Recently I gathered my class of eleven third and fourth graders for our new “Tales” selection. While I read aloud the first chapter of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, I was aware of the familiar but ever new hush that fills the room when the listeners, one by one, enter their own “flow”- captivated, engaged. Bodies relax, eyes meet with a knowing nod, a delicious aroma of camaraderie and shared joy seems to seep like a slithering genie over and around the schoolroom. The phrase “reading assignment” conjures up and carries a hint of ‘outside-in’ obligation, while this sort of reading is nothing short of a gift.
By the end of the morning’s selection, I realized that we did not know if the daughter would survive the morning. But, our time for tales was over, and it was time to move to the next reading. The children began to beg. “Please keep reading. You CANNOT stop here!” This is the scenario that teachers and parents dream about. But the added gilding on this moment’s glory was that I was now able to hand out a new copy of the book I had been reading from to each child. Their eyes widened to saucers. “We get our own book? Is this one of the ones we get to keep? Can we read ahead?” I said that they must make a solemn vow. With their hands veiling their faces, I asked them to repeat after me: “I solemnly swear that if I read ahead to the next chapter, I will not reveal what I discover to anyone else in the class.”
Our little school is in its sixth year and growing at a snail’s pace. Although we acknowledge the priority of the living book and the abundant, liberal feast, we have generally only purchased one copy of our selections for the teacher to read aloud or had class sets of titles that stayed in the room from year to year. This year, in spite of a flailing economy and an anemic budget, we decided to take the plunge and use each child’s entire supply fee towards the purchase of personal copies of books the student would use during the year. This, along with the purchase of beautiful materials the children could use to design their own notebooks, has added a fresh sense of personhood and honor to the atmosphere. ‘You mean this is mine?! I can write my own name in it? Can I make notes in the margin?’
I was unprepared for the amount of enthusiasm this would generate. I have noticed my students taking special care that their corner on the shelf is neat and orderly. Affection and even a sense of reverence characterize the treatment of their books. In our age, when the latest electronic gadget usually trumps any pen and paper it is gratifying to see this responsible posture and sense of ownership for a book.
Our dream is that when a child leaves our school, she will possess a bookshelf of all the living books she has read and pondered through her years at Red Mountain Community School. I imagine Heroes of Asgard and Mrs. Beesly’s Stories from the History of Rome holding an equally endearing spot as Swiss Family Robinson or Little House in the Big Woods. Owning books in a variety of genres in the areas of knowledge of God, knowledge of Man and knowledge of the Universe speaks subliminally to our appetites for all kinds of knowing.
The New York Times has published several columns this year asking serious questions about education. David Brooks’ article, “The Medium Is the Medium” noted that when 852 disadvantaged students were given 12 books of their own choosing to take home for the summer (over the course of three years), those student’s reading scores rose significantly. “It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact…. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as a members of a different group.” (This was set in contrast to children whose self-perception is based on heavy doses of home internet usage.)
Long before I became a student of Mason, I read a book entitled Honey for a Child’s Heart. Author Gladys Hunt notes that parents nourish children with milk for their bodies and honey for their spirits. Mason’s ingenious practices insure a similar diet of ‘milk and honey’ in a way that forms the intellect, will and loves. We are finding that the simple practice of book ownership repeats the theme that ‘process becomes content.’ The way we do something says as much or more than what we do. By trusting the children with the actual book we give value to the book as well as the child.
As food is to the body, so ideas are to the mind. Real, living books are the “solid meals” that our students not only need, but hunger for. It is not our hope that our children will leave our school with a nice bookshelf. The real treasure will be the experience of having feasted on the books and making ideas their own.
© Melanie Walker 2010