Perspectives Article

Recently the Hackley Perspectives periodical was mailed, and I was very happy to be included in the publication. In case you do not/did not receive it, see below. I would be very appreciative to hear your feedback!  


Reading Mindfully – and Well

Shannon MacDonald, Lower School Literary Specialist

Shannon MacDonald works closely with teachers, parents students and me. Her passion for reading is ever apparent, and she instills this in all of those of us who cross paths with her. She spoke at a Lower School parent coffee this year about instilling the love of text and of engagement as a reader with students from a young age, to be a tool for life. This article summarizes what she shared with parents, as we thought it merited an even wider audience. Enjoy!

—Anne Ewing Burns, Lower School Director

THE ACT OF READING IS ONE OF THE MOST PERSONAL AND powerful experiences that we can have with ourselves. It is one of the rare times in life that it is completely acceptable to be wrapped up in our own thoughts, focused on one particular task and be expected (and encouraged) to have an opinion on someone else’s work or actions. Reading is such a private event, in fact, that up until the Patriot Act (section 215) no one could access your reading record at the local library except for you or your librarian. Your reading record is held at the same level of importance as your medical record, indicating that the thoughts that you have running through your stream of consciousness are just as vital as the blood flowing through your veins.

Questions that I am asked often are,“How come my child doesn’t enjoy reading? What can I do to get them engrossed in a book? What should I be doing at home to ensure that he/she will love reading?” The answer is not an easy one, and the last time I checked, there were neither clear-cut research studies nor findings that I would be able to          suggest. That is the exact reason why there are so many reading programs and strategies to help children become proficient readers, as what works for one will not necessarily work for the other. However, I think that having a child read “well” is much more than fluency, prosody and comprehension.

My Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Fredrickson, taught me a very important lesson, although I didn’t realize it until I became a teacher myself. She had instilled in me the great importance of asking the question “why.” For many of us, the question of why is often associated with the ongoing badger- ing of an inquisitive three-year-old preparing for a future career as a lawyer or psychologist. Instead, we need to look at the tool of questioning to help our children become more mindful about who they are as readers and how they came to be that way.

Reading a book aloud to the class was the highlight of the kindergarten experience at my elementary school. Each child had the opportu- nity to read, and we were all assigned a date that we would share our favorite book with the class.
I don’t remember if I read every word correctly, if I read with fluency and expression, or if I could identify the problem and solution. However, that wasn’t the point of the exercise — it was meant to make us feel empowered and accomplished. When I was done reading my book and my classmates applauded, Mrs. Fredrickson asked me how I felt, to which I replied,“Proud.” But that wasn’t the most important question she asked that day. She asked me,“Why do you feel proud, Shannon?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question, and I had an uneasy pause as I stared into the eyes of the now silent kindergarten class. I was used to just being told,“great job,” or,“I’m so proud of you.” As an adult, I know that all that means is that someone else thought that I did a good job. But what about how I felt about myself? Some of the most       important skills that we need to teach our children are the abilities to assess a situation, be able to identify how and why they are feeling that way, and to then make a conscious connection to build on for future events.

The theory of mindfulness has lately been at the forefront of many educational debates and studies. Just recently, there was a study that caught my eye in how mindfulness directly impacts a per- son’s ability to pay attention. In the spring of 2013, researchers from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UC Santa Barbara released their findings. The participants were undergradu- ate students, and were separated into two separate control groups: one that would go through mind- fulness training while the other would be taught key concepts in understanding nutrition. Prior
to beginning the two-week training program,they were given two assessments: the GRE and a working memory capacity test. They were given the exams again at the end, and the group that had undergone the mindfulness training had significantly improved while the nutrition group did not.

A major component in whether or not a child develops as an invested reader is how connected they are with text. How deeply are they paying attention to the plot, and can the child recognize how the author tells the story to the audience? It is not only important that the child read a book with fluency and comprehension, but are they actively thinking while reading? Reading must have value for children in order for them to autonomously pick up a book and devour it. There have been countless stud-
ies that all reflect some of the most basic building blocks in literacy; many of those recommendations include a print rich environment, access to quality books, hearing books read aloud, seeing others enjoy reading around them. However, I’ve scoured jour- nals and clearinghouses and have yet to find a study on how personal connectedness, or mindfulness, plays a role in a child’s reading development.

As an educator and parent, I believe that in addition to modeling what good reading sounds like and looks like, we need to model how it makes us feel by sharing the inner dialogue that we have with text. If we can engage and teach our children to have a            relationship with books, it allows the children to begin building schema they can then relate to the count- less other relationships they will develop as they grow. Just as the ability for children to learn another language is best taught in the early years of life, so is the idea of teaching them to look inward.

Inventories are a common tool used by educa- tors to get a feel for who their student is as reader and writer. Questions asking about the last book they read, types of genres that they love or dislike are included. But rarely are they asked why they turn away from or run to certain books, and are never asked why they think that happens based on past experiences with those subjects or texts. Recognizing the personal likes and dislikes are important, yes, but doesn’t understanding the rea- sons for their preferences prove just as powerful? If children can learn to analyze their choices from an early age, they might learn how to walk them- selves through trying complex text or attempting a genre that may feel unfamiliar to them without the prodding of parents and teachers.

I did answer Mrs. Fredrickson, with a typical Kindergarten response.“That was hard but I did it!” I remember telling her, as she gave me a big hug and then shooed me back to the carpet. However, that moment has stayed with me decades later, and as an educator that tells me powerful information. Due to being asked to analyze how I was feeling in a certain situation with a book, I made a positive connection with it. I wouldn’t say that it was this one single event that ignited my love affair with literature, but I will affirm that it had a major impact on how I saw myself as a reader. My goal as a teacher and mother is to help instill that process of metacognition and autonomy in each of the children I work with. I want the children to be present in the moments while they read, dare to ask questions and to evaluate how they feel about the book that they are reading. By teaching children to be mindful of their emotions and reac- tions as they read, hopefully the practice of reflection will carry over into all aspects of their lives as they grow into caring, prosperous and “well-read” adults.

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