First Person

Parent blog: Teaching kids to be readers

Boulder psychologist and mother of three Suzita Cochran shares seven tips she’s learned through experience about helping even reluctant kids become better readers.

I knew having three kids would make me a more humble parent, I just didn’t realize how much more humble!

Students at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School show the power of reading. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

When it comes to reading, each of our kids has taken a different path.  We have one who was a natural reader.  He would have loved reading no matter what we did as parents.  If we’d only had him, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  Instead I’d be thinking, “What’s the big deal with teaching kids to love reading?  It just happens.”

Our two other kids have required a more active parental campaign in order to learn to love reading.  Much trial and error and, hence, lots of learning on our parental parts.

What I’ve learned:

1. I can’t read aloud to a child at bedtime.  I become too mind-numbingly tired and exhaust all my energy fighting sleep.  It’s just not worth it.  For the first four or five years of parenthood, I felt exceedingly guilty when I heard other parents talk about bedtime reading with their kids.  Thankfully, I’ve moved past this.  Now I read to my kids after school, on weekends, holidays or sick days.

2. Reading aloud creates a shared memory.  Especially when I do the hard work of finding a book we’ll both enjoy, reading aloud has become one of my favorite parenting activities.  I’ve noticed that we talk about certain books we’ve read together again and again, the way we might fondly recall an enjoyable vacation experience.

3. Let the child do what he needs to in order to focus on the story.  With my son Daniel, the cozy image of me reading with him snuggled beside me was the first thing I had to let go of.  He’s a ball of energy, and with him reading aloud works best after a strong dose of exercise. Then, before we begin reading, Daniel chooses something to keep his hands occupied – a floor puzzle, Rubik’s cube, cards – some quiet activity which doesn’t require too much concentration.  Even though this may seem like a song and dance to do merely to read a book together, it’s exceedingly superior to my wiggly, unfocused alternative.

I recently read an article with the subheading, “Fidgeting may enable children with ADHD to stay alert.”  It stated that all the children in this particular study fidgeted when remembering and manipulating computer-generated letters, numbers and shapes.  However, the children with ADHD wiggled even more.  As far as I can tell Daniel does not have ADHD, but it was so pleasant to see that I don’t have the only super-squirmy boy.

4. Use characters from your kids’ books to help you better understand your kids.  This is an old child psychotherapy trick. You may have noticed that past a certain age, kids dislike talking about themselves.  Yet they’re usually willing to tell you something about their friends.  So ask them “what Amelia would do in this situation” or “what Ben’s opinion of something is” and you are likely to hear indirectly about your child’s views.

Back to books … This strategy can also be used with characters in books.  While reading aloud or talking about your child’s current book, ask for details about her favorite characters.  What does she like about these characters?  What does she think a character would do or feel in various circumstances?  You get the idea.

5. Don’t purchase video games until a solid love of reading has been established.  This rule was enacted mostly for our dear Daniel, who would likely trade his left leg for the chance to play 2-3 hours of video games.  I haven’t actually seen this happen (the game-playing marathon) but Todd and I know it’s true.  Parental intuition.  It’s been hard to hold the line on video games, but not having them in the house has definitely allowed Daniel to focus more on reading.  I’m not exactly sure how to define “a love of reading has been established” but I’ll know it when I see it.  We are slowly getting closer.

A study at Carnegie Mellon found that even average 8- to 12-year-old readers had stronger white matter connections in the brain area called the anterior left centrum semiovale than poor readers.  However, when poor readers in the study were given six months of intensive instruction, their white matter connections improved significantly.

6. Do what you need to in order to hook a child into a book.  Unlike our son who loves reading anything and everything, our second two children often have a tough time getting into a book.  If I am quite sure the book is a good fit for the child, I often read the first chapter aloud to them.  Then they read the rest of the book on their own.  Or if the book is slightly above their ability level, I’ll sometimes buy an audio version for them to listen to first.  Then later, they read the book unaccompanied.

I also periodically encourage confidence boosters.  When Daniel is struggling through a challenging book, I’ll have him put it aside and instead open an old favorite.  It was at one of these moments that I realized the Geronimo Stilton character would be part of my life for so much longer than I ever wished or hoped for!

7.  Reading really does improve writing.  Okay, I have heard teachers say this before but I never completely understood it until recently.  While reading one of Stephen’s school essays this year, I finally saw how reading enhances writing.  He wrote about coring trees at science club and his essay included the sentence, “The tree was in a group of similar Cottonwoods, most of which were now succumbing to the forces of Fall.”  I mean, we just don’t speak this way in our home. Alas, would that we did.  And I know they don’t talk that way at school!

Stephen must have picked up this language from a book. Although he’s only in 6th grade and his writing is still evolving, I love that he has a huge store of ideas and techniques from his reading to inspire his writing.   Between this and improving my brain’s white matter connections, it’s enough to encourage me to read more!

I’d love to hear other people’s tips for creating readers!

And here are two books I recommend that my kids loved:

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan.  Third through seventh grade girls would love this one.  This is a story about a girl from a wealthy Mexican family.  When she is 13, her father is killed and her life changes drastically.  Now poor, her small family immigrates to California and they become migrant workers.  This book is fiction, though based on the life of the author’s grandmother.  I read this aloud to my kids and we all loved it, though some parts were pretty sad.

The Circuit, by Francisco Jimenez.  Try this one especially with third though seventh grade boys.  This is an autobiography by a man who is now a college professor in California.  His family immigrated to America from Mexico when he was a young child.  They too were migrant workers in California, following a circuit of fruit and vegetable picking from year to year.

I recently read this aloud to Daniel, though Stephen and Annie also listened at times.  Daniel really connected with the main character and it helped him to understand the importance of family over possessions.  The story only follows the main character to age 15, so Daniel and I looked the author up on YouTube because Daniel wanted to know how things turned out for him in the end.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.