In Which Ella Surprisingly Ends Up Helping to Teach A Kindergarden Class

Note: I had planned for today’s post to be a continuation of the story I was telling yesterday from the time I went to the Maureen Johnson book launch, but then I realized that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and it would be much better to have a pre-written post for then.

Also, I have fun news to share!

Today, instead of writing doggedly at home, taking breaks, of course, to slam my forehead repeatedly into the table and drink way too much orange juice, I went into my mom’s school to help out. Now, I had been planning to do this for some time now, but it had taken quite a while for the proposal to work its way through the administration. But it entirely was worth it–spending the day in an inner city school is both incredibly fun and exciting. (Or at least that’s the way it felt for me, an eighteen-year-old who has a great deal of energy and almost boundless enthusiasm when it comes to kids.)

I started out just observing my mom’s class, which she teaches with another lovely woman, but after lunch I got to help out with their social studies lesson. They were supposed to watch a video made by the organization that runs Plimouth (how they spell it, for some reason–I always thought it was with an y.), have a discussion, and fill out a outline of the facts they learned before they wrote a letter to a child who lived through the first year of settlement. (We used the real names of the Plimouth children for this activity. Believe it or not, some of the kids had names like “Wrestling,” “Helpless,” “Dust,” “Delivery,” and “Ashes.”)

However, in the way that most things tend to go when it comes to kids or lesson plans, it did not go exactly as planned. The computer malfunctioned, turning the video into a series of brightly flashing pixels and a disembodied voice that sounded half like Sarah Palin and half like a robot, sending the class into peals of giggles. But my mom picked things back up again by just explaining the gist of the movie and drawing pictures with the LCD projector (It’s crazy how much technology has changed in the past eleven years. All we ever had in second grade was an overhead projector and three, bright blue Macs.).

I also got to use the pointer tool to point out the countries in Europe, explain religious persecution, and debunk a few common Thanksgiving misconceptions. (My mother had told me the night before that I was under no circumstances to tell them that European settlers started genocides, destroyed entire cultures, and were generally brutal to the native peoples. I was to keep it at “unfairly killed and hurt” for the day.)

But then the acting principal knocked on the door, called me “sweetheart” in an incredibly saccharine way (something I had sincerely hoped would have ended since I’m now an adult), and asked me to go help out in the kindergarden classroom. More than a little shocked, I followed orders and walked into the kindergarden classroom where the kids were having their Thanksgiving Day party. I’ve recently been babysitting several kids who are in kindergarden, so I felt right at home. They’re still at that wonderful age where they are (mostly) angelic and will try desperately to do the right thing to get your attention and affirmation.

I mostly spent the duration of their party checking homework and pulling together worksheets, while watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special (which, by the way, is  somewhat racist, paints the Pilgrims as huge heros, and portrays all parties involved as complete caricatures of themselves–and people wonder why I’ve never liked Charlie Brown or Disney movies) out of the corner of my eye. But then, school technically ended and “homework club” began. I read them two stories and then spent the next two hours, either squatting on the floor or perched in a very low chair, helping the kids with their math.

I must admit that I loved it. The kids were so sweet and were all trying very, very hard. One girl was having a lot of trouble forming her numbers properly and was printing them upside down and/or backwards, and while it was challenging, I really enjoyed working with her to write them correctly. One of the little boys kindly brought her a chart showing the letters and the way to form them in big print, and she very slowly managed to get it. Of course, this is not to say that the problem is entirely fixed, because an issue like that takes a lot of practice to correct, but it was a lot of fun helping her work through her frustration and succeed, and I’m looking forward to continuing working with her on it in the future. I have every confidence that she’ll get over this mistake. Pippa, after all, used to write her name like it was a mirror image of itself (every letter was backwards and in reverse order), and she’s turned out just wonderfully.

Also, giving little kids high-fives and pound-it’s is a tremendous amount of fun, and I’m coming up with all sorts of new ways to say “good job,” so I don’t sound like a broken record each time they figure something out. My current favorite is “rock on!” which the kids seem to find particularly funny.

But perhaps the best part about working with those kids is that I feel like I get to fix the mistakes that I thought my elementary school teachers made with me. I really want to give kids tons of praise, convince them that it is good to make mistakes and take risks, and tell them that they are smart and capable at every turn. If I had been given more of that, those unhappy years could have been greatly improved.

By the end of the day, I could throughly understand why my mother comes home so exhausted each night. (There aren’t many jobs where you are at work from seven a.m. to six p.m.-ish and spending many hours doing massive amounts of work at home.) But for right now, I’m totally in love with the whole experience and rearing to go back.

