Not every guest has a book to sell… but Jennie Fitzkee does have a passion for stories, one that she has been sharing for decades with small children. Some of my fondest memories from the early years of school are of sitting in the school hall, one of a large gathering of enraptured children, listening to Miss Howe, our headmistress, reading aloud to us and weaving magic with her words…
Chapter reading is one of our treasured moments of the day at school. I know this, and so does Jackson. Books bring to life the imagination, the world, and the past. The anticipation of ‘what happens next’ stirs excitement every day. Children listen and talk. They ask questions. Jackson is first to remember what we read yesterday and ask questions about what we read today. When I ask children, “At chapter reading where do you make the pictures?” they answer “In your head.”
When we finish reading a good book and then start a new one, emotions run high and low. The end of a good book is so satisfying and pleasant, yet…it is over. That is the wonderful roller coaster of reading. And, with each chapter book we read, we ride that roller coaster again and again.
In the fall I begin the school year by reading “Charlotte’s Web”, always a favorite. When I chapter read, it is rest time, the lights are out, children are on their nap mats, and they listen. Boy, do they listen. Often I stop and ask questions. We talk about Templeton and his unsavory character. We laugh about the goose that repeats things three times. Of course we talk about Wilbur and Charlotte. Children are learning new words and using their brain to associate all that language with the story. More importantly, children are learning right and wrong, values and morals. They are beginning to develop character and goodness.
Jackson worried when Wilbur went to the fair. He became very fond of Charlotte. The more we read about Templeton, particularly when he refused to get Charlotte’s egg sac, the more Jackson became bitter towards Templeton’s character. Jackson ‘got it’; the language and literacy and learning for him now included the subtleties of morality. But, the best was yet to come.
As the year progressed, I read aloud the chapter books “The Story of Doctor Dolittle”, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, “My Father’s Dragon”, and finally the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. “Little House in the Big Woods” had three components that were quite important to children and to making a difference. First was learning about the past. I connected generations. When I told the children that my grandmother was born when Laura’s child was born, and they had the same names, that was huge. Yes, my grandmother was Rose, the same age and name as Laura’s daughter. I told stories about living in a log cabin, because my grandmother did, and I also slept in that log cabin in Lowell, WV. Connecting the past for young children is a great learning experience. Secondly, Pa told stories. Well, I tell stories much the same way as Pa, real ones about my childhood. They always start with “It happened like this…”. My stories (the children call them ‘Jennie stories’) helped bring Pa’s stories to life. Storytelling is equally important to reading chapter books aloud, as children get a huge dose of vocabulary and have to ‘make the pictures in their head’. Finally, this book is non-fiction, the first chapter reading book all year that is real. So, each time we talked about something that happened, it had an entirely different feeling. Our conversations became much more in depth, a bit serious, simply because this was real and true. Children were learning.
Jackson was really learning. He was becoming ‘one’ with the book. Every fact and Pa story seemed to notch another mark in his learning; and by now it was pleasure learning for him.
Our last chapter reading book of the school year is “Little House on the Prairie.” Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie move from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie. Every child was so vested in both chapter reading and “Little House in the Big Woods”. This next book was like frosting on a cake. We used our big map book to find Wisconsin and follow a route to Kansas. I was able to incorporate my family history when Pa and his neighbor Mr. Scott dug a well. Pa was careful to light a candle and lower it into the well. Mr. Scott thought the candle was ‘foolishness’, and therefore did not light the candle one morning. My grandfather worked in the mines, and I brought in his painted portrait, as a boy, with a candle attached to his mining cap. Now, that brought the story and the chapter to life.
One of the characters throughout is Jack, the dog. As the family travels in a covered wagon, Jack happily trots behind the whole way. Then I read the chapter, “Crossing the Creek”. The creek rises quickly; Pa has to jump in to help the horses get the wagon across the water. After they are on the other side, Laura says, “Where is Jack?”
I read this chapter with heart, and the passion of what is happening. I always read like that. When Laura says those words, the children are stunned. Shocked. They know. I finish reading aloud, sometimes standing and pacing, because this is a big deal. I, too, have a lump in my throat.
Jackson pulled his blanket over his head. His body was jerking in sobs, yet he was holding those sobs deep inside. I scooped him up, and we disappeared to a quiet place to read aloud, together, the next chapter. Jackson needed to know that Jack the dog found his way home. I think I was calm when I read the chapter to him. We were wrapped together in his blanket; perhaps we both sobbed a bit. It was my greatest moment in teaching. I had taught the most important values through reading aloud, and Jackson was moved to tears. He cried tears of the heart. So did I.
Reading aloud is the best thing I do with, and for, children. They are preschoolers. Yes, I chapter read to four-year-olds. It is marvelous. After three decades of teaching, I know this is “it”. Jackson is proof.
Jennie Fitzkee has been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is her passion. She believes that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It’s the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That’s what she writes about.
She is highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease’s bestselling book, “The Read-Aloud Handbook” because of her reading to children. Her class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
Follow Jennie on her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections.