Read Alouds and Thank You Notes: A Toddler Shows Thankfulness and Builds Community

Keith on the phone visiting Daddy's Job. July 2014
Keith on the phone visiting Daddy’s Job. July 2014

 

From very early, Mom taught the importance and impact of gratitude.

Before I could even write and talk, she guided me in how to thank others for the love they showed. She told me stories of how she would guide my hand to write my name on thank you cards. Later, she would put me on the phone or remind me to call people to say “Thank you” whenever I received cards and/or gifts from friends, family and neighbors.  To Mom, acknowledging the outreach and outpour of another’s heart was important. Whether it was a tangible gift like a check, present or the cooking of a favorite dish, or intangible like a phone call to wish me “Happy Birthday” or message of congratulation or affirmation for academic or personal achievement.

A person’s volunteered sincere attention to a life accomplishment, big or small, material or immaterial, should never not go without recognition and immediate response. Yet the lesson of conveying thankfulness, then and now, extends beyond the display of good manners.

Overtly reciprocating gratitude for the of love others fostered both my responsiveness to and responsibility with other peoples’ attentiveness and fondness. Yet the lessons underlying the saying of “thank you” and gesturing gratefulness through phone call, letter or card began morphing….into the building of a relationship. Beyond a reflex of obligatory appreciation, the lesson became a stepping stone into learning how to love, love in the sense of reaching for and holding others in my heart long after a simple deed.

What has evolved from gift-generated action and reaction is a habitual conversation between hearts, a commitment to continue corresponding with people who thought enough to celebrate me not only during moments of earlier accomplishment, but since and throughout .  I write cards and letters to my former childhood neighbor Bunny; she and her now deceased husband treated me more like a niece, writing cards and even buying me bonds as an investment in my future. Ms. Jessie, my Mom’s former co-worker who sent cards and gifts when I was a teenager, has since become a elder in my life who I call, write, and text message throughout the year. Ms. Connie, a former neighbor who when my Mom passed made it a priority to check in on me (even though at the time of her passing I was an adult), I send cards and pictures and also call.   I text, call and email my former midwife Susan, who gave great advice and anecdotes throughout both pregnancies, keeping her abreast of how the boys are doing. And for those that have since passed on, or whom I have lost contact, I include them in my remembrances.

Following tradition, I am beginning to teach my sons lessons about showing gratitude and caring. I trace their hands as their “signature” on thank you cards.  I have them call grandma and granddad to say thank you for the annual birthday card. I have them call our friends and family to say thank you after receiving a card or gift.

Yet I am also using such instances of relaying gratitude as springboards for two things.  One is facilitating literacy, literacy in the social context of overtly learning to say and do within interactions with friends and family that evinces caring and affection. Saying “thank you” and employing vocabulary and phrases demonstrative of tenderness and fondness. With my oldest son (age 3) now being quite vocal and social, I facilitate real time interactions with friends and family. I have him initiate phone calls with family and friends, practicing him in conversational protocols for interactions such as seeing how someone is doing, wishing them wellness if they are sick, singing the “Happy Birthday Song” as remembrance of his or her special day, etc. Calling Daddy each day at work to check in on him and the progress of his day. Sending a text message or creating a voice message for Uncle Craig and Uncle Chris (childhood friends of my husband) just to say hello. The other is using the teaching of thankfulness as a portal into teaching my sons how to build community, as I had learned to do too.

My oldest son has now “upped the ante.” Keith takes initiative to regularly check in on people. He’ll say, “Mommy, let’s call Mr. Tyrone (a neighbor we would see when taking walks in the park in our old neighborhood). We haven’t talked to him in awhile. Let’s leave a message.”  He will remind, “We haven’t talked to Ms. Brenda” (another neighbor we would see when walking in the park).  He will request, “Can we call Aunt Stacy, and leave her a message?” He also hints at who he thinks I should call if I have not been in touch recently. Recently saying such things as “Oh, we haven’t talked to Ms. Pam (our former realtor) in a while,” “Let’s call Aunt Betty” (my mentor from graduate school), ” “Let’s check on Uncle Sug” or “We have not talked to Auntie Mary.” Each of these people have at one time or another given the boys a gift or committed an act of kindness. Mr. Tyrone gave the boys Clifford books and cereal snacks. Ms. Brenda would help Keith cross the street while holding his hand, try to make Maceo smile, and also calls periodically to see how we are doing.  Aunt Stacy hugs and plays with the boys during our visits, and bought the boys an array of educational gifts last Christmas. Ms. Pam showed Keith how to trace his hand with a crayon to occupy him while the home inspection was taking place. I’ve told Keith of the impact Dr. Shadrick (to him, Aunt Betty) had on me, and in adopting my honor and sentiments leaves voice messages along with mine. Uncle Sug regularly calls to see how we are doing.  Auntie Mary showered them with love and attention during our last visit, and sent the boys books the following Christmas. Yet I am impressed that Keith remembers the gestures of so many others, big and small. Related by blood or by love. Who have bought him gifts or called to see how our family is doing. Who simply love us and show it.

Keith also upped the ante by now wanting to give gifts to others. I have been recording Keith reading aloud for almost two years as a means to both chronicle his reading progress and also because he LOVES being recorded. Now he wants to use his reading aloud and recording of his favorite books as a means to show his remembrance and his love. An avid reader, he asks to read his favorite books to people he thinks about. Sharing aloud his favorite books has become his means of keeping in contact with people he holds in high esteem. It has become his tool through which to initiate and maintain correspondence with those he loves. It is his gift to others of saying “Thank you” for treating him as part of their extended families.

Last year he gave a Hallmark recordable book to his grandparents. Recently I called my mentor and dissertation chair Judith, just to check in and see how she was doing. Unable to leave a voice message, Keith suggests, “Can I read to Auntie Judith one of my favorite books?” Keith read aloud to Auntie Karen (a friend and colleague from NCTE who is like a big sister to me) one of his favorite books from the Mo Willems Don’t Let the Pidgeon… series as a birthday gift. What follows below is the read aloud Keith did for Auntie Karen on February 2015.

 

 

The showing of love through reading aloud as a gift seems to benefit Keith in several ways. They provide him an authentic reason and purpose for practicing reading. Albeit Keith is a voracious reader, reading aloud for others gives him the means and opportunity to do something for someone else. He is learning that a gift does not have to be material, a trinket or expensive investment. He is also learning the responsibility of maintaining relationships, to take the initiative to reach out to others and let them know they are on his mind and in his heart. He is taking initiative to build, maintain and love others within a community he is growing book by book. Heart by heart.

As I look back, I realize Mom was instilling within me the practice, and importance, of acknowledging the kind words and gestures of others.  Not in hopes of gaining more and bigger material things, but to reciprocate the love they showed me throughout my growing up and adult life. The majority of these people were not my kindred genetically, but friends of my parents and neighbors who were, then and now, adopted as aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters and elders.  Their investment in me has yielded a larger impact…the growing of a community. Through phone calls, emails, handwritten notes and cards, I show others I am thankful for giving me space in their heart and life. This lesson has drilled itself into my bones, becoming my marrow.

A lesson from my Mother I impart to my sons.

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Literacy Learning in the Kitchen: Building Vocabulary, Practicing Procedural Thinking, and Learning to Tell Time

 

 

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The boys’ “play” kitchen located in our kitchen.

 

 

At ages 3 and 2, Keith and Maceo, respectively, have little patience for workbooks and sitting down for long lengths of time as a means to “practice” literacy skills. So at this stage, to grow their vocabulary, build skill in strategic thinking, and support their practice of various ways of learning, speaking, thinking and doing in situ for successful interactions (what I am defining as literacy as contextualized action), I try to do so while “on our feet.” Because Keith and Maceo like to hang out with me whenever I am in the kitchen, I have begun thinking of ways to use that space as a “real life classroom.” Rather than work through a list of words, or decontextualized workbook drills, I try to situate my sons’ skill acquisitions and the building of them contextualized in shared spaces, experiences and familial routines.

Ironically, an effective and impactful way has been through cooking and doing chores together.  Here are a few practices that are proving fruitful.

Learn and practice vocabulary in applicable situations. Keith and Maceo have a fascination with the dishwasher. Maceo is engrossed with the mechanics and inner workings of the machine, pulling the drawers and objects in and out. Keith has appointed himself as Mommy’s helper, interested in helping me load and unload it. So when it is time to use the dishwasher, I use the moment to foster and facilitate their acquiring of relevant vocabulary. As Keith is helping me, I ask him to name the different things we are loading into the machine, spell out the name of an object, or explain how a particular object (plate, pot, spoon, etc.) is used.  With Maceo, as he now at the stage of learning and practicing sounds, I name the objects both in the dishwasher and throughout the kitchen, then practice with him repeating their names. In another chore-based scenario, Keith LOVES helping unpack groceries, which I use as an opportunity to build vocabulary. As he removes objects from the bags, I ask him to name what it is he is removing from the bag (canned peaches, frozen spinach, chicken, etc.), and “help” Mommy by telling me where it goes (in cabinet, in fridge, in freezer, etc.).  As a caveat, I don’t do this with them EVERY time I run the dishwasher, or extend to EVERY task and chore we do, as that would probably burden the fun and at some point burn out the kids and their interests.

