If Football Players Can Wear Pink, We Can End Illiteracy

Football blog collage

(Left to right) Cowboys & Lions in pink; Pam Good, Renee Prewitt, Leslie Andrews and Councilman James Tate at Beyond Basics Literacy Summit; Links Panel on Literacy; Art Wall at Starr Academy.

I believe that we will greatly diminish illiteracy–especially in Detroit–in my lifetime. I’m a believer because I’ve seen problems of this magnitude make significant advances since I’ve been around, and I’m convinced that, when it comes to illiteracy, this too shall pass.

For example, December 1 was the anniversary of the day that Civil Rights Advocate Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Today, Barack Obama sits in the White House as the nation’s first African American president. Decades ago, Nancy Brinker’s sister, Susan G. Komen, sat in the back room of a hospital at a time when it was taboo to say the words “breast cancer.” Today, even big, strapping football players wear pink shoes on the football field, and an army of survivors have helped to turn fear and shame into courage. I’m a big fan of classic movies, and beyond their black and white allure and stylish sophistication, they reflected a time when smoking cigarettes was considered cool and sexy. Today, cigarette cool is making its last stand. The little tobacco stick is not even allowed in its most sacred refuge, the bar! Who ever would have thought?

But, most of all, I’m a believer because every time I’m with a group of people who are committed to reading and literacy, the energy in the room is so powerful. The people and the programs underway are not overwhelmed by the problem here in Detroit, where 47% of people are illiterate. Rather, they are dedicated to exposing children to books, to new experiences and helping them to develop language. Small victories become huge successes over time.

I believe that we will win this war on illiteracy in Detroit, in America, and eventually, around the world. Think about it, and I am sure you will agree. We’ve all seen issues of this magnitude solved in the past, and in time, we will say, Illiteracy: Problem solved! The opportunities to be a part of the movement are everywhere!

Reading and Volunteer Resources
http://detroitk12.org/readingcorps/
www.beyondbasics.org
www.liveunitedsem.org
www.gradelevelreading.net
www.pnc.com/grow-up-great
www.matrixhumanservices.org
www.readingrecovery.org

Renee Prewitt is author of Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn, books about little boys whose chores turn into exciting adventures!

Malcolm Mows the Lawn Will Debut at Ann Arbor Book Festival

 

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I will read my new multicultural children’s book at the 10th Ann Arbor Book Festival, June 21st.

USA is becoming more diverse but multicultural children’s books are on the decline.

Malcolm is second book in series aimed at closing the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.

All of the things above are true. Malcolm Mows the Lawn, is my new multicultural children’s book, about a little boy who learns how earning money to buy toys can lead to fun-filled adventures with alligators, speed boats, baseball games, and lost puppies. It is written for ages 2 to 7, and shows how a boy of color juggles responsibility, courage and teamwork to become a hero, leading readers to ponder the question, “Who knew that doing chores to help Mom and Dad could be so exciting?”

I’ll read Malcolm Mows the Lawn in the Children’s Tent at the 10th Ann Arbor Book Festival on Saturday, June 21st, 1 pm. The rest of the day, I’ll be available to sign books at Booth 15. Let me give a shout out to the illustrator right now; he is Scott Everett, whose also a graphic designer and a recent graduate of the College for Creative Studies.

With this book, I am continuing my mission–yes, I am on one–to develop a series of multicultural children’s books that boys want to read. I worked closely with Scott to make sure the pages were filled with bright, stimulating visuals that would draw readers into the story and take them on an energetic ride throughout the book. Malcolm also has ten discussion questions and a Fun Facts section in the back.

Final Malcom 1-5-08I started this series because I was always looking for good stories for my son to read. I wanted to introduce him to characters that nurtured his identity as a young African American boy. Although he’s now grown, I hope that Malcolm Mows the Lawn and the first book in the series, Taj Cleans the Garage, will help to fill this void.

According to the Children’s Book Council, fewer and fewer multicultural books are being published, although the country is becoming more diverse. Major publishers site poor sales and little interest among customers, but my books are appealing to people of all ethnic backgrounds who know how important it is for children to see a true reflection of the world in which they live.

These two books do something else too. They reinforce some of the old school values I grew up with like doing chores to earn an allowance, living by the Golden Rule, and helping neighbors. While reading Malcolm and Taj in classrooms, I have already witnessed young children talking about creating their own adventures and becoming real-life heroes. I hope to find that same magic next week!

