This past week, I started substitute teaching for Knox County schools. I have thought about doing this for a while, but I was honestly not sure it was for me. All I know, thus far, is teaching at the college-level. My first day was (by design, I'll say) to substitute for a half-day for the librarian at a nearby magnet elementary school, K-2nd grade. My job was to, basically, read books to 3 separate classes for 30 minutes each. When you have 25 kindergartners for 30 minutes, this translates to about 15 minutes of flat-out kid wrangling, and maybe 15 minutes of actual reading time. But, it wasn't bad at all. They were excited because I was "new" and because they love to be read to! We read from Frog and Toad, and...I mean.....who doesn't love some Frog and Toad stories? The first graders weren't that much different, but we read about Chester and the public library, and I was absolutely thrilled to find out how much they already knew about a lot of things. They knew about fiction vs. non-fiction, what a bibliography is, what an encyclopedia is, what you can do in a media room, biographies/autobiographies, and how to read a call number on the book spine. I don't know a lot about kids' learning and comprehension levels (the scene in Four Christmases when Reese Witherspoon asks why the 9-month old isn't, like, walking and taking care of herself already isn't far from my realm of child development knowledge). So, I was really surprised by how much they knew and how excited they were to always find out more. Their willingness to tell one another what they know and to ask questions in order to learn more was very comforting to me, and I thought, "You know, these kids are alright!"
At the end of the day (2:30pm....woo-hoo!), I took about 20 minutes to tidy up and make sure things were neat and clean for the librarian the next morning. As I picked up books and straightened the shelves, I was pleased to see that there were some old, familiar faces smiling out at me from the rows: Nancy Drew, Sounder, A Wrinkle in Time, books by Judy Blume, books by Beverly Cleary, and....my favorite surprise of the day....City Horse, by Jack and Patricia Demuth. I remember loving this book when I was little! The story about the Tennessee Walking Horses who left TN to live in New York City as mounted police horses was so fascinating to me. Their big, gentle black heads and faces were so beautiful and I was really touched to see that book is still around, educating and entertaining children out there today.
The school where I worked that afternoon was a small school, mainly populated by the children of lower-income minorities in a remote part of urban, southeast Knoxville. I was talking to my roommate from college a few days ago (she has an MA in English, as do I) and I was commenting on how rewarding it was to see those kids so happy and excited about reading. But, what I really couldn't get out of my mind was the idea that, at what point do these little ones get "too cool for school" and lose their joy and love for reading and learning? I know some of them never do (like myself and my college roommate), but my time also teaching juniors and seniors last week at a local high school really proved that at some point -- between the age of 8 and 18 -- a certain number of students do lose their appreciation for knowledge and information. This is something that I have struggled with on the other side of age 18 (as a teacher in college), so maybe I can now help to change perhaps even one kid's impression of school and help that individual remember that, ultimately, "knowledge is power." Books are good!