But when interests and curiosity intersect, I pounce.

 

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Simulate chores and then deconstruct step by step the procedures to fulfill them. We bought our sons their own play kitchen, prompted by observing Keith during a recent dental visit.  He was so engrossed with the one in the office we spent an additional half hour after his appointment just to let him play. Seeing how much he engaged with the kitchen—simulating cooking, putting dishes in the sink, opening and closing the microwave and fridge—gave me an idea to situate learning procedures and vocabulary within the context of family rituals.  Keith (who is quite verbal) typically asks questions while I am cooking about what I am preparing and how.  I’ll share details about the food I am preparing, describing step by step what I am doing, explaining what is happening to the food as it is cooking and why, illustrating the overall process. He usually brings a stool to stand next to me and observe. I am deliberate in telling him what I am doing step-by-step and how I am doing it because I am trying to model the use of procedures. At times I use vocabulary such as “first,” “second,” “next,” and “then” to cue him in how I progress through a task to familiarize him with the procedural language I use throughout that experience.  Maceo’s interests lies now with opening and closing cabinet and refrigerator doors. But given this interest, his emerging skill in reciting sounds, and his autonomous play with the play kitchen, I am thinking of ways to support and scaffold similar growth.

 

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Use familial and familiar experiences as launching pad to explore new concepts. Cooking in the kitchen has also begun to make Keith curious about time.  I use time as a means to measure how long to cook something, and in scheduling how to cook multiple things at once. Noting how and why I use time in this way, Keith has begun emulating me. Whenever I begin cooking, Keith asks me the time, which then leads me to explaining to him how to represent the time on his own play clock. This interaction has given me entrance and access to teaching the vocabulary of time (11:25, 4:50, big hand, little hand, half past, ten minutes to…), as well as how to represent time visually on his play kitchen clock (big hand on the twelve, little hand on the 3, for example).  In addition, I watch several news stations, and Keith has noticed numbers and symbols across the television screen. I explain them as the current time and temperature (a current fascination of his), leading many times to him pointing to and reciting them. Now that we have an intersection of interest, platform, and opportunity to build time-telling skills, I have brought in a few ancillary resources. One is a poster from the local dollar store illustrating how to tell time. Two others are books, one showing different times of day and the rituals people perform at those times, and another detailing how to tell time both visually and digitally, inclusive of new vocabulary associated with telling time. I also bought a clock that tells time physically, digitally and audibly, which we use to further explore his interest in time and skill to tell it. The books we read as a reference when needed during daily reading time. The poster is a visual reference we use whenever Keith asks questions about how to tell time.

 

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Keith is transferring these experiences of us in the kitchen, autonomously employing procedures and procedural vocabulary within tasks we do together or him separately.  When helping me clean in the house, particularly when doing his favorite chore of cleaning the floors, he tells me that first he will spray the cleaner, then I will mop, and then he will take over. I smile. In another example, he has begun pacing himself when he is play cooking in his own kitchen, speaking out loud what he will do each step of the way.  When looking for toys he verbalizes his steps, marking “First, I will…,” and “Then, I will….” Both of the boys have taken interest in the new toy clock, winding the big and little hands to represent different times, then awaiting the clock to announce out loud the time represented on its face.

 

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These are small steps taken in the big journey literacy learning. One chore at a time.

How to Find the Answer: A Crayon, an Inquiry Board, and a Pre-Schooler’s Journey

 

An inquiry board helps our son to formulate and formalize creating questions and seeking answers. It’s also become a means through which we build a community invested in investigating both our interests and world. 

 

Inquiry Board hanging in our sons' room.
Inquiry Board hanging in our sons’ room with Keith’s first set of recorded questions, December 2014.

 

 

Kids ask a lot of questions. From the abstract to concrete, their mind is always turning and churning new ideas about their circumstances, experiences, and environment.  My oldest toddler son, turning three, is always peppering me with questions. I try to answer as many as I can, but I also realize that what I know is finite. I am not the only or absolute source for answers. Knowing my limitations, I have begun thinking of ways to affirm Keith’s inquisitive mindset, while also figuring out ways to equip him with mental tools and physical resources that help him investigate answers to his questions.

