I was gifted the opportunity to volunteer with a nonprofit called Start Reading Now that provides first-graders in poverty the ability to take ten books home before summer break. One particular study shows that giving low-income kids books over the summer is equivalent to sending them to summer school.
The program empowers students to select the ten books themselves, and they get their own personalized backpack. This is ground-level combat to narrow the achievement gap, and I will remember the experience for the rest of my life.
The response from the first-grade students at one elementary school melted my heart. I heard things like, “Do I really get to keep these books forever and ever and not bring them back?”
The students gracefully clamored for picture books, chapter books and even books that included a charm or Matchbox car. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a popular early reader that appeals to all, and I remember one boy in particular excitedly snagging his own copy from the bookcase. This proud looking boy with a fresh fade hair cut and sharp, clean athletic gear had his arms full, approaching his selection of 10 books.
That’s when I saw the friendly educator reach for his arm and say something about that book being too hard for him, and that he should, “pick from the shelves over there,” as she pointed to the picture books. Yes, these are first grade students of varying reading levels, and maybe he’s still navigating Go Dog Go or Llama Llama but this moment is stuck in my head. Why? Why would you divert a student from challenging himself?
Managing a child’s frustration is one thing, but I vow, as a father, to never say anything is too hard for my son or daughter. My four-year-old enjoys flipping through the pages of my novels or business books, even if it is to enjoy the fan of the breeze and jumble of paragraphs without eye-catching illustrations.
And I have books that may be “too hard” for me. In fact, I enjoy snagging a book like City On Fire (944 pages), adding it to my shelf and hoping that I get around to reading it someday. The Bible I received in high school confirmation is still a little “too hard” for me at times–using old English and dense parables get pretty thick for me at times–but I still like the idea of reading it. And someday I will get through it all.
Yes, maybe the energetic first-grader is shooting high, but what about his future. Shouldn’t he be encouraged to shoot high? What about a year or six months or by the end of summer when he’s ready to read about the adventures, struggles and drama that this book can relate to elementary students?
I volunteered at another book fair the same day, and I was shocked to hear it again, this time from a younger male teacher, rather than the approaching-retirement female educator from the previous school. What are we doing to these kids when we tell them a specific book is “too hard?”
We should be encouraging them through school and reading because chances are these students at the poverty level and below are getting little to no support at home. Parents and guardians are just too busy making ends meeting if they are around at all.
One particular literacy specialist at the school said, “I gave a book to a second grade student last year and she said ‘now, I have two books at home.'” Tears welled in my eyes.
The same research that shows reading over the summer has the ability to reduce summer setback shows that students in extreme poverty have an average of less than one book at home. Less than one book. That means no books. What does that look like?
I grew up in a fortunate family. We weren’t upper class but we didn’t have to worry about our next meal. We were blessed with family vacations, reliable transportation and a peaceful neighborhood. I also remember having more books than I could count, along with regular trips to the library dragging home bags of books. And I don’t ever remember hearing the words, “that book may be a little too hard for you.”