"I have always imagined that Paradise will be some kind of library." ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, September 27, 2018

ReedALOUD: The Day You Begin

This book is making a difference in my community of learners and I want to talk about it.

I feel like I am preaching to the converted here, but I can't help it. The Day You Begin has been an incredibly moving experience to read aloud with students, from first through fifth grade. The book is exquisite from cover to cover. Jacqueline Woodson's beautiful, spare, moving and lyrical narrative starts out with the gentleness of new and uncertain beginnings and finishes with the strength of new-found friends and a sense of belonging. The carefully placed repetition of phrases reminds the readers of the common thread of belonging seen through four different stories while also adding a rhythmic element to the narrative. "There will be a time when..." is both poignant and reassuring. The idea that this could happen to any one of us. "There will be a time when you..." Here, Jacqueline Woodson helps students empathize and do the hard work of stepping into the experiences of other students. And what can I say the imagery in Jacqueline's words. Having grown up in the city, I know exactly what it feel like when the heat waves off the curb. Her writing is pure poetry.

Once I read this book, I could not imagine Jacqueline Woodson's text paired with any other illustrator. This book is the perfect marriage of narrative and art. Rafael Lopez's gorgeous mixed media art deepens the readers' understanding of the story. Readers can see the distance between characters and understand that it represents an emotional distance. Rafael Lopez's art also firmly sets this story within a school with the strategic blending of how they are feeling and familiar school objects like a wall clock, a blackboard, lunch tables, and rulers. We'll talk more about the rulers later. It's been powerful to revisit the art in the book with students, especially the pages where the characters experience ear, anxiety, and self-doubt and feel emotionally distant from their classmates. As in this spread:

I have now read the story with all students and feel somewhat bereft that I won't be reading it again with them anytime soon. Reading The Day You Begin draws a physical reaction from me. I have to move and gesticulate. (I use my document camera to project the books on my white board, so can fully move around and gesticulate when I read.) There are certain lines where I find myself leaning forward, curling my shoulders in, or standing strong and tall. In a few places, I can't help but to draw my fingers together touching tip to tip to help emphasize the importance of how a character feels or stop myself from looking directly at my students repeating the words, “And all that stands beside you is your own brave self."

Back to the story! I love that it starts on the title page when we meet our main character, reading by the open window.

We already have a connection, so when she appears with this line she feels familiar. If we didn't understand the words, her expression says it all. We know she is worried about entering this classroom.

There is enough to discuss in just Jacqueline Woodson's words, but Rafael Lopez has extended that conversation. Look at this spread! What are those other children thinking when they notice this other student? We can tell that Angelina is nervous, but those other three students? They are not reacting in the same way. My students had this cool "aha!" moment as they slowed down and realized that the child in the blue shirt looks a bit anxious or nervous, the child with the pink shirt looks curious and interested, and the child with the purple shirt looks happy and welcoming. More questions I could ask: Why are they being passive bystanders? What could they do to help Angelina?

One of my favorite pages to read is also one of my favorite to share. After reading the story, it's one of the pages I come back to and talk about what they notice and what they are thinking about that. What does his reflection mean? Then I flip the book over...
...and the students gasp when they really see the joy and strength in the child as the stories flow from the pages of the book. Its been a great opportunity to remind students of the power of story and the power in stories. There are those who don't always have the words, but find them in books. Stories have the power to support, inform, inspire, heal, etc...

And here's the ending where I always get choked up and have to remind myself that the students are hearing it for the first time. There is so much hope and compassion pouring from these pages. 

After reading the book, students shared what they heard in Jacqueline Woodson's words. Then they shared Rafael Lopez's art told them. The conversation showed how insightful readers are when presented with rich narrative and art and given the time to think and explore. Some students chose to write their thinking on a post-it note.

So, back to that ruler. In each class that I have read this book, I have asked students to think about the objects they noticed and share them. Books are always the first response, birds are next, but pretty soon after that comes rulers. These three instances where the ruler appears is such a purposeful statement, I wanted to talk about it with my students.

I reminded them that we had each taken a different journey to get to this point and that we would each see and hear what we needed to or what made sense given our experiences. I shared that the ruler reminded me that this story takes place in a school and that I needed to ensure that I was thinking about and looking out for all the students that walked through the door of the library and ensuring that everyone felt welcomed and connected.

Here are some of the thoughts the students had about the reason for the ruler. 

Rigoberto has no ruler, but he has a clock.
And about the clock in the Rigoberto spread:

We needed two weeks to do this story justice. 
On the second visit, the students recapped the story and its meaning and we explored specific text and images: when Angelina is holding the curl of her hair and the three other children are looking at her; when each of the students felt emotionally apart from their classmates; and, when Angelina starts to tell her story.

These two questions were posed to students:

"What makes you feel like you don't measure up?
"When is a time you felt like no one was quite like you?

I shared some examples from my own life as well as some general examples that students might share. After some think time, when they had an answer to one of the questions, they left the rug and went to the table to add their voice to our ruler. 

The students' responses in the next part of our reflection made my heart happy. During browsing and borrowing, the students were asked to look back at what had been written on the ruler and write down a response to one of the statements. They are starting to connect their stories! 

With some classes, the students shared their thinking on index cards and then circulated trying to find connections with two other classmates.

"I worry a lot."

"I speak another language at home."

"I am Muslim."

"I am learning English"

The Day You Begin lends itself to many critical conversations. We'll be using this beautifully-wrought and powerful book as a touch point for questions like:

"What would make you feel like you don't quite belong in our community?"
"What would make someone feel apart or different?"
"How can we ensure that we are noticing people who feel like that?"
"What can we do to become an even more inclusive community."

As sad as I am to have finished reading it with all the students at my school, I see a ray of hope in the future. As a Responsive School Library Program, it is important to recognize that students need a reset after vacations, a mini First Six Weeks refresher. I plan to read this book out after our December Break and April break to help re-establish our community expectations. 

It was only after reading the book with students and creating the project that I found this incredible interview with Rafael Lopez where he talks about his choice of style and materials and share the stories that influenced his art. It's beautiful and must read.

Thanks for reading to then end of this very long post!

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