When Thunder, the Flying Horse Came

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When you tap into a child’s imagination, you’re likely to hear them say anything. That’s what happened this week when several volunteers from Chrysler joined me to read my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, to about 900 kids in celebration of National Reading Month. The automotive giant also provided a copy of the book to each child in Kindergarten through third grade at Burton International Academy, Sampson Webber Leadership Academy, and Thirkell and Chrysler Elementary, all Detroit Public Schools. It was a heady week for this new author who is passionate about helping to close the achievement gap.

Taj Cleans the Garage is the story about a little boy who does a chore that turns into a magical adventure. He takes off on a flying horse named Thunder who soars high into the air and almost gets captured by pirates. At the conclusion of the story, I always ask, “Where would you want the flying horse to take you?”

“Grandma’s house!” “The beach!” “Disney World!” were the most popular answers.

But geography and everything else became fair game too as the children told me about places that embedded warm memories of family, friends and fun. Just about every state in the union was mentioned with Hawaii at the top of the list. When it came to world travel they wanted to go to Africa, Mexico and Asia. They also wanted the flying horse to take them to Cedar Point amusement park, Lego Land, Santa’s Workshop, McDonald’s, the bank and then the mall, the park, Dad’s house, their cousin’s house, and to the hotel swimming pool. Ms. Naster’s Kindergarten class at Thirkell–who I had read to earlier in the month–presented me with a book titled, Thunder Takes Us… It was full of drawings of all the places they wanted to go to, including many of them here.

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I truly feel like I have been flying with Thunder all week. The children’s excitement was contagious. They were so energetic, so full of wonder and curiosity, so creative and responsive to questions that invited them to stretch their imaginations to the sky, and so attentive too, which was great for my ego!

I said this before (or something like it) and I’ll say it again. Pick a school and go in and read to the children. It reinforces that reading is a fun activity that should be shared. Children see the world with fresh eyes and have an uncanny ability to help adults lighten up and see things differently too. I think you’ll find that reading a  story to a child is one of the easiest ways to give back to your community, and the most rewarding too.

And now, the awards…Renee, Taj, Thunder and Jackson want to thank the following for making this week one of the most exciting times in our lives!

Chrysler, Daphne Harris and Chrysler volunteers: You have made our dreams come true!

Beyond Basics, Ellen Sellstrom and Pam Good: You guys are scheduling genius’s and have one of the best literacy programs ever!

Detroit Public School Principals John Wilson, Burton International Academy; Anthony Houston and Asst. Principal Trina Lee, Sampson Webber Leadership Academy; Dr. Clara Smith, Thirkell Elementary School; Wendy Shirley, Chrysler Elementary: For your unwavering commitment to educate the children in Detroit.

Detroit Public School teachers: Thank you for teaching and preparing the future leaders of tomorrow DAY IN and DAY OUT!

Detroit Public School Students: Thank you for being so full of possibilities and for sharing Taj Cleans the Garage with me. Keep reading!

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Let Their Imaginations Run Wild with Great Stories

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I’m having a good time reading Taj Cleans the Garage to young kids. I’m learning a lot in this reading and literacy process, namely:

–Make sure the children know what the words reward, allowance and lasso mean. I specifically put these words and others into the book to initiate discussion and help to develop their language skills.

–Engage them with “What if?” questions. I usually ask, “If you could go anywhere on a flying horse, where would you go? Aside from the occasional playground and Disney World, the top of the list is “Grandma’s house,” “the store,” and “Chucky Cheese,” all reflections of a child’s own world, and their exposure to things within their comfort zone. Still, I get some outer world answers like “The Black Hole.” (But, aren’t you afraid of getting lost in there? Nope!). I also hear “All over the city,” and “Outer space,” as well as “Deep, deep outer space!” Now, we’re getting somewhere!

That’s what I’m really trying to do by reading my book about a little boy whose chore turns into an adventure. Yes, I want to promote responsibility, but I also want to tap into a child’s imagination. In addition to the required 3 Rs: ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic, I want to say that I helped to turn on that endless flow of creativity that allows children to soar to heights never seen before, especially if it’s on a flying horse!

Maybe you want to do something like this too. Just call up your local school and tell them you want to read a book to a class. They’ll be glad to host you.

The 32 Million Word Gap by Age 3

How many words?

I recently attended a fundraising breakfast for The Children’s Center, where President and CEO, Deborah Matthews listed a few facts about the many children the agency serves in its mental health, foster care and Head Start programs. She referred to a startling statistic:  By the time an impoverished child reaches age 3, he (or she) has heard about 30 million fewer words than a child from a more affluent family.

What?

She was referring to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called The Early Catastrophe, the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.The study was done in 1995 to learn why children in Head Start showed only small to moderate advances in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and none in math skills. They found that environment trumped genes, hands down.

Based on their elaborate study of 42 low, middle and high income families, Hart and Risley found that poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they turned three- and four-years old. Data showed that speaking, reading and listening to children early and often was the norm for professional families who averaged 215,000 words per child per week. A working class family averaged 125,000 words per week and a welfare family averaged 62,000 words a week. By third grade, vocabulary growth was on par with levels attained through Kindergarten.   

