Monday, February 25, 2013

We Have to Remember the Book! Recapturing Enthusiasm in Reading

Week after week, the preschoolers I work with through Jumpstart request a books center during session. With a slew of other seemingly more exciting options, like art, dramatic play, science, writing, or puzzles, books seems an unlikely center to draw a lot of children, particularly in the under-resourced classroom in which I work. [...]
There aren’t a lot of books to begin with, and the books the classroom does have often covered in scribbles and filled with torn and battered pages, clearly hand-me-downs. Yet all the same, the preschoolers of A.O. Sexton run to the books center when it’s there, and are deeply upset when it’s not. 

Reading is always already a valuable experience for these students despite the lack of resources, an experience which they do not take lightly or for granted. As I help them learn to read, I’m learning too: learning how not to take my literacy or resources for granted, learning how to facilitate engagement with a text on a student’s terms and not my own, and learning how reading is significantly more about communication than isolated experience. “We have to remember the book, Ms. Kerith! It's more important to understand it” my students will remind me, reiterating the very rules I laid down for them. Acting almost like adults—with the exception of their fights over baby dolls, paint throwing, and ever-shifting friend networks—these children offer me positive reinforcement even as I am affirming the importance of their communication about the books we read.   

As the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) threaten to close 129 schools on the south and west side of Chicago—which includes all of the schools Jumpstart UChicago works with—the educational disparities and the inadequacies of the school system become all the more apparent. Being in the classroom, talking to and reading with these children, it is impossible for me to think that closing their school would be a good thing: if I hadn’t done Jumpstart, how could I have really understood the barriers these students face? At the same time, how would I have known the enthusiasm with which these students want to learn?

In an earlier post, I raised the question of how much can and does Jumpstart really accomplish in the face of these other limiting factors like funding, politics, and boundaries getting the program into schools at all. In the face of massive educational impediments like the school closings, it can be hard to feel that the work I do makes any real difference while I simultaneously feel more and more the importance of doing that work.

That’s where the preschoolers themselves come in: as I share with them my own natural enthusiasm for reading, they engage not only with new books, but with new language and communication skills and with new ideas. Their enthusiasm, their reiteration of the reading practices and social behaviors Jumpstart teaches is what makes my work worthwhile. Although I only see a small portion of their day-to-day life, when I hear children state the rules of Jumpstart (“we have to use kind words!”) or express the importance of reading, I can see the effect Jumpstart has on their individual lives.

Ultimately what my work with Jumpstart has taught me is that critical engagement is vital not only for improving educational and social inequalities, but also for understanding the importance of reading and communicating with others. Why read? The answer should be about the ways we take what we read—whether reading in an English class, for our own enjoyment, or with preschoolers to develop literacy skills—and communicate about it with others to make a difference in the world, even if that difference is simply (and importantly) the excitement of a preschooler getting to share what s/he has just learned.

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