Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gift of Reading

It's two days before Christmas break, and Shamrock's media center buzzes with excitement. Piles of books spill across the counters: hardcover novels that weigh heavy in the hand, bright-covered picture stories, paperbacks with brittle, browning leaves. Kids cluster eagerly around them, thumbing through the pages, examining the illustrations, looking for just the right one.

I love our media center. Like most of our school, it isn't much to look at – beige cinderblock walls festooned with a scattering of posters, and the usual collection of chairs, tables and plants. But it's where the school's books reside, presided over by media specialist Margaret Hollar, reading evangelist extraordinaire.

This may be the age of the Internet, of Smart Boards and of Angry Birds, but books still lie at the heart of our school. At the start of every day, before the first bell rings, a steady stream of students pours through the media center doors, bringing in completed books to exchange for new ones. Transactions continue at a brisk pace all day long.

As students scour the shelves for new material, Ms. Hollar is always ready to consult. She doesn't believe in telling kids what they should read, or in limiting them to the narrow range of titles that lie within the boundaries of their "official" reading level, but she's happy to offer advice, and to prod gently when someone keeps picking books that seem a bit too easy.

She loves stories and characters and humor and has little patience for the books that seem designed simply to pound a few new words into a struggling reader's head (an approach that unfortunately infuses many of the works the federal government provides to schools like ours). She talks about books like they're people – they can be friends or enemies, she tells the kids, depending on what lies inside.

Every year, when she makes out the lists of books the PTA has agreed to buy, the total always comes to several dollars more than the amount that we've agreed on. The kids have asked for all the books on the list, she explains, and she just can't decide which ones to cut. She'd rather we do it. Of course we can never decide either, so we always buy them all.

Thanks to Ms. Hollar and the rest of our staff, Shamrock students see reading not as a chore, but as the journey and adventure that it's supposed to be. Two of the school's most exciting events are our fall and spring book fairs, when the media center fills with brand-new titles, and kids come through the door clutching bags of change, or a few precious bills.

Parents join in as well, such as the mother of a fifth grader who snuck into this fall's fair to buy her son's Christmas presents, glowing with anticipation as she imagined how delighted he would be to find the books he wanted underneath the tree.

A week ago, we held a drawing for the students who participated in our cookie dough sale (in which our kids astonished us by selling $7,000 worth of double chocolate brownie, white macadamia nut and other exotic concoctions). When I announced that first prize would be a bicycle, the gathered students smiled politely.

When I held up the second group of prizes – book fair certificates – every face lit up.

But now, two days before Christmas break, the book fair books are being packed away, and the kids have turned to the new ones on the counters. They are one of Ms. Hollar's pet projects, which she calls "Give the Gift of Reading." She doesn't just want kids to read for themselves. She wants them to talk about books, share their experiences, pass the fire. So each year, she collects several hundred books – enough for every Shamrock student to give one to a classmate.

This hasn't been a simple task. As we've learned over and over, doing something for every student at a school, even a small one, is never cheap, at least not by our standards. But Shamrock's staff is a determined bunch, and each year, they've made it work, hunting for sales, collecting donations, paying for a lot of books themselves.

This year, though, that changed. When Bobbie, one of our new Plaza-Midwood moms, heard about the program, she thought we should ask the community for books. She and a P-M friend, Patty, put in the legwork we'd never been able to muster, contacting local businesses, placing collection boxes, spreading the word. And the books flooded in, filling box after box after box, enough for this year and probably next as well. A glorious abundance. The more books, the more choices, the more opportunities for each student to find a perfect match.

Later in the day, I stop by Parker's classroom for a gingerbread house extravaganza. At the back of the room sits a stack of books, each neatly wrapped and decorated, with a message from one child to another. The gift of reading, and much more.

Thanks to the local businesses who put out boxes: Book Buyers, The Common Market, Georgetown Day Spa, Foskoskies, No Grease, Pike's Pharmacy, Shamrock Gardens and Zada Jane's. Thanks also to the members of charlottemommies, and everyone else who gave.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Partial Magnet

The students cluster at the base of the glittering Firebird outside the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, giggling and squirming as they pose for a picture. William, Lawrence, Philip, Niko, Dakiya, Asha, Jessica, Kaylyn, Noemi, Filberto and of course Parker (cap over his face, always the clown). The shutter clicks, and they head inside to look at art.