To begin, I introduced Keith to a book called What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn. An informative and accessible book, it breaks down the scientific method in kid friendly language and application, with pictures illustrating the different parts of the process (“a scientist is a person who asks questions and tries different ways to answer them,” “A scientist learns from her senses,” for example). Knowing he won’t grasp the concept of inquiry or the scientific method as a means to an answer in their entirety just by reading about them, nor wanting to just leave the support of his understanding at the “just read about it” level, I have begun exploring ways to affirm his questions, and to make his inquiry tactile, interactive, and responsive. To this end, I created an inquiry board.

I got the idea of an inquiry board from observing Keith’s particular interest in cartoons that are based in problem-solving. From very early, Keith loved the Word World series, in which characters solve problems through identifying what words best fit as a solution, and Super Why, where a team of friends explore answers to personal problems through examining the characters in famous books facing similar situations. Other problem-solving characters that intrigue him include Luna from Earth to Luna, Peg from Peg + Cat, Sid from Sid the Science Kid, and Steve and Joe from Blue’s Clues. Each character identifies a problem, applying particularized ways and innovative means to solve them.  Luna imagines herself in particular situations and reenacts them.  Peg employs such things as mathematics, geometry and pattern recognition.  Sid uses facets of the scientific method and employs his familial community of parents, friends, teacher and classmates.  Steve and Joe use investigative strategies, visuals and writing to figure out problems.  Keith admires them, constantly talking about the questions they explore, even emulating how they pursue solutions.  Witnessing this, I thought an inquiry board might be a great way (and buy-in) to get him invested and involved in not only asking questions but becoming an agent and participant in answering them.

The inquiry board comprised of a 2’ by 3’ whiteboard, decorated with various characters mentioned above, placed there so Keith could see his “fellow inquirers.” Attached are several large post-it notes where we record his questions for the week. Each week I listen for different questions he asks, and ask if he would like to include them on his board.

Recent questions include the following:

 

Why do we play?

What is a highlighter?

Why do we have to brush our teeth?

Why does Daddy go to work?

Why does paper rip?

Why do Leap, Lily, and Tad stay on Leap Frog? And Professor Quibly and Dad?

How come Scout doesn’t work?

How come our Sippy cups don’t have juice?

 

Several questions that piqued his own inquiry originate from the Earth to Luna show, with some examples including the following:

 

Why does yellow and blue make green?

Why do butterflies rub their feet?

Why do things sink?

 

Just a few weeks in, the inquiry board is a hit. Keith has bought into the idea full heartedly. We have moved from just me directly asking if he has any questions he wants to put on the board. He takes initiative, taking ownership of identifying, recording and exploring his questions. Periodically he will be in thought and then excitedly request, “Can we put that question on my board?” In fact, while writing this post (5:30 am), I went to change Keith, and while doing so, he asked, “Why are your hands so cold, Mommy? Hey, let’s put that question on the board!” Keith extends his community of inquiry to include his dad, who he will ask if they can put questions on the board together. A recent question they wrote together is “Why do we have to let waste go?” Keith also has taken initiative in wanting to write his questions. Gravitating away from asking either me or his dad to write them, he will ask one of us to guide his hand in writing his question, or try to write it all on his own (which, as a by-product, feeds his pursuit of learning to write his letters and numbers). Daily Keith goes to his board, interacting with it, whether through reading questions aloud, or selecting a specific post-it and using it as fodder for us to have a conversation.

While I don’t have specific measurable learning outcomes to report, I can say that thus far that the board and the social experiences we have around it are impactful.  It is a tool that I find useful in helping Keith formulate and formalize how to seek out answers to questions.  It has also become a means where we as a community invest in and value inquiry. As a parent, I feel this tool and the experiences it has created situates me less as having to be a “know it all” and more of a facilitator of methods and possibilities.

I am not just giving a man a fish for the day, but how to fish to feed himself for a lifetime.

 

Update, February 2015.  Here is a snapshot of recent questions Keith asked:

Why do we have to brush our teeth?
Why does soapy water make bubbles?
Why do baby teeth fall out?
Why do planes fly?
Why is there snow?
Why is there dust on the floor?
Why did the TV fall down? Why does the TV not work? (Sadly, the flat screen TV, like Humpty Dumpty, had a bad fall).

