“Every night before I went to sleep, my mother would read one or two picture books to me. I used to beg her to continue reading, but she always made me go to bed wanting more.”
“I would fall asleep to the sound of my mother’s voice. I took being read to as a child for granted. Now, I see how lucky I am to have this memory.”
“It [reading time] was our favorite time of the day because our dad was ours for that moment and no one else in the world existed but us. I can remember dad sitting in his red leather chair as my sister and I came barreling down the hallway, each of us with a book in hand.”
The idea of pairing older and younger readers is certainly not new. My fourth-grade son Noah has a first-grade reading buddy. Watching Noah carefully select the perfect book to share with his younger friend and thinking about my own high school students, I wondered, “What would it look like if my students were paired with younger readers?”
A few years ago, a group of students eagerly came to my classroom at Silver Creek High School early one morning. The kids were planning to read to elementary students that day, and they came to dig through my stash of picture books. Excited to help, I pulled high-interest titles like Berkeley Breathed’s Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big and outstanding works by authors and illustrators like Ralph Fletcher, George Ella Lyon, Chris Raschka, and Lane Smith.
Flash forward while examining my students’ reading surveys at the beginning of the school year. A few shared fond memories of their early reading lives, but most of my high school juniors admitted that no one read to them when they were younger. Whether it was lack of books in the home, inconsistent family support, or other factors, many students had not been read to as children. During individual conferences with these students, I realized they were not able to connect to an earlier memory of shared reading. I kept picturing what was not there — the lap, the shared space. Two sets of hands holding a single book, sharing a story.
Filling a Gap: Matching High School and Elementary Students
The first step in the project was to immerse these students in current picture books. Using the book pass strategy, I put four to five titles on each of the 32 desks in Room 210. The students were then given two minutes to look at picture books. After two minutes, students wrote down the titles that were of interest to them and then passed the book. After 30 minutes, there was a stream of titles being passed uniformly from one student to the next.
Within the mix of book passing and note taking, I offered new titles like David Weisner’s Art & Max, Javaka Steptoe’s Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix and the 2010 Caldecott Award Winner, Philip C. Stead’s A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Titles like Ralph Fletcher’s Twilight Comes Twice, Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, and Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains were purposely included for their richness of language.
Books like George Ella Lyon’s My Friend, the Starfinder with Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? featuring many of today’s popular illustrators answering the familiar question, and numerous titles by illustrator David Catrow were purposefully included for their artistry. I also made sure to include familiar titles that might spark some memories for those students who had expressed some disconnect from earlier reading memories. Richard Scarry, Shel Silverstein, and Dr. Seuss titles were peppered into the stacks on the desks.
Students then began thinking about selecting younger reading partners. As a group, we decided that we would consider readers currently enrolled in the sixth grade or younger. Some thought about what it might mean to read to a sibling. Tiphany, who chose the Lane Smith book, John, Paul, George & Ben, wrote, “When I first asked him [my brother] if I could read to him, he was excited and ready to spend time with his big sister.” Mariah, who chose Barack Obama’s picture book, Of Thee I Sing, wrote, “I am excited to share the story with my brother. I hope he will remember this experience as something fun we did together.”
Other students found titles which led them to think about younger readers they knew outside their families. One example of this connection coming out of this year’s project was Mandi’s selection of Kevin Henkes’ Wemberly Worried. In a pre-activity reflection, Mandi, the top of her class academically with a perfect SAT score, wrote, “I personally struggle with worrying, and this book reminds me how unnecessary and unhelpful it is. Wemberly is the same age as Victoria, who is about to start school.” Through Mandi’s response, I was able to see the true benefit of this project that might come from connecting to a text and subsequently connecting with another reader.
Literary and Technology Extensions
In order to bring more depth to the project and further students’ awareness of the author they had selected, I asked each student to do a webliography of sites and related links to their author. Students compiled descriptions of ten sites related to their author and/or illustrator, and provided annotations of the site contents and features. The purpose for this part of the project was twofold: I wanted my readers to see the extensions offered for their title, and I wanted students to browse other books by the authors. Mandi’s first selection was Chrysanthemum, before finding the title that eventually became her choice.
Students who had claimed a lifelong love of Shel Silverstein had never visited his website or listened to Shel perform his own poetry. At the suggestion of Twitter friend and super librarian John Schumacher, I shared the Elephant and Piggie Dance from the Mo Willems site. While putting together their webliographies, students were encouraged to use the sites they had found with their young readers. As a result, many of our students were able to find reproducible coloring sheets and projects related to their titles.
While offering extensions to the project that included the incorporation of technology and critical thinking skills that come of selecting the very best sites, the goal of this project was to have older readers interacting with younger readers. The final projects exceeded my expectations. Drew shared David Weisner’s The Three Pigs with his half-brother. The poster board that came back was embellished with hand-folded paper airplanes which led to a 3-D presentation. Robyn, who read Lois Earhart’s Leaf Manwith two younger boys, brought back a beautiful picture frame with a collage of pictures, a photo-documentation of her experience. On the highly creative and imaginative side, Jenna created a scrapbook of pictures, images, and activities that she did with her younger reader while sharing William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza. The pictures include Jenna “rolling the dough,” “adding the toppings,” and “slicing” the finished “pizza.” There is great joy communicated in the pictures from both participants.
And what of Mandi and Victoria’s project for Kevin Henkes’ Wemberly Worried? True to form, Mandi’s project was a top-drawer submission. But there was something more. Mandi created a portfolio-like submission that was designed to look like the book itself. Pictures and samples of the work Victoria did were part of the presentation. What’s more, Mandi and her mentee made “worry warts” using the bottoms of an egg crate and pipe cleaners, a suggested activity that Mandi found during her web research. I was very pleased to note that there were two of these — one for the mentee and one for the mentor reader.
Our youngest reading mentee we had in the One Book/Four Hands project was a one and a half year old girl. For this very young reader, Ashley selected Richard Scarry’s The Rooster Struts. The video that they completed to accompany this project is a treat to watch, as we see the mentee tracking the images on the page. The end of the video finds Ashley and her young mentee strutting like roosters.
It’s this final “snapshot” within this project I carry with me to assess the success of the project. An older reader and a younger reader — four hands holding one book, sharing the same reading space and celebrating their time together.