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How Reading Aloud
Came to Poland

By way of New Jersey and Massachusetts

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A father plants a reading seed in New Jersey that blossoms 60 years later in Poland

by Jim Trelease © 2008

(parts of this essay come from the 2006 edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook)

nce, more than twenty years ago, I saw a poster in a school’s faculty room that read: “Anyone can count the number of seeds in a single apple, but only God can count the number of apples that will come from a single seed.” And it is that single seed that the reader-aloud plants in a child’s mind — the seed that says to him or her, “This reading stuff is so delicious I must have it every day of my life.”

Unfortunately, such seeds don't germinate overnight or even annually. Sometimes they take decades, which frustrates parents and bureaucrats who want instant results from any action. This may account for the National Reading Panel mentioning "reading aloud" only twice in its 7,000-sentence Report that became the reading rule book for No Child Left Behind.

Parents, I might add, are just as guilty of this impatience; they're forever asking me: "I read to my son throughout his childhood but still he's not an avid reader. What did I do wrong?"

And how old is your son today? "Nineteen."

"Excuse me, but do you really think nineteen is the finished product? Are you the same person today that you were when you were nineteen?" Then they hang their head and chuckle.

Of all the things I beg parents and teachers to do, none is more important than to be patient. Some blossoms take longer than others, some less. And some, sad to say, never take root at all—but those are rare and usually are the result of bad nurturing.

For the teacher or librarian, that book you are sharing today may take root in only one child's mind but how many other children will be affected in that one child's adulthood? In his 2003 Jefferson Lecture, the historian David McCullough spoke of the gigantic impact made in his subsequent life and reading appetite by meeting Robert Lawson's Ben and Me when McCullough was six-years-old.

Sowing the reading seed

From my own experience, here is how a seed sown back in the 1940s ended up blossoming beyond anyone's wildest dreams in Poland sixty years later.

I was born in 1941 and raised in, if not the state of sanctifying grace, at least the state of New Jersey. My parents were not college-educated and struggled to raise four sons in a small two-bedroom, second-floor apartment. I was first-born and the most difficult to handle. Today they would have called me hyper-active and dosed me with medications, but back in those days there were no such terms or medicines.

Luckily for me, my father found a way to “calm me down” — he read to me. He read to me from children’s books (Katy and the Big Snow was a special favorite), from the evening newspaper (Newark Evening News), and from the magazine (The Saturday Evening Post) he subscribed to. And what I learned from those nightly readings was simply this: “Reading is so delicious I must have it every day of my life.”

The next thing I remember was entering the local Catholic school (St. Michael's, Union, NJ) which, in the late 1940s, was a little crowded— there were 94 children in my first-grade class. And Sr. Elizabeth Francis was up in the front of the room chanting all the letter sounds and I was so far in the back of the room I could hardly see her, never mind hear her, over 93 other kids. I’m not sure what motivated the others to pay attention and master this strange language called reading but I know what motivated me: I wanted to be able to work this magic reading stuff that my father and mother could do. If all the sounding-out of letters and vowels was what I needed to do, OK— I would do it. Simply put, I came to school motivated to learn.

(To give Sr. Elizabeth Francis her due, she did read to us daily from a series of short novels (beginning with Wopsy) about a lilly-white novice guardian angel assigned to his first "client"—a black child in deepest Africa. The series held the 94 of us in such rapture, we would do anything for a second chapter later in the day. It was the ultimate treat or threat. With the birth of the Internet in the 90s and the arrival of online used-book sites like Bookfnder.com, I located a copy of the long-out-of-print Wopsy for a bargain $12, figuring it would have the same hold on my grandchildren. Unfortunately, it was so politically and theologically incorrect for the times, I never attempted to use it and it's only hold today is on a corner of one of my book shelves.)

