rich, inspiring, complex text and beautiful images that not only delight the eye, but help tell the story in a completely developmentally appropriate fashion. We abandon these much too early and I think that this takes away some of the fun of reading for children.
For me, the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans and the Frances books by Russell Hoban occupy a special place in my visual vault. Later, I would encounter a book so powerful to my fourth grade self that I would, for the first time, read a book all in one sitting—A Summer To Die, by Lois Lowry—and, the dramatic, nighttime scene between the protagonist and her sister remains imbedded in my memory to this day. But, in 1974, at the age of six, I experienced an illustrated book of poetry that was, perhaps, for me, the most influential book of all time.
There is no land at Universal for Shel Silverstein, no place where Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout’s towering garbage heap stands, no place to watch the television that once was Jimmy Jet, no place where the sidewalk ends for a boy, a girl and a silly dog. I’m pretty sure that, were he still alive, Shel would unequivocally reject the notion of such a place, and I might too, but I get sad when I talk about Silverstein to kids because, thirty-seven years after the publication of Where The Sidewalk Ends, I have discovered that so many of them have never heard of him. I am on a personal crusade to change that, you see, because this book inspired me to write my first poem not long after I cracked it open for the very first time. The poem I wrote was short and a little dumb but, in it, I see the seeds of the book writer I would eventually become. In it, there was the promise of a book called I Love The Night, and others, without which I would likely not be here now in Orlando participating as a presenter at the IRA. And it’s been an awesome journey.
Tomorrow, Claudia will talk about reading and I will talk about writing. While the word literacy makes us all think of reading, there are more parts to being literate, specifically, reading, writing, listening and speaking. Reading (along with listening) makes us consumers of the written word. It’s passive, and a little like watching television, really, which will upset some people to hear me say, I know. Writing (along with speaking), on the other hand, makes us producers of the written word and it’s active and empowering because it can do many great and amazing things like deliver a message, call people to action or even build an entire empire that can bring wonder to millions of people all over the world and drive an entire economy on a few acres in Orlando, Florida. A couple of Ball State professors I was with at Universal yesterday told me that they believe many teachers do not deliver the writing curriculum they should in their classrooms because they, themselves, do not feel comfortable as writers. I would agree with this statement and everything I do nowadays with teachers is an attempt to show them ways we can all have fun and feel good about being writers of lots of things—articles, stories, poems and more. Because I happen to know, albeit on a much smaller scale, what Ms. Rowling undoubtedly knows: that the book that changes your life the most could actually be your own.
TRY THIS WEEK: Look at the ways you (and your children) consume media and where it comes from.