Indies Are Not Dinosaurs

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Christopher Paul Curtis and Renee Prewitt at Book Beat “Indies First Storytime Day”

Some people say that the independent book store will be like dinosaurs soon; they will only be resurrected as Hollywood remakes. But I wouldn’t wager my 35mm digital movie camera just yet, based on the response from authors and readers alike at the Indies First Storytime Day, which took place on Saturday, May 17 at Book Beat in Oak Park, Michigan.

 

The whole idea was put together by Kate DiCamillo, author of the 2014 Newbery Award for Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures. She’s also National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (2014-2015). “The point is to show up and to read aloud, to celebrate stories and to celebrate the indies who work so hard to put our stories in the hands of readers,” she said.

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To honor Children’s Book Week (May 12-18) about 15 authors came to Book Beat, and read to a medium-sized, responsive crowd throughout a cool, windy day, full of sunshine. I started out reading Book Fiesta! by Pat Mora, recalling with great care, a few Spanish words I learned in high school. Cheered on by Book Beat owner Colleen Kammer, I followed up by reading one of my children’s books, Taj Cleans the Garage, about a little boy whose chore turns into an adventure. (A lot of parents liked the chore idea.)

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My highlight of the day was meeting Christopher Paul Curtis, who read a hilarious excerpt from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. My kids grew up reading his books and when I found two that they hadn’t read, I asked him, “Which one of these do you think they would like the most?” Without hesitation and despite my protests, he purchased, signed and gave me both of them: The Mighty Miss Malone and Elijah of Buxton. When I texted my daughter about it, all she said was “OMG, OMG, OMG! Did you tell him that Bud, Not Buddy, is my favorite?” Now, I have!

Gloria Whelan was there–all of her titles covered a whole table–as well as Susan Whithall, Wong Herbert Yee, Jean Alicia Elster, Kathryn Madeline Allen, Matt Faulkner, Jenny Risher, Terry Blackhawk, Michael Zadoorian, Rick Lieder, Brynne Barnes, and Tracy Gallup.

Children clapped and held out their books to be signed, Moms and Dads laughed, we discussed the ups and downs of the book industry, and ate delicious cake. Author swag bags included Gayle’s Chocolates and City Girls Soap, both Michigan based businesses.

“This event competed against a lot of activities on Saturday, including thousands of trees being planted in Detroit to remove blight, volunteers cleaning up the Detroit River, religious ceremonies, and an international Comics convention,” said Kammer. “Still, I’m happy for all of the authors and supporters who came out. Books matter and everyone’s presence reinforced that message.”

Long live the independent book stores! Dinosaurs not allowed!

Renee Prewitt is the author of two children’s books: Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn. 

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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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Still Holding On to the Dream

Renee & Sherri - Copy

It was a life changing moment for me when I realized that this was it, this is what I wanted. I wanted people to be lined up around the block, waiting for me to sign their book, my best seller, just like I was doing for Terry McMillan that afternoon in Chicago.

That day–decades ago–I stood in fellowship with a group of women whose singular gospel was how amazed we were  at Terry’s ability to break through the hierarchial publishing world and make Waiting to Exhale a must-read for black women around the world…or at least in the United States. She had busted out of the norm, had thrown open the curtain to reveal the romantic goings on in the real world of sexy, successful, single black women and their lovers. She had written prose that you didn’t need to read a hundred times to understand the breathless dance that happened when a man and woman became one. Someone had finally written our story and we reveled in it!

I had been working on yet another version of a short story that got longer with every new city I moved to, as my then husband ascended up the corporate ladder. With everything changing around me, writing was the anchor that bridged new jobs, new relationships, and new hair stylists. I got caught up in the flurry of possibilities that Terry had opened for writers like me who worked to satisfy appetites that wanted to hear what we said, to read what we wrote and to buy what we sold. Years later, after 47 rejection letters from publishers and agents, I self published From Morning Drive to Midnight. It was loosely based on a woman’s rough and tumble days as a radio talk show host, when FM was overtaking AM on the dial, when DJs’ ratings were tied to their gimmicks and personalities, and when singers toured the stations to promote records and gave lavish promotion parties for radio people who truly believed that you only live once. Those were the days!

Oh, but I digress. My book signings netted about four or five people at a time.  Not bad, but not a dream made real, either.

