Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Literature as Relational Glue

In my last post on ‘Making Books Come Alive’ Jo responded with a comment that ‘Looking For Crabs’ is a favourite book for her family. She commented, “We can often be heard saying, "There are no crabs at our beach...", after we have been looking for a while. Her family’s comment is an echo of the book which tells of a family outing to a beach where the children look for crabs when it’s too cold to swim, only to be frustrated that they don’t ever seem to find any. But of course, there are crabs hiding everywhere just under their noses, disguised as rocks, hidden amongst the rocks. The book ends with the children leaving the beach saying “There are no crabs at our beach” while the crabs wave from their hiding places.

The comment by Jo indicates something that may be obvious but which is foundational to understanding some of the secrets to building rich literacy environments at home and school. Reading involves social relationships among people - teachers and students, groups of students, parents and children, and between an author and his or her readers. The stories that books communicate teach us new things about our world and language and help to build common ground between people. They contribute to enriching our daily lives together and help to be some of the cultural glue that binds us together as families, class groups, friends and so on.

What Jo’s example demonstrates is that books become an extension of relationships and a means to enrich them and express how we see one another and feel about one another. One of my favourite examples of this at work occurred one night as I tried to encourage my youngest daughter to go to bed (who I think at the time was 5 - see picture opposite). She had asked for some dessert just before bedtime and I’d said no. When I went in to read stories to her she was rubbing her stomach. I asked, “What’s the matter Darlin’?” To which she replied, “I was just thinking of how Wilbur couldn’t sleep, because when your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it's hard to fall asleep." Louise used the words about Wilbur from 'Charlotte’s Web' (E.B. White) as an extension of our relationship. She knew the words would connect with me and make me smile; and perhaps, even get me to change my mind.

Such use of language is not restricted just to families of course. In my book ‘Pathways to Literacy’ I talk about the way you can create classroom environments that do just this. I share how one of my postgraduate students had created an environment like this in her Kindergarten. In Susan Langbien’s classroom, reading and writing were being shared and enjoyed, inside the classroom and in the playground. Reading and writing were often finding their way into the language of the group.

For example, at morning tea Christian began to chant: “Wombat stew, wombat stew, crunchy munchy for my lunchy, wombat stew.” This of course is from the book ‘Wombat Stew’ (Marcia Vaughan, 1984), a book that Susan had shared). Other children soon joined in and pretended their morning teas were lizard’s eyes, a cane toad, mud and slime and a crocodile's tooth. A new and complex 'socially' constituted wombat stew was created. As they played they not only relived the experience of the book, they learned about language.

The playground in Susan's Kindergarten was often the setting for much child initiated drama and dramatic play. Little birds looked for their mothers in the playground as they acted out the plot of ‘Are you my mother?’ (P.D. Eastman, 1960). A group of children became the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the troll,and used a balance beam as their bridge. Another group played 'house' and whenever Genevieve set off for the shops she reminded herself ‘Don't forget the bacon’ (Hutchins, 1976).

For reading and writing to assume this important place in the lives of families and classrooms we need to do a few basic things:
1. We need to flood our homes and classrooms with books. You don't have to buy the books, public libraries are a wonderful resource.
2. We need to read these books often and encourage them to read (books will hopefully be amongst their most precious things).
3. Parents and teachers need to be readers themselves and love reading to their children not because they know it’s good for their children, but because it gives them and their children great joy and it stimulates creativity, laughter and inquisitiveness.
4. We need to talk to our children about books – asking questions of them, contributing ideas and insights about them, structuring conversations about them and encouraging our children to respond to the books. Not to test their understanding, but to encourage reflection and appreciation of story and language.

One final comment. While my focus above has been on literature, non-fiction books and online reading can also lead to lots of discussion and dialogue as readers reflect on the things they have been learning, the questions that are provoked and other areas of discovery and learning they might have experienced separate to their experience of the books. Of course this is another post.

Related Posts

My series on 'The Power of Literature' (here)

All my previous posts on children's literature (here)

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