 

Literacy as Social Action: A Familial Practice (An Introduction)

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As a mom of two toddler boys, I am trying to balance rearing them as both citizens of a global community, as well instill within them the knowledge and skills needed to interface with it. I constantly find myself vacillating between supporting their learning and understanding of how to interact with and treat others, with acclimating them to effectively use literacy (thinking, speaking, reading and writing as tools and means) to interact with the larger world. Even more, learning how to grow, hone and innovate literacy learning without doing so in ways that are rote, remote and decontextualized.

I situate literacy as a practice, meaning particularized ways of interacting within a social context toward a social goal/outcome.  To this point, I am trying to facilitate my sons’ development of both functional skills with the acuity and discernment of which ones to apply within myriad social contexts.  Rather than limiting their literacy development to a collecting a set of skills that are finite, I am situating my sons’ acquisition of literacy as learning how to (1) discern the dynamics and expectations of an interaction/social event, (1) identify and apply the skills and knowledge they need to draw to participate, and (3) successfully employ and as well as adapt such skills and knowledge in situ.

Here is an example. If one is going on a job interview, the purpose of the social interaction is to convince a potential employer of one’s worthiness of the sought after job position. An interviewee, understanding the goal of the interaction and is knowledgeable of the skills and exchanges that need to occur within it, would discern the cues and inquiries of the employer as typical of a job interview, and thus provide pertinent information, answering (as well as exchanging) questions appropriate for the exchange. An interviewee would know this is not the time to go on tangents at length about political or religious dispositions, divulge personal information inappropriate for an employer to know, or sully the name of a previous employer, IN ADDITION to providing the necessary artifacts relevant to the situation (resume, business cards). The successful interviewee would, ideally, know how to answer the questions presented, and how to socially engage with various people s/he met at the potential new job site.

I am suggesting that literacy is integrative, the melding of functional skills in reading, writing, thinking and speaking with the keen awareness of applying the appropriate ones given the social context, doing so knowingly toward a specific social end.  To this end, I am I am trying to build a foundation of strategies and protocols around thinking, speaking, reading and interacting, a fluid tool box if you will, they can use, adapt and innovate throughout their lives.

In future postings, I’ll share some ways I am trying to support the development of my sons’ literacy development, doing so within both home-based and external environments. Not as a means to promote an absolute or absolutely successful examples of learning and facilitation, but more so a personal journal of a journey I am trying to take my sons upon, that, if done successfully, has put to best use of intersecting my maternal instincts with my formal training and experiences as an educator.

Building a Home Library: An Autobiographical and Intergenerational Bridge

The chairs

 

A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself. –Jane Austen

 

Readers have been a part of my life since birth. I cannot remember a time when I was not around someone reading a newspaper, analyzing the Bible and taking notes, or curling up with a good book simply for pleasure. From these experiences, books have become for me tools for excavation, solace in a stormy world, and a portal into possibilities.  Family and friends have impacted my experience to become the lover of reading and books that I am today.

And why I am passionate about creating a library and leaving a similar legacy to my two sons.

When I was growing up, my parents made it a point to surround us with books.  Dad amassed religious texts, books about the Bible and Biblical figures, as well as those related to his job as a supervisor for the NYCMTA. These included tomes of manuals and large “maps” illustrating circuit systems.  When I got older, he gave me several books; Billy Graham’s book Angels (which I still have today), books about astronomy, and an encyclopedia. Dad collected books and texts from numerous sources, spanning from the Strand Bookstore, a particular favorite, to dumpster diving, once salvaging a well-kept composition notebook with copious notes about solving equations (which I found real helpful in middle school).  Tuesdays were an important day in our household, because that is when the Science section of The New York Times was published. Dad and I would comb through it, cutting out articles (particularly about astronomy, my favorite subject) and pasting them in my scrapbook.

Mom too kept books and texts circulating throughout the house. She housed philosophical collections by Gibran, Greek tragedies by Sophocles, famous texts by African American writers (Ellison’s Invisible Man and Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, which I still have), as well as texts about Black consciousness. Mom was an avid reader of newspapers, scouring the current events sections to keep abreast of new developments. She read different local newspapers (Daily News and New York Post) to gain different perspectives. As a member and past Grand Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, several books were part of the bookcase she and dad had in their bedroom. Although a mystery to me as a kid, I would see her reading from these sacred books, practicing the delivery of their texts and her positioning as she read them, with dad observing and helping her practice (him being a Mason).

