jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

On Learning to Read, A Study in Adjusting Expectations

Tis’ the season.

No, it’s not quite the season for Christmas, although I did hear my first Christmas carol on the radio today. And it’s not scientifically the actual season we call winter, although most of the leaves have fallen and I was embarrassed to not have packed snow pants for pre-school today.

Rather, it is the season for conferences.

Reading before bed November 2014

Reading before bed
November 2014

For our quartet of  youngsters, conferences were both the same old thing and a revelation. The goody-two shoes kids are doing great, reading well, crunching numbers, appropriately moving from one activity to the next. One had to be separated from chatty friends and the other had to dial down Queen Bee tendencies, but still. Both are positively hungry to do well, each in their own way.

The other two were a bit of a surprise, for both the challenges they each faced as well as the love and care their teachers put into knowing these rapscallions of ours.

Between you and I, I actually got the chokey voice in one conference. My husband and I looked at each other with horrified expressions as I fanned my face. “I was not expecting that to happen,” I declared.

And I wasn’t. But listening to this team of teachers describe my child, my often challenging, increasingly annoying, beyond stubborn child, with their huge grins and loving words just blew me away. They got this kid! They loved this kid.

But they noticed some lackluster testing, some high highs and low lows with the way this one, we’ll call “Monkey” for relative anonymity, understood language and the alphabet. Apparently while I was busy catching the twins up with the business of growing, improving core strength and walking, I missed pretty much the whole alphabet. And what our last name is. And how to hold a pencil. Which is weird, because Monkey’s twin sibling can read dense chapter books with ease and write any words desired. (This twindom truly has wrought them halves of a single clam, one all goo, the other all shell.)

These kids are  not  ready to read  November 2014

These kids are not ready to read
November 2014

A year ago, maybe more, I went on a literary/literacy campaign spending letter-reading time with each twin. We began with the study of letters on youtube, catchy songs that go, “The N says nnn and it’s a letter in the alphabet, the N says nnnnn,” ad nnnnnnnauseum. Next we got to letter sounds and then root words: to, do, go, no, so, and then at, bat, cat, fat, hat and so on. They both tired of it, and so did I. There was just so much more to life than all this. So Monkey’s twin somehow mastered reading with just those rudimentary lessons while Monkey forgot the alphabet. Literally. Or should I say, illiterately?

And so the night after conferences I began anew with a little help from Monkey’s amazing old pre-school teacher who remembered Monkey’s particular (or should we say peculiar) brain well. After reading early chapter books to all four, and then dense chapter books with the seven-year old, and shape, alphabet and color flash cards with the forgotten fourth child, I deconstructed a board book. Peekaboo Puppy. It’s a real page-turner. No word lists or roots. Just the baby board book I’