Story Time is the New Hot Ticket!

I love the fact that story time at the public library is the new hot ticket in town.  Here is an article that recently appeared in the NY Times about the popularity of story time at libraries in the city.  I’m sure this is a trend that is sweeping the country because what is more fun and important for kids than reading.  CLICK HERE to read this piece at the NY Times website.  And next time you’re looking for something fun to do with your child, check out story time at your local library!

Long Line at the Library? It’s Story Time Again

The Great Gift of Reading Aloud, by Meghan Cox Gurdon

I love this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who writes about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal. You can read this piece at the WSJ website by CLICKING HERE. My children are all grown up now, but if I could do the magic “Bewitched” eye blink and go back to an earlier time, I would go right back to my big king sized bed where both my children were lying next to me and I was reading them a Harry Potter or Fudge book. My kids used to love that and so did I. There are so many benefits to reading to your kids. It teaches them how to listen – such an important skill. It teaches them vocabulary, sentence structure, story structure, about the world they live in, and so much more. This is a wonderful article. If you are lucky enough to have a young child at home, I hope you are reading to them every single day!

To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical entry point to the larger world of literature.

The first time I read aloud to one of my children, the experience ended in tears. It was a sweltering July afternoon 21 years ago, and my husband and I had, incredibly, just been permitted to leave a Tokyo hospital with our firstborn, a daughter.

Immediately upon entering our apartment, feeling foggy about all but one thing, I carried the infant to the little room we had prepared for her, sat down in the rocking chair that I had painted before her arrival, and began to read aloud from a book of fairy tales.

“Long ago there lived a widower who had one daughter,” I informed the pudding in my arms. “For his second wife, he chose a widow who had two daughters. All three had very jealous natures . . .”

The hot summer sun slanted through the windows. My voice sounded querulous and strange. The child lay oblivious. Was she even listening? Was I supposed to show her the illustrations? With a sudden sense of personal absurdity, I started to bawl. Things quickly improved, but honestly, what kind of a maniac reads “Cinderella” to a newborn?

Reading aloud was probably always going to be important in our family life, but it might never have acquired its tinge of benign extremism without the influence of my friend Lisa Wolfinger, who had started having babies a few years before I did.

It was she who first modeled for me the joyful primacy that reading aloud could command, even in a busy household. She read to her four boys every night, at length and almost without fail. I remember being at a dinner party at her house in Maine when her sons were quite small. During cocktails, she excused herself and disappeared upstairs. She was gone so long that eventually someone asked her husband if anything was amiss. “Oh, no,” he said. “She’s just reading to the boys.” Any chagrin that we might have felt at being stranded by our hostess was replaced by amazed admiration—and for me a determination to do the same for my own children, if I ever had them.

Well, I did, five of them, and since that first hysterical episode in Japan I’ve read aloud to all or some of them virtually every day. It has been one of the great joys of our family life. It is also increasingly a torment—a torment because as children get older the schedule gets busier; because it’s ever harder to get literary classics into children’s minds before they see the Hollywood variants; because childhood itself is fast disappearing into the bewitching embrace of technology.

“I do think that people, in the rush and clamor and get-things-done-ness of daily life, need to be reminded about what reading aloud can do,” says author Kate DiCamillo, a Newbery Medalist and evangelist on the subject.

To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding. Harvard professor Maria Tatar has written of its origins in medieval fireside storytelling, “before print and electronic media supplied nighttime entertainments.”

Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.

“We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story,” Ms. DiCamillo says. “We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light.”

She’s right, of course. When you read “Goodnight Moon” with a toddler who sits trustingly on your lap, gazing at the page with rapt absorption; when you ask her to “find the mouse” and she pokes out a finger and earnestly touches the page, you are in that patch of warmth, the both of you. When you read “The Story of Ping” to a slightly older child and notice him wince at the moment when Ping gets smacked on the bottom after spending all night out on the Yangtze River; or when you get to the scene in “The Wind in the Willows” when Mr. Toad sees his first automobile and the children laugh out loud at his rapturous cries (“O poop-poop! O my!”), you are in that patch of light.

The evident pleasure of hearing a story read aloud is not confined to the young. Even teenagers (and husbands) will listen if the writing is good. So it seems a shame that, in many households, parents read to children only until the children are old enough to read by themselves. In the golden, misty days of yore—a decade ago, say—that could safely establish a pattern for life. Reading aloud was a kind of grand gateway, beautiful in itself but also an entry point to the larger world of literature. It was understood that a child who learned to love stories by hearing them would be a child who would willingly graduate to more sophisticated literature for his own reading.