The other night, I thought of my dream as I waited for Sherri Shepherd of The View to sign the book I had purchased. She was our hilarious host at the annual Ford African Ancestry Network event, which had invited Henry Louis Gates to talk about his new PBS show, Finding Your Roots. You may not be aware of it, but this event has a reputation for challenging its guests to a Wobble Dance-off, and Sherri was up for the challenge.  At the end of the program, she announced, “I’m going to sign some books, but I’ll be back!”

I waited a while before retreating to the book signing area, but no matter. The line was still wrapped around several ropes that kept everyone in single file. After she signed a book, she would take a picture. Up and down, up and down she moved for more than an hour. Even Terry McMillan had not done that!

When I got back to my table, everyone asked me, “Where is she? When is she coming out to Wobble?”

“She’ll be out,” I said, “But right now, girlfriend is living my dream!”

(Note to self: I’ve got work to do.)

Renee Prewitt is the author of a new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage and is working on a little something that will make her dream come true.

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50+ Kids and Me on MCB Day

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A few weeks ago, I joined a national community of bloggers–many of them authors of children’s books like me–to help celebrate January 27 as the first Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I am pleased to say that yesterday was one of the best days of my life!

I had the pleasure to meet with children in two different elementary school classes who joined me in putting together our own spin on how we would make it a memorable occasion. At University Prep Science and Math School in Detroit, Michigan, Ms. Thomas’s third grade class brought their favorite multicultural books to school and sat together in a big, wide circle of sharing. I came face to face with several smiling, eager kids, dressed in their uniform beige and blue, who introduced their favorite books, told us the author and illustrator’s names, and explained why the books were their favorites.The first names of students, as well as the names of their books, are listed at the bottom of this blog.

ImageLater that day, I visited Vandenberg World Cultures Academy in Southfield, Michigan. Ms.Lewandowski teaches an ESL class–English as a Second Language–and I met children from several countries, including Vietnam, India, Senegal, Nigeria, and of course the good ole USA. Can you imagine that? While they didn’t bring books to share, this first grade class was the perfect audience for my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage. One little boy asked right away, “Is Taj African-American?” I told him yes, and that his friend was Hispanic.

Afterwards, they were delighted to tell me where they wanted the flying horse to take them. Usually when I ask this question, Grandma’s house wins, hands down, but Chucky Cheese emerged victorious yesterday! One student started a second go-round on that question, and after thinking about it, they also said they would fly to California, India, to parties and to school!

Working on this event has been an uplifting and exciting experience for me. The co-founders, Valarie Budayr of Jump Into a Book and Mia Wenjen of Pragmatic Mom created this special day to draw attention to the need for publishers to publish more children’s books that reflected the country’s changing population.  They pointed out that despite census data that shows 37 percent of the US population consists of people of color, only 10 percent of children’s books published have diversity content.

It is also true that multicultural books can help to break down stereotypes and raise awareness about cultures that are different from our own. Personally, I was always on the hunt for books that reflected my children’s brown skin on the page, and drew them into the story. I wanted to help nurture their identities with characters like them who had adventures, discoveries, mysteries and just plain old fun. I also wanted them to learn to appreciate people and their differences.

Yesterday put an exclamation point on the many reasons why authors like me write books that show children whose mainstream lives merge with cultural traditions. Many kids and parents get it; I hope that many more publishers will too.

University Prep students and their books:

Taniya: Brianna, Jamica and the Dance of Spring. Juanita Havil, author; Anne Sibley O’Brien, illustrator

Micah: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport; Bryan Collier, illustrator

Logan: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

Nevaeh: One of Three. Angela Johnson, author; David Soman, illustrator

Aliyah: Bein’ With You This Way. W. Nikola-Lisa; Michael Bryant, illustrator

Cassidy: First Bear in Africa by Santomi Khikawa and Ellis Island. Frank Brooks, author, Matt Straub, illustrator

Isaac: Egypt. Elizabeth Bert, author; Susan Manuel, illustrator

Sterling: Jalani and the Lock by Lorenzo Pace

Joaquin: Down to the Last Out, the Journal of Biddy Owens by Walter Dean Myers

Renee Prewitt is author of Taj Cleans the Garage, a story about a little boy whose chore turns into an exciting adventure, and he learns that money isn’t the only reward in life!

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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.

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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