Now let’s skip ahead 25 years, departing New Jersey for Massachusetts, to when my wife Susan and I were raising our two children. Needless to say, I read to them every night—every night. No, I didn’t do it to them to make them smarter or to give them better grades. I read to them simply because I remembered what it felt like all those years earlier when my father read to me. I didn’t want my children cheated out of that good feeling.

At the same time I was working at a newspaper in Massachusetts (Springfield Daily News) as a writer and artist. Eventually I began to visit local schools as a volunteer, talking about journalism as a career. And one day, on a classroom visit, after finishing my talk to the class, I spotted a novel I had just read to my daughter (The Bears' House by Marilyn Sachs). I picked up the book and began to talk about it with the class. This had nothing to do with my visit to the class; it was just something I did spontaneously. A week later the teacher wrote to tell me how excited the students were about my visit and how they all wanted to read the book I had talked about.

What the research showed

And that got me thinking. I had planted a seed in the mind of those children about that book, something that made it sound delicious. You might say I had given them a commercial, an advertisement for the book. As time went on and I visited more classrooms, I began to notice that the classes that were read to were the ones with the most interest in books. Was there a connection between reading to children and how much they read themselves— a connection between want to and how to? Suppose reading to them was the motivation that was missing in letter sounds or phonics?

When I looked at the research in professional journals, sure enough—there was a clear connection and the research proved it. The problem was: only a small number of people read such research. Everyone else thought reading to children was just a way of entertaining them and television did that just fine, so why read to them? Let them watch television and then you can talk on the phone or go shopping. Who needs the reading aloud? Today there are school administrators and government bureaucrats who think reading aloud can't be doing any good, especially if the kids were enjoying it so much—kind of the Vince Lombardi approach to learning.

So I self-published a little 30-page booklet on the subject of reading to children. I self-published it because I never thought any of the big-time New York publishers would be interested in it. After all, there was no sex or violence in the book. But as luck would have it, a neighbor of mine told a family friend about it and he was just starting in business as a literary agent and was looking for clients. He called and asked me if he could take my little booklet around New York and show some publishers. I thought to myself, “The local asylum has just lost one of its patients.” But I let him try and—what do you know? He found a publisher—Penguin, the oldest paperback publisher in the world.

That was 1982. When the book became a bestseller in the United States six months later (thanks to a write-up in "Dear Abby"), I thought about those seeds my father planted every night as we sat in his big red chair. And, to be honest, I thought that my book was the end of that journey. I had yet to grasp the concept of that "seed poster."

In 1982 I had to give a speech to secondary teachers from inner-city Boston. There were about 125 of them, a well-seasoned and cynical lot, if I remember correctly. But there was one teacher in the audience who caught my eye—a male, sitting in the front row—a rare location for male teachers. Usually the men like to sit in the back so they can read the newspaper or sleep. This fellow, however, was with me all the way.

That day I spoke to them of two things: reading aloud to students, even high school students; and Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). The latter is simply giving students the time to read in school —not for grades, not for discussion or evaluation but just for fun—which is the purpose the author probably had in mind when he wrote the thing in the first place. The strategy is for the reading aloud to motivate the students to read more and by giving them the time in class (along with the books, magazines, and newspapers), the motivation will be put to work. And just as important, neither the reading-aloud nor the SSR will be evaluated or graded—so there’s no threat of failure.

Putting the research to work in the most challenging of places

The guy in the front row came up to me afterward and identified himself as Tom O’Neill, Jr. He told me he didn’t think it would work with inner-city kids at Southie, where he taught junior English, but he’d give it a try. A year later I was back in Boston to give another seminar and sure enough—there’s the same guy in the front row and he’s telling me his students are now reading more than any year in his 12 years of teaching.


Tom O'Neill Jr.

One year later, O’Neill became the principal of the lowest scoring junior high school in all of Boston (the Solomon Lewenberg Middle School), in the most murder-infested, drug-infested area of the city. Of the 22 junior high schools, his school was at the very bottom and Boston teachers routinely called it "The Looney Bin." The first thing he did was to institute reading aloud and SSR for all classes, including physical education, much to the dismay of some of the veteran teachers. Within four years, O’Neill’s school had the highest reading scores in all of Boston.