Alas, this assumption is no longer so easy to make. In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won’t bother going through the gateway at all. I know a voracious young reader who stopped consuming novels for pleasure for almost four years after she gained access to a laptop. In our family, the attempted usurpation by electronic entertainment has struck each child progressively at an earlier age—not because I’m a feckless mother, I hope, but because that is the way the culture is going. If the drift to YouTube and Instagram and Hulu has happened in our household, a book-obsessed place that is stuffed with gloriously varied volumes thanks to my day job as this paper’s children’s book critic, how must it be elsewhere?

Technology has “deformed the childhood of my sons,” a friend says bleakly. Like mine, her children span the time before and after the mass use of computerized devices, before and after the deluge of online-ism—a coinage dangerously close to onanism and perhaps not far off the mark—and she notes a distressing difference between even the media saturation of her 17-year-old and his 13-year-old brother. The younger boy had less time to grow up without pixels, and it shows.

For many kids, if the choice is between a book and the Internet, the Internet wins. Studies of media consumption bear this out. But if the choice is between scrolling around through prefabricated worlds online and receiving the attention of a devoted adult, surely human storytelling can prevail. Brittany Baldwin, a speechwriter in Washington, remembers long sessions of her father reading “The Yearling” and “The Hobbit” to her and her three siblings at their home in Houston. “There was something about listening that not only helped us be attentive but also let [our] minds be swept up in the story until it became a dream,” she says of those pre-Internet days. Hearing stories unfurl calmly, she adds, “gave me an outlook on things beyond what is seen.”

My shining role model Lisa, the vanishing hostess—and, as it happens, a film producer and thus no reflexive enemy of the screen—notes: “Creating that world in your head is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Kids now are being spoon-fed the visual storytelling, so there’s no reason for them to close their eyes and imagine a world, imagine what these people would look like, the clothes and smells and landscape.”

It was for that reason that I tried furiously, when my children were small, to stay ahead of Disney and other well-meaning cinematic manglers of classic children’s literature. Not that movie adaptations are necessarily bad, but they do tend to colonize the mind. I wanted my children to conjure sublimely odd, fabulously idiosyncratic stories such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and “Winnie-the-Pooh” in their own heads, for themselves, before they internalized the animated renditions.

It was hard, and it’s getting harder. A second-grader too young to tackle the Harry Potter books almost cannot help seeing them onscreen, or bits of them, and thus will envision Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall before he opens the first volume in the series. That Hollywood has been interpreting children’s literature since its earliest days—think of Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess” (1939)—is a reminder that the race against the machine predates the invention of the iPad.

Wait, I hear an irritated chorus say, what’s so bad about the iPad? What about all those zippy interactive storybooks that tiny kids can “read” to themselves? And what about audio books—are they bad, too? IPads and audio books have their virtues, but they don’t have warm arms, they can’t share a joke, and they haven’t any knowledge of, or interest in, a particular child. In the case of recorded stories, they can’t answer questions or observe a child’s puzzlement and know to pause and explain what, say, a “charabanc” is. They most certainly won’t re-read Mr. Toad’s brilliant insults for a listener who wants to memorize them. (One of my happiest moments as a mother was overhearing one daughter cheerily denounce another as a “common, low, fat barge-woman,” a triumphant vindication of reading Kenneth Grahame to them.)

Both grown-ups and children are missing something when there is no reading aloud. The children’s loss is hateful to contemplate: the fabulous illustrations they will not see, the esoteric vocabulary they may never hear, the thrilling epics they will never embark upon. But grown-ups lose too: They forgo a precious point of sustained connection and a lot of goofy fun (one friend’s father used to read “The Happy Lion” in a John Wayne drawl), as well as the opportunity to pass on literary favorites. Harvard professor Maria Tatar evokes William Wordsworth in the context of handing down cherished stories: “What we have loved / Others will love, and we will teach them how.”

What’s more, reading to children provides a return ticket back through the gateway—to stories that adults may otherwise seldom revisit: fairy tales and Norse mythology, the heroic sagas of Odysseus and Beowulf, even the unexpectedly disconcerting adventures of the children who found themselves with Mary Poppins as a nanny. (Walt Disney left a lot out of the movie.)

For 45 minutes or an hour adults can give children—and themselves—an irreplaceable gift, a cultural grounding, a zest for language, a stake in the rich history of storytelling. That’s not so long, surely? There will be plenty of time afterward for everyone to go back online.

—Mrs. Gurdon writes about children’s books for the Weekend Journal.

A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade

Here is an excellent article about the importance of mastering reading by the third grade. If your child is approaching third grade and is struggling with reading, you must do whatever you can to get him or her up to speed. I highly recommend that you work with the Reading Kingdom program that is part of your membership at www.TestingMom.com. To read this article on the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Yet one afternoon last month, there was Anthony, a 10-year-old whose small frame was highlighted by baggy black cargo shorts, struggling with “Tiny the Snow Dog,” a picture book with only a handful of words per page. “This is Tiny,” he read to his teacher, Holly Bryant. “He is my dog.”

