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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Pick a School, Donate a Book

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What are you donating this holiday season?  There are coat drives, food drives, and pet appeals, all worthy causes that tug at the heart and purse strings. Here is one more appeal for something that can change a child’s life: a book.

It is no secret that children are not reading as much as they should. Often, I talk about the 30 Million Word Gap, a study that points out a glaring disparity: high income children hear that many more words by age 3 than low income children. Before they reach Kindergarten, many low income children are already trying to catch up. Books are at the heart of the matter. Read any major study about the achievement gap and it will say that reading more books is the key to closing the gap and bolting the door.

My friend, Tanya Allen, knows this. She volunteers as a mentor at Cornerstone Schools and loves to give away books as gifts. She describes it as planting the seed for reading. “I love holding a book in my hands and turning the pages,” she says. “If we let them, children will learn to appreciate books in this way too.”

I do not want to overwhelm my readers with a bunch of facts and figures, but a Reading is Fundamental study agrees. It found that when children borrow books or receive them, they develop more positive attitudes towards reading and learning. Books also encourage children to read more frequently and for longer periods of time. Some educators say that access to books is just as important as food, shelter and health care.

I am currently reading my multicultural children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, to children in Head Start, Kindergarten, first and second grade. The kids are always so excited and so fascinated and so inquisitive, and they all want to talk about where they would go if they had a flying horse. (Trust me. There is a connection between the garage and the horse!) Reading to them and seeing them light up is therapeutic too. It makes me feel good about doing something to promote literacy and to help them learn the love of reading.

Tanya is buying children’s books to donate this holiday season. Maybe we all should follow her example because every little step we take will bring us closer to alleviating the achievement gap. We can start right in our own neighborhood: Pick a School and Donate a Book. If you have time to read it to the class, that’s even better.

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.

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