Saturday, October 31, 2009

Go Dogs, Go!

A comment on my last post about Halloween costumes (I didn't end up being anyone, but wished I'd been Miss Malarky- brilliant suggestion!) reminded me of my first year teaching when I wasn't at The Think-Tank yet. The school held character day in the spring that year, and offered a Popsicle party for whatever class had the most participants dressed up as their favorite book character. I'd hadn't paid much attention to any of the special events that happened earlier in the year since I was focused on more important things like getting through the day without self-destructing. But it was the end of the year, I'd finally gotten a hang of the whole teaching thing and was ready to mix it up a bit. I knew if I ignored this day, like I'd ignored all the others, no one in my class would participate. Maybe one or two would come in costumes, but most likely the day would go by unnoticed.

So the Monday before I announced the contest to the class and suggested we vote on a book we could all be characters from. We'd finished reading Charlottes' Web, had done an author study on Patricia Palacco, and had read many, many Kevin Hankes books. I was sure we'd select a meaningful one.

What did they pick? Go Dogs, Go.

Looking back, I'm not surprised. If there was any book that describes that year, it was Go Dogs, Go. The children and I were all on some crazy up and down roller coaster that ended far better than it started.

The school was not year-round and much of what the children had learned so long ago in kindergarten seemed long forgotten when they walked in the door after labor day. They'd had a summer of Nintendo, Disney channel, and baby sitters. They hadn't spoken English or read a book since they left the school doors in June. To meet their needs the first grade curriculum mainly taught the alphabet the whole first quarter. Some were ready to read, but most were still struggling to understand that print held meaning.

I had two little boys who were further behind than most. We worked. And worked. And worked. On their alphabet, one-to-one matching, phonemic awareness, and all those other good skills they would need to read. Some days it felt like all three of us were banging our heads into the wall.

Then one day I read a professional book that mentioned having students read books in the morning instead of doing morning work. Brilliant! I thought. Not only is that less work for me at the copier, but it's more meaningful for them. My team balked. We were one of those teams that was suppose to have carbon copy classrooms, so you were not suppose to try new things.

I did it anyway.

About the second week of this new 'come-in-and-read' program I finished taking attendance and sat down to have a reading conference with one of my struggling readers. He was reading Go Dogs, Go. We chatted about why he'd chosen the book, what he liked in it, why the pictures were funny. And then, before either one of us knew what happened, he turned to a page and read. READ. As in the words. Correctly.

Now if you're familiar with Go Dogs, Go, it doesn't take many literacy skills to read a page. The pictures clearly match the two-three words on each page. But to this little boy- he was reading. He was doing what he'd only witnessed others do. He was READING. He looked up at me, shocked at what had just happened. We hugged, we laughed, we read it again. We held the book up and did a little dance. From that moment on, he knew he could be a reader.

So when months later he led the class to vote on being characters from Go Dogs, Go I shouldn't have been surprised. I let them have a few minutes at the end of each day that week to work on their dog costumes- making ears out of construction paper and stapling them to paper head bands. In small groups they made signs for the dog parade. One little girl, another struggling reader, wanted to write a dog song. So she and I sat down and worked together to write her song- carefully and proudly crafting each word.

We were ready. On Friday we put on our costumes, held our signs and our song and marched around the school. A parade for no one, but it didn't really matter to us. We were going to a dog party, and what can be better than that?

I think any one's first year of teaching is meant to be full of mistakes. If you make no mistakes how will you learn? But among those moments of mistakes that seem so frequent, are those clear teaching moments- moments that change both you and the children. Now with experience I wonder if I would take the time to plan such an activity, knowing everything that can go wrong and just how chaotic making dog costumes can be. But it's that day- the day of our dog parade, that will stay with me when I think of my first year.

The day we celebrated everything we'd learned by dressing up and acting out our favorite book.

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