Anthony is one of about 1,900 children from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District who failed the standardized reading test given to all North Carolina third graders in the spring. Under a recent law similar to those in more than a dozen states, such students in North Carolina may be required to repeat the grade. The law, being applied this year to third graders for the first time, poses a set of thorny educational challenges.

About 1,500 students — or one of every eight who completed third grade in Charlotte in June — ended up enrolling in literacy school, along with Anthony, who has been attending four days a week for the past six weeks.

Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.

While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources. A six-week course, they say, cannot possibly make up for what Anthony and the others need: the extra help and focus should start in preschool.

“It’s like, O.K., we’re going to do this, and if kids don’t read at third-grade level, they’re going to be held back,” said Bill Anderson, a former principal and executive director of MeckEd, an education advocacy group in Mecklenberg County. “And, oh, by the way, there’s not going to be any money for this. School districts just have to figure this out.”

In North Carolina, the state provided some funding, but districts also relied on nonprofit foundations to supplement the costs of the summer reading academies. State budget reductions in recent years have led to larger class sizes and a reduction in teaching assistants, even in the youngest elementary classes. Fewer than a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Although many of the new state laws do include provisions requiring schools to identify and support students who show signs of reading difficulties as early as kindergarten, the biggest focus does not come until third grade, along with the consequences for schools and students.

“The emphasis is in the wrong place, and it ought to be much earlier,” said Barbara O’Brien, policy director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a nonprofit advocacy group, and a former lieutenant governor of Colorado. “I think it’s bittersweet that we have this almost national focus and agreement on what’s important, and it’s at a time when no one wants to spend money to do things the right way.”

Educators also say that many out-of-school factors contribute to a child’s reading ability. Research suggests and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a policy recommending that parents read to their babies from birth.

The policies follow the pattern of many other educational reform efforts that impose consequences for failure to meet certain goals. “It’s sort of the hammer falls under certain conditions,” said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In the absence of a strong reading curriculum and teacher training between pre-K and third grade, he said, holding students back a grade seems “in some sense unfair to kids.”

In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.

“Principals did start looking at this as, ‘We’ve got four years to make sure this happens,’ ” said Mary Laura Bragg, vice president of advocacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, “not just, ‘Oh, we’ve got to start looking at this in third grade.’ ” Ms. Bragg served as head of reading initiatives with the Florida Department of Education under Mr. Bush, who backed the state’s policy on holding back struggling third-grade readers when he was governor.

Florida introduced its policy in 2002, and between that year and 2013, the percentage of fourth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose to 39 percent from 27 percent, one of the largest improvements in the country. Research using Florida’s test results has also shown that, on average, students who repeated third grade performed better on standardized reading tests through middle school than peers who had scored just a few points above the cutoff for moving up to fourth grade.

But lasting results are harder to document. The percentage of Florida eighth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose from 29 percent in 2002 to just 33 percent in 2013, similar to increases elsewhere in the country. Other studies show that students who must repeat a grade drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers.

In North Carolina, the law originally mandated a repeated grade and summer school for any third grader who could not demonstrate proficiency at reading either on the end-of-year standardized test or other measures, including portfolios amassed by teachers. The policy offered exemptions for students with learning disabilities or those who had been learning English for two years or less. After pressure from parents, teachers and advocacy groups, the Legislature modified the law to offer school districts and principals more flexibility in assessing students’ reading abilities and in placing them after third grade. Also, while districts had to offer the summer reading classes, struggling students were not required to attend.

With states starting to align standardized tests with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states, more students have fallen short of proficiency guidelines than in the past. That could mean many more third graders subject to the new policies about repeating the year.

The challenges for teachers were evident in Charlotte on a recent morning. In one classroom, Emily Hill, who teaches kindergarten during the school year, was instructing two 9-year-olds on how to pronounce vowel combinations like “ai,” “ie” and “ee.”

In another class, full of students who had tested at around a second-grade reading level at the end of third grade, Ullanda Tyler, a teacher with 11 years of experience, had moved beyond basic phonics to work on vocabulary and skills like inference.

Yet students still had trouble explaining definitions she had recently taught.

All students who attended the summer classes took a test at the end to measure their progress. Later this month, principals in Charlotte will decide which of the students must repeat third grade.

Reading experts said children should not be in such a position this late in elementary school.

“If I were a parent and I had a struggling third grader, I would get whatever help I could to help get them up to speed,” said Deborah J. Stipek, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. “But if I were a state policymaker or superintendent, I would say, ‘What can we offer these kids in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade so they aren’t behind when they get to third grade?’ ”