It's kids' day at the Bechtler, where we're members, so we've invited Parker's class. It's a spur-of-the-moment affair – we saw the announcement the previous Saturday, sent an invitation home on Monday, and by Tuesday more than half the class had signed up. Their teacher, Ms. Bonasera, and a couple of parents volunteered to drive.

The caravan arrived downtown about noon, and the kids spent the day exploring the museum, checking out Amelie's bakery, and marveling at our city's gloriously transformed arts district, where almost none of them had been before.

They stuck together, as friends do, heads bumping, arms draped about each other, whispering and poking and teasing. They made postcards and collages, shared root beers, played tag on the Green.

Parker's classmates have been one of Shamrock's greatest joys. Many of them first met in kindergarten, a clutch of tiny strangers who eyed each other warily. Then friendships sprang up, and by the time they graduated to first grade, they were inseparable. Every teacher since has marveled at their connection, at how quickly they tune into each other's feelings, at how much they care.

If an asthma attack threatens, the class picks up on the symptoms right away, often long before the teacher notices. If someone's feeling down, everyone worries. The few new students who have joined the class each year are drawn right in.

I remember when, in second grade, Parker missed several days of school right around Christmastime. The day that he returned, his classmates stampeded toward him, faces lit up, hugging him in welcome and pressing on him the present that had arrived while he was gone. "Open it, open it," they chorused, more excited than he was. He had only been out a few days, but they had all missed him.

This doesn't, of course, mean that every child or every day is perfect. Rivalries break out. They get on each other's nerves from time to time. One day on the playground, as Parker was reeling after being hit by a soccer ball, one of his best friends had the bad grace to laugh. Parker promptly slugged him.

But it's been extraordinary to watch them grow, to quarrel and to make up, to shift from one best friend to another and then back again, to get taller and smarter and more self-assured. I never tire of looking at their pictures. They are such beautiful children.

It would be easy to chalk this closeness up to being at a magnet school. Shamrock is a partial magnet with a "gifted" program, and Parker has always been in the designated magnet class. Parents interested in magnet schools often talk about the advantages of being with a group of people who have chosen the school and the program, who are all on the same page.

But Parker's class complicates that view. It's always hard to get a magnet started, and his was Shamrock's first magnet kindergarten. When it didn't fill in the lottery, neighborhood kids were shifted in. Of the fifteen students in that class, perhaps four had come to Shamrock for the magnet. The rest would have been at the school anyway.

That turned out not to matter. Some students have come and gone over the years, but the class has always shone. They all came into fourth grade having passed their EOGs, and all of them are reading above grade level. Create a real opportunity to push higher, and plenty of students are ready to rise to it. And while most of their parents don't have a lot of money, they help out where they can, and leap at any opportunity to expand their kids' horizons.

This wouldn't have happened if Shamrock hadn't been a partial rather than a full magnet. The beauty of a partial magnet is that it offers the excitement of a magnet program in a neighborhood setting. It's not limited to those kids whose parents have the ambition and resources to seek it out (or those who have the luck to be accepted). The scores at partial magnets can look less impressive than those at full magnets, and the demographics can seem less promising as well. (for an example of the consequences this difference can have, click here.) But parents like Peter and I can make a far greater difference for kids at a partial magnet than at a full one.

Most partial magnets have been deliberately placed at high-poverty schools, because those are the ones that need the infusion of academic excitement, as well as the boost from parents who have the connections and resources to do things like invite a class to an art exhibition, write a grant to build a butterfly garden, or help raise money to send the fourth graders to Raleigh.

And when we do these things, we're not just mysterious, benevolent strangers. We're Parker's mom and dad. They see us all the time; they've visited our house; they know our son has all the strengths and foibles that they do. He may live in a 1,600 square foot house, the biggest many of them have ever set foot in (the first thing most of them remark on is the space; the second is how many books we have). But they know that he still struggles in math, he still gets mad when someone laughs at him, he still thinks "Billie Jean" is the greatest pop recording ever made. And he knows all of them equally well.

So much that's done these days in the name of charity is a drop-in, drop-out affair – people reaching out to low-income children while remaining rooted in their own, comfortable schools and neighborhoods. Being at a partial magnet is different. It's like helping to build a street of houses, then moving into one of them and helping to shape a neighborhood that works for everyone. When I walk into Ms. Bonasera's class, and see her desk festooned with postcards from the Bechtler trip, it's hard to describe the feeling. But one thing I know. Being part of Shamrock Gardens is the most satisfying thing I've ever done.