My childhood friend Carla grew up around masses of books. Her dad was a voracious reader, historical scholar and herbal enthusiast. I was always impressed by his learnedness about so many things, with facts and data literally at the touch of his hands and tip of his tongue. Creating an environment of scholarship and insight has profound implications. If you meet Carla, a prolific protégé of his intellectual investment, she is a walking library. She is facile with relaying information that in ways pertinent and personable.  His commitment to surrounding his two daughters with a plethora of information, and their facility in relaying and applying it, leaves an indelible impression to this day.

I want my children to be like his.

My husband is also an avid reader. A lover of political history, screenplay writing, film and film scores, and “old school” music aficionado, he has amassed volumes of books. Books to guide his revisiting and revision of drafts (now his fifth screenplay), topical texts to help him bring depth to a character (one such book titled Movies and Mental Illness), the history of favorite movies (The Making of the Empire Strikes Back and Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies), and books about the history of music (The New Blue Music).  To name a few. He also keeps abreast of the entertainment industry via periodicals too.

 

Some of my husband's books.
Some of our books pertaining to writing and screenplays.

 

Sharing these bibliographic biographies of how text surround and inform the lives of people I care about is to illustrate the impact of the word on their lives and mine.  It is why we as parents are investing in creating for library for our two sons. A place where we can expose them to myriad topics, agitate their curiosity and instigate investigation.

Our evolving library is divided into different sections. One whole bookcase is devoted to the boys’ books, texts specific to their evolving interests and responsive to their emerging questions. Keith, my oldest, is a fan of the rhythm and musicality underlying words (such as in books Jazz AZB and Chica Chica Boom Boom), abstract ideas represented visually (Perfect Square and One), humor (any book by Sandra Boynton, his favorites being But Not the Hippopotamus and Hippos Go Berserk), picture dictionaries, phonics (Preschool Prep Series), and books that show him how to explore creating a question and finding its answer (What is a Scientist? and Telling Time). The youngest, Maceo, burrows in a corner between the bookcase and closet, pulling down several different books, burrowing in, then studying their pages.  Books he gravitates toward the most are flip books, books with rhyme (a book of Sesame Street songs as well as Martin and Carle’s Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do You Hear? ), and with other favorites about shapes, letters, and numbers (particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art Series).  As the boys show interest in different topics and genres, we add them.

 

Keith reading in the home library.
Keith reading in the home library.

 

Keith reading in the park.
Keith reading in the park.

 

Our library is also being built by the loving investment of others.  Diane, upon Keith’s birth, sent a huge box of children’s’ books that have been some of our kids’ favorites (so much so, like Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendinger Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name, disintegrated).  Linda bought a picture book without words, which makes a great experience for us to co-create a narrative with the kids.  Melissa, with children older than ours, has generously given several of her kids’ books they have outgrown. They are full of great ideas (exploring the world through the senses), morals and lessons (saying sorry is a hug given through words), and books about the precious relationship between a mother and her children.  Victoria and Virginia sent several books for the boys, books that delightfully travel the spectrum from interactive to comical to familial to educational. Our library has become a project with familial investors extending the confines of our walls and personal experiences.

 

Maceo reading in the local park.
Maceo looking through one of his favorite books in a local park.
Maceo looking through a book in his room.
Maceo looking through a book in his room.

 

A curious thing has begun to happen. Periodically Keith gravitates to one shelf of the library, where I have housed my two favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. He takes down the whole group of books by each author, spraying them across the floor.  Saying nothing, he leaves them there.  I am impressed how he unknowingly knows two authors who have informed my writing and life.

The shape of things to come…

 

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Sample of our books pertaining to issues in education.
Sample of my books by African American writers.
Sample of our books by African American writers.
Sample of my books pertaining to religion.
Sample of our books pertaining to religion.
Sample of our "self help" books.
Sample of our “self help” books.

 

 

 

 

 

Of Hair and Origin

In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception.  She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots.  Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self. 

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When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair.  My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.”  It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight.  As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs.  It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs.  It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.

It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way.  I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head.  Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean.  It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.

Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery.  It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools.  There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike.  It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know.  I assigned a project to my English classes, called  “Where I’m From.”  Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins.  They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.

One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves.  Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians.  Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards.  They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.

I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning.  I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England.  I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told  my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.

In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins.  The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge.  Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself.  In the mirror lies the beginning of your story.  A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be.  Look for answers, I told them.  Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.

Tricia Amiel