A few years later I detailed the O’Neill story in a new edition of my Read-Aloud Handbook and it was that edition that was translated for the Japanese edition. That summer, a Japanese junior high school teacher read the book and was intrigued by the O’Neill story. Contrary to what most people think, Japan is not overflowing with motivated students. Those are the ones the world hears about but there are hundreds of thousands of others who are disinterested or unmotivated or both. He taught those kinds of students. The teacher was especially impressed by SSR; after all, reading for fun was a pretty foreign idea in Japanese schools. Students read to learn, to achieve. Reading for fun? That comes after you graduate.

With the permission of his principal, the teacher instituted SSR in his classes. It was such a success, the school went school-wide with it the following year. That’s when the teacher went to his principal again and asked if he could invite other schools to come see how their SSR program worked. The principal, having no idea he was working with a “maniac,” again said yes. That summer the teacher wrote invitations to 40,000 schools. The last I heard, there are 3,500 Japanese schools that have adopted SSR—all from a little seed planted one afternoon among 125 Boston teachers. By now I had begun to understand the "apple seed" analogy.

Competing with the Nancy-Tonya face off

And then there was a cold Friday night in 1994 when I was to speak to parents in St. Helena in northern California wine country. Usually a small town will provide a large audience — they’re just so glad an outsider came to their little town—but not this night. There were only 35 people in the audience. But I knew it wasn’t my fault. That was the night two of America’s most famous figure skaters—Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan—were competing head-to-head on national television before the 1994 Olympics. Everyone stayed home to watch—except for 35 people, which included one schoolteacher and her boyfriend. She wanted to hear my presentation and he wanted to stay in her good graces, so he tagged along, though not expecting to learn much .

As it happened, the boyfriend of the school teacher was a freelance journalist, David Schwartz, writing for some of the most prestigious magazines in America. And what he heard that night intrigued him enough to approach me afterward and ask he could interview me for a piece I’d like to write on reading aloud. I told him sure, call any time. That was 1994.

A year later, his article appeared in Smithsonian magazine, one of those dignified publications that American doctors like to have in their waiting rooms to impress the patients. And to one of those offices in Washington, DC—a dentist’s office—came a woman named Irena Kozminka. She happened to be the wife of the Polish ambassador to the United States and, after taking off her coat in that office, she picked up that issue of Smithsonian.

Mrs. Kozminka had been thinking ahead to what she wanted to do with her life when she returned to Poland after her husband's ambassadorship was completed. With the Soviets happily departed, a new day was dawning in Eastern Europe but there were 68 years of repression at the hands of the Nazis and Communists to overcome. This reading aloud, she reasoned, that was something every family could participate in and would help to regain some of the lost ground.

Today Mrs. Kozminska heads a thriving national foundation called "All Poland Reads to Kids," complete with an awareness campaign unlike anything we have for reading in the United Sates. As she explains: "After six years, we have over 2400 volunteers throughout the country, over 1400 Reading Schools, which have introduced daily reading to students, and over 1300 Reading Kindergartens. In 2007, over 1500 cities and villages participated in our VI National Week of Reading to Children, in comparison with 150 in the year 2002. According to the polls, over 85 percent of Polish people know our reading campaign and 37 percent of parents of preschoolers report they are reading daily to their children. In 2006 in China, our Foundation was awarded the prestigious international IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award at the 30th IBBY Congress."

Yes, you might say a seed was planted that day in Washington when she picked up Smithsonian — or was it planted that night in northern California among just 35 people? Or was it planted 60 years earlier in those nights in New Jersey when a father took his over-active son on his lap and read to him?

"Anyone can count the number of seeds in a single apple. But
only God can count the
number of apples that will
become a single seed."

 

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