Henry doesn't like snakes (Student Reading Program #1)
I'm an incipient empty-nester looking for ways to keep young energy in my life and help in the community at the same time, as I wrote in Be a Mentor.
It's fun to be part of the Student Reading Program in a local public school (I referenced the program at the bottom of this post on literacy). Twice a week I go to an elementary school and read with two kids. Our "job" as volunteers is not to teach the kids to read - they have teachers for that. We're instead supposed to model the pleasure one can take in reading, the excitement of wondering what's going to be on the next page. "Look at this great picture! What do you think is happening? What do you think is going to happen next?" I've extended my own mandate to letting the kid choose, to some degree, what direction he wants to take with our reading time each day. It's really thrilling.
Henry is in first grade. You can see him here holding up Where the Wild Things Are (irritatingly translated into Spanish as Donde Viven los Monstruos). He wanted to show this page of flowers because he's a little afraid of the monster pages - which are of course in the great majority. This is his photo-face, I guess; I've rarely seen him so serious.
When we started reading together he'd only been in North Carolina for a couple weeks and according to the ESL teacher spoke virtually no English at all. The classroom teachers do not speak Spanish. It must be isolating and lonely for Henry and the many others like him.
I meet with Henry while the rest of his class is having circle story time. Now that he knows me, Henry jumps up from the circle when he sees me and bounces across the room. He knows the drill - he practically pulls me to the resources room where the Student Reading Program materials are kept.
On the volunteers' table there's a bunch of storage cubes with books in ziplock bags. The ziplock bags for Spanish speaking kids have two copies of each book, one in Spanish and one in English.
I let Henry choose the books, a job he takes very seriously. Then he hauls me off to the library. There are a bunch of tents (ranging in style and quality from Spiderman to REI) set up on the carpet there for kids to read in, but Henry thinks the tents are too hot, so we sit at a table.
At first he was very shy and would only whisper when I asked him about the things we saw and read in the books. But he's cheerful and valiant by nature and soon started chatting away to me in Spanish about the stories, and then started making a very determined effort to read the words. He now zestfully takes the lead in everything we do.
Interestingly, Henry has decided to turn our time together into a language lab. He will pause on a page in the middle of one of our books, put his hand on the book as if to signal, "ok, we're shifting gears, now," and start a conversation about it in English: "I don't like snakes." He continues, sentence after sentence, looking up at me for feedback. He seems to want me to repeat his sentences back to him casually as if asking for elaboration, using covertly corrected English. Then he continues. I ask questions about the topic under discussion (for instance, snakes), he answers; then he asks and I answer. He guides the discussion. I'm in awe of his ability to use the few minutes we have so efficiently - he is methodically stockpiling correct English usage.
A couple weeks ago a switch in his brain got flipped, and now he chats with great verve in English from the minute he sees me. And he's darn good! Kids are amazing!
When Henry's tired, or frightened by a book with too many pages, he goes back to whispering. I've found if I lean in, head to head, family style, and encourage him in an intimate, kindly voice -- easy because I really do love him and our books and our time together -- he picks up courage by proximity and surges back to the front line.
This is exactly the kind of work I dreamed of doing when I first started learning Spanish a couple years ago (my self-study was based on watching telenovelas with the subtitles turned on, a method some have said I should market).
When I am reading with Henry there is no other place in the universe I would rather be.
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