Thankfully, I’m babysitting some of the world’s sweetest children on Sunday evening, and I get to see my young cousins tomorrow, so I won’t be totally without young children in my life for too long.

On another note, Cecelia came home today, and I got to spend several hours with her this evening. We ended up driving around, looking at the skyline, with all of the buildings lit up and the light pollution turning the sky over the city an odd shade of purple-red and the low-laying clouds, grey tinged with orange, watching Obama’s speech at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner (this was my eighth viewing), and a plethora of time-lapse videos. It was loads and loads of fun and exactly the sort of low-key activity I needed before being surrounded by massive amounts of family for close to 48 hours. Also, I have missed her terribly since I last saw her in October (check out In Which Ella Gets Caught in the Rain, Tells Stories from Middle School, and Visits Cecelia at Yale, if you’d like to hear about that adventure.).

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Learning to Read

I must admit that I am a sucker for stories about how people learned to read and write. They’re always interesting, funny, and sweet. I have gone through Cecelia’s first grade journal around twice, because I’m so fascinated by her entries. They’re hilarious, and incredibly well done for a 6-year-old. And by incredibly well done, I really do mean incredibly well done. It’s absolutely impressive. She’s got complex sentences, interesting anecdotes, beginnings, middles, and ends, and neat handwriting.

My favorite is her entry about snowy days. After describing how she would play in the snow, she wrote, “I would like nothing more than to be raped in a blanket with my feet in warm water.” We didn’t stop laughing for at least two minutes, and I was reminded again how much I absolutely adore Cecelia and all of my friends.

So I have decided to have a go at relaying my own reading story.

My first memory of truly reading was from when I was three and still lived in the City. I was staring up at the awnings above the shops, and on a blue and yellow one, I was able to decipher the word “the”. However, by the time that I got to Kindergarden, I was a less than a stellar reader. Sure, I could decipher simple sentences, but anything more complex that required real thought was beyond my attention span. My mother would sit next to me with her old “Dick and Jane” Reader, and I would practice putting my feet behind my head or do backbends off the arms of the couch, narrowly missing the coffee and end tables.

Fortunately, by the time I was in first grade, I got my act somewhat together. By October I was in the top reading group. Prior to this switch, I had taken to “stealing” short chapter books from the school library, because the batty librarian wouldn’t let me check them out. I had thought that I was so slick when I hid them under my shirt. Thankfully, my teacher pretended not to notice, and let me read them. D.E.A.R (Drop Everything And Read or, as I liked to call it, Don’t Even Attempt Reading) became the only time where you could find me sitting somewhat still and not talking. I read as much Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl as I could get my hands on before discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Harry Potter books. My parents, who are huge readers (they didn’t buy a television until the 1988 Olympics, and we have at least fifteen large bookcases in our house), were absolutely ecstatic and kept encouraging me.

Throughout my childhood, reading truly was the only thing that I could remain focused on for an extended period of time. I read 100 books in the summer of 2001, and in Middle School I read the most books out of my “House” every year (134 in 2005-2006 and 112 in 2006-2007). In the winter, I’d huddle next to the radiator and sympathetically shiver as I read The Long Winter. In the summer, I’d lie in my neighbor’s tree house and read A View From Saturday for the millionth time. In school, I’d hide books like Fast Food Nation under my desk and surupticiously read. (My fifth grade teacher was very surprised when she caught me with that book during math class.)

But learning the act and developing a love for reading are only one half of the equation. You have only truly learned to read when you know how to read critically with an eye for metaphor and can analyze a text from the different literary schools of thought. For me, this began to happen when I was 13. I had a wonderful English teacher, and with her help and my mother’s, I began to understand that a book has more than just a plot and interesting characters.

And so it went. I improved every year and continued to gobble books. Nothing really changed until I saw this vlog post in September. Here it is:

At the time, I was simultaneously in the middle of a collection of Kafka’s works (for my AP English class) and Nine Short Stories by J.D. Salinger. Suddenly, everything clicked. If you watch the video, I’m sure you’ll know why. John Green (Read his books!) couldn’t have described the importance and act of critical reading better. I also resolved to read Ulysses, but after one short story from Dubliners, I realized that Joyce’s writing style is FREAKISHLY difficult to understand. So Joyce is currently sitting on a back burner, and probably will for quite a while.

I know that my learning-to-read journey hasn’t ended yet, and I hope that it never does. There’s so much left to discover and learn about reading critically, and there always will be. And I find that incredibly encouraging.

How did you learn to read?