Tone and complexity of words were also measured. The study found:

·         In the first four years after birth, the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback;

·         A working- class child receives 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements;

·         A welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.

I’m writing a children’s book that I hope will be one of many that parents use to help their kids to learn to love reading.  Studies like this have reshaped my mission: I want to help close the 30 million word gap and encourage others, whether parents or not, to do the same.  I also want more people to talk about intelligence: it’s not fixed, it’s learned.

I’ve raised two children and have had my own share of child rearing challenges. Even now, I cringe at some of the ways that I communicated with them—sometimes I was too short and too inattentive—but I always tried to make the next encounter better than the last.

If we’re serious—and I believe that so many of us are—about bridging the education gap in minority and low income communities, and preparing our kids for a better future, let’s make it cool to talk about stuff like this, and find ways to change it as Literacy Empowers All Families (LEAF) points out here: http://alamosa.k12.co.us/evans/assets/files/ssanchez/Word%20Gap.pdf

Information is power…always has been, always will be.

New books coming soon!

Taj Cleans the Garage is a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Michaela Nienaber. Taj always wants new cars for his train set, so his parents encourage him to start earning the money to buy them. Much to his surprise, Taj’s new chore turns into an exciting adventure where he is the only one who can save the day.

Coming in September:

Malcolm Mows the Lawn, a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Scott Everett is about a little boy who wants a new car for his train.  His Mom suggests that he mow the lawn to earn enough money to buy it himself. Join Malcolm as his new chore takes him on a great adventure. Who knew that working could be so exciting? Coming July 2013.

Note: Subsequent studies have shown that children in Head Start achieve high scores in many of the soft skills that employers value today, such as teamwork, planning, negotiation and task completion.

Bedtime Rituals

I saw a story the other day about reading to your children that started with, “It’s pretty hard to screw up reading to a child.”  Have fun and engage your audience, the author said. Oh yeah, I thought. I certainly did that.

When my son and daughter were little, one of my favorite parts of the day was bedtime. Yes, I’ll admit that I was exhausted, and part of me hoped that their day full of questions, play dates, and emotional highs and lows had worn them out too. But there was also a much more compelling reason that gave nighttime a higher purpose. The end of the day meant impressing upon them that they had played as hard as they could, and that they needed their rest so they could start all over again tomorrow. It meant tucking them in and reading them a bedtime story and I always looked forward to that.

This was a time when I had their full attention and they had mine. It was a cozy time. Bathed and in their favorite jammies, I would have one or both of them entrenched under each arm. No television or video games or phone calls, this was “us” time where my voice and their occasional giggles and questions were all we heard. That was, unless I read Octopus Hug by Laurence Pringle. This was not a bedtime story!

This was a rousing picture book story that was one of those rare gems that appealed to both boys and girls.  Here is how the author described it:

Octopus Hug is a charming look at the games a father plays with his children when he’s left in charge for the evening. The games are wonderfully active — and interactive. The dad gets down on the floor with Becky and Jesse, pretends to be different animals and objects, and encourages the children to join in. The fun is still going on when the mom returns home, so she gets to experience the games, too.

My kids loved that book. The first time I read it, I would pretend to be one of the animals in the story, making bold sounds and I would pick them up, rock them, roll on the floor, and encourage them to do the same. Night after night I would ask, “What do we want to read?” and they would say, “Octopus Hug!” and then settle into their favorite places to be roared at until finally, the giant octopus (me) grabbed them and rocked them back and forth in a victorious hug. There was lots of laughter and running around, but the innocence of it all always warmed my heart. It still does. Of course, I quickly learned to follow up with another story that calmed them down because this book defeated the whole purpose of a bedtime story!

I still have Octopus Hug on my book shelf. Sometimes give a copy as a gift to parents and grandparents who are welcoming new little people into their lives. It is one of those books that underscores that all important message that we want all of our children to embrace: Reading is fun. And we all know that children learn by example.

Congratulations to my daughter, Lisa, who is a member of the 2013 graduating class of Wayne State University, and last night, was recognized as an Honors College graduate.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-04-02/features/sc-fam-0402-reading-to-kids-20130402_1_child-silly-books-age-appropriate-books

Reading is the Back Stage Pass to Your Quality of Life

Many, many years ago when my son was born, I said to myself, “I got this.” I was a well-oiled machine, determined to do many of the same things I had done for his older sister with a single goal in mind: Help him to develop a love of reading and set him on a path that would lead to academic success.  So, I read to him every night, never let his idle hands sit for long without books and crafts, and tuned into Sesame Street every morning.

Both of my children did well in school, but like a lot of parents, I wish I had known more about how to prepare them better for life’s never ending contests, which is part of the reason why I’m writing this blog. Reading is fundamental. It is truly the back stage pass to so many events that determine the quality of our lives. Too many American children, especially African American children, don’t read well, and the predictions for their futures come true too often.

In the months to come, I want to use this space to drill down to the basics. I plan to focus on:

  • New reading methods
  • Teaching boys to read vs teaching girls to read
  • The relationship between reading and sounding out words
  • Learning to read is a team effort.

I don’t know everything, so I hope we can learn and share together!

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