Roxy’s Best Of…Books for Grown-Ups

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Roxy’s Reads — Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide by Lucy Calkins with Lydia Bellino

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Yesterday, Rex and I headed in to our NYC office, and my current hardcover page turner, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, was too heavy to lug onto the train. So I picked up Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide by Lucy Calkins with Lydia Bellino, at the recommendation of our elementary school principal, Michael Craver. Way back in March, Principal Craver had given an impressive presentation to interested parents about the role parents play in educating their children. Inspired, I bought the book, but just never seemed to pick it up. Today’s train ride gave me plenty of time to read, and plenty of time to develop my New Year’s resolutions for the Back-to-School New Year. I was hooked by the first chapter, “Talk: The Foundation of Literacy.”

I’m going to try to share the first passage that sparked my interest. Lucy Calkins writes:

When my son Miles was three, I visited all the preschools in our town in search of the perfect one. I was particularly intrigued by a place about which I’d heard both rave reviews and critical comments. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. I arrived at the school very early that autumn morning. The classroom was almost empty, save for a cluster of little girls who sat at one table rolling and pummeling clay. The director was nowhere in sight, so I pulled my chair near the girls and listened.

One girl was drumming her fingers on the surface of what appeared to be a pond. “The wind is whooshing the waves,” she said. The next girl plopped three blobs of clay onto the now-dappled surface of the pond. “The baby ducks are looking for their mom,” she added. Then, in a high-pitched baby duck voice, she called, “Mommy! Mommy!”

At this point, the director of the school arrived and motioned for me to join her. Together we stood, eavesdropping as the three girls spun their tale of the lost baby ducks. “They looked in the tall grass,” one child said, moving her three blobs to the pond’s edge. Then she shook her head despondently and sighed. “No mother.”

The director of the school pointed to the girls and stage-whispered, “This is where it all starts, you know. This is essential for their writing.”

My heart leapt. “Yes!” I thought. “She knows, she knows, she knows.” I could have hugged her. But my heart leapt too soon.

The director held up her hand, and began to move her fingers in the air as if she were kneading bread. “Yep,” she said, “It all starts here. We begin exercising their fingers with soft playdough, then move on to the stiffer beeswax clay, then to the really stiff clay… and by that time, their fingers are strong enough to work the pencil.” I stared at her, aghast, silent. “Yep.” She nodded with assurance. “It’s all in the fingers, it’s all in the fingers.”

I didn’t even stay the morning. And from that day on, as I traveled from one nursery school to another, I looked with a new sense of direction. Whether children were building towers with blocks, making masks with paper bags, or sculpting duck ponds with playdough, I listened to hear whether the adults who were there were celebrating the talk, the emerging stories…

In one school after another, I paid particular attention to the teachers’ attitudes toward children’s talk. I did this because, yes, indeed, that duck story was foundational to those girls’ growth as writers, and as readers, thinkers, problem-solvers, and world builders. Had the director of that school meant what I initially thought she meant, had she truly understood that the story those girls created around their three blobs of clay was foundational to their later writing, reading and learning, I would probably have enrolled my son in her school….

Yes, Ms. Nursery School Director. It all starts here, with those girls playing with clay, and with the rhythms and sounds of language. It all starts with those girls re-enacting the age-old search for a place to call home; with them collaborating to make a story.

Rex and I have been fortunate to find terrific educators since we moved out to the Roxiticus Valley. London and Maddie started pre-school at Westmont Montessori in September 2004, where amazing teachers like Kim Koch encourage the children to explore their world, learn, and follow their imagination wherever it takes them. Once it came time for kindergarten, Mendham Township Elementary School picked up where Westmont Montessori left off. While there are some frustrating limitations to the public school system, London and Maddie have been fortunate to have terrific teachers who nurture their language development.

Lucy Calkins goes on to emphasize the importance of talk in the home, and the ways she has used talk in her own home as her two boys grew up from babies to toddlers to school kids with backpacks, when such “deliberate support for oral language development stops….We teach our children to talk quietly, to talk less, and to stay out of the way.” Calkins shares some studies and statistics that indicate that American mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day talking with their children, while fathers may spend less than 30 minutes a week talking with their children. In contrast, the average adult in the U.S. spends 30 hours a week watching the television. I remember Rex taking note back in March when Principal Craver raised this point in his presentation, but I think both of us soon lost our focus on this important message. None of our family members spends much time watching television. In fact, we went without it for the month of August at the beach. However, I think of all the hours I spend outside of my 8:30am to 6:30pm investment banking day doing things that take me away from talking with my children… paying bills or shopping online, checking e-mail, and of course, “Mommy is always blogging!” When we had our good friends Lynette and Tom and their twins down to our beach house in Bay Head, NJ, their kids actually wrote anonymous notes to each parent: “Tom, your wife is nice but she spends too much time on the phone. Lynette, we like your husband but he spends too much time on his computer.” While I didn’t receive one of these anonymous missives, I am every bit as guilty of trying to multi-task at the expense of conversation.

Rex and I are fortunate that London and Maddie don’t let our grown-up activities stop them from indulging in creative play. The girls spend hours acting out elaborate stories with their American Girl dolls, Barbies, and Polly Pockets dolls, calling out “act your people” when Mommy or Aunt Veg doesn’t understand how to play the game. Although I get a little crazy when I find pricey doll-size outfits strewn about the house, and tomboy Roxy doesn’t have a clue where they got the girly girl gene, I wouldn’t trade their collaborative, imaginative play for anything in the world.

Lucy Calkins asks, “Why can’t we find time to talk with our children?” and she goes on to answer:

Part of the reason is that by the time our toddlers are of school age, we take their talk for granted. We have turned all our attention to their reading and writing, not realizing that talk is still the motor that propels their intellectual development. It is through talk that children learn to follow and tell stories, understand logical sequences, recognize causes, anticipate consequences, explore options, and consider motives. It is through talk that our children learn about barometers, mortgages, civil rights, psychotherapy, and the Roman Empire. It is through talk that our children learn that their observations, hunches and insights are interesting and worth developing. It is through talk that our children learn about empathy, generosity, forgiveness – about walking a mile in another person’s moccasins. Talk matters, and it’s not happening enough in our homes…

And if we’re not talking with our children, then no one is, because study after study has shown that schools do not support our children’s oral language development. Researcher Gordon Wells monitored closely the talk 20 children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds engaged in at home and school. He found that even children from the most “linguistically deprived” homes still got far more support at home for language development than in school.

To be continued….


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