By Charlene Klassen Endrizzi, Westminster College, PA
Their story, yours, mine — it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.
- William Carlos Williams
“Reading is life!” Laura began as she outlined her view of reading for a colleague. This succinct declaration from a literacy coach in western Pennsylvania contains marvelous implications for teachers, especially those intent on understanding children’s distinct ways of understanding their world. When teachers value students’ resources developed through family and community life, they use these insights to make well-informed literacy decisions. Thus reading events, evolving not from curricular mandates but our student’s rich life experiences, hold the most relevance for children as readers.
Building on Laura’s expansive view of reading, this month’s four blogs focus on building connections across our students’ home and school literacy lives. Throughout this past school year, classroom teachers, graduate students, student teachers, and I explored Family Message Journals (Wollman-Bonilla, 2000) as one possible avenue for creating conversations between children and families. During several weeks in February and March we focused these weekly written exchanges around children’s books depicting family stories. Our intent was to invite students’ first literacy partners, their families, into our conversations about books.
Tasha, a Westminster College graduate student, described the possibilities she witnessed with Family Message Journals, as one vital way of “bringing families closer to their child’s education.” Janet relayed an even more fundamental view. “Journals and family story books say to parents, I care about you and your family.” Talking about family story books connected either to students’ life experiences or cultures from around the world led to generative interactions, the focus for my blogs.
“Learning is always a process of connecting our current experiences to our past stories,” (Short, Harste & Burke, 1996, p. 446). Emileigh, a Westminster student teacher, emphasized connections in her November theme “Telling Stories” through an invitation to share favorite family stories. Her cooperating teacher, Pam, and I were investigating how her second graders, from predominantly rural, working class backgrounds, used family journals to learn about writing. Emileigh extended our exploration by writing a letter to children’s families, requesting that they record a beloved family story in their journals.
It is not surprising to discover the power of storytelling when we pause to consider our daily verbal interactions, filled with numerous story moments. We love to tell and hear stories. Moms, dads, even sisters regaled second graders with tales, recounting vacations, cherished holiday moments, even an escape from a fire, but one tale in particular caught our attention. The author, a father of triplets, had maintained his stance as a distant participant thus far in the school year. His wife along with their triplets attended our second grade fall Family Writing Night. Allie rationalized her husband’s absence to Pam by explaining, “John doesn’t feel very confident about his writing so he stayed home with our younger children.” Our family evening, while never designed to evaluate parents as writers, somehow appeared threatening to this dad. Yet one month later John penned this touching letter to his oldest son in his family journal.
- Dear Jaden,
I have many memorable moments in my life like being a United States marine or marrying your mother. But I would have to say the day I was turning 30 years old was the best birthday I have ever had. Because that day your Mother was so brave and strong. And your Dad was so nervous and scared. I know you’re thinking, My Dad, scared? No way! But I was! There were about three doctors and eight nurses in the room. I was even dressed up like a doctor. And that’s when I first met you. Then a minute later I met your brother Niles and then Simon. You were all crying. I was so happy and very proud of your Mother for being so strong. From that moment on, life was different. Because now my new job was to take care of you and teach you everything. I am so proud of you and love you.
Another graduate student, Jennifer revealed the potential of journaling for teachers, students, and families when she observed, “Families view message journals as non-threatening since it comes from their child.” As we continued to mull over this story, we contemplated the need to honor families and their unique lives first before we delved into children’s books depicting family stories. Somehow this writing invitation enabled an ex-marine to open up and reveal deep emotions not readily apparent. We maintain Jaden’s father became more willing to engage in his son’s second grade school experience once we demonstrated our appreciation and respect for his family’s life through this call for storytelling. “The stories we are willing to share with one another give our culture its values and goals, binding us together into a cohesive society, allowing us to work together with a common purpose” (The Call of Story, 2006). Parent participation grew when we fittingly began by eliciting family’s experiences from their world.
My upcoming blogs will highlight examples of children and various family members corresponding through their message journal about children’s books depicting family stories. We plan to delve into various successes and struggles, such as coping with families who chose not to respond.
The call of story: An American renaissance. (2006). KBYU Television, Provo, UT. In association with Osric Productions. www.callofstory.org/en/storytelling/ Accessed May 26, 2010.
Short, K.G., Harste, J.C., with Burke, C. (1996). (2nd Ed.). Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wollman-Bonilla, J. (2000). Family message journals: Teaching writing through family involvement. Bloomington, IN: National Council of Teachers of English.
Please visit wowlit.org to browse or search our growing database of books, to read one of our two on-line journals, or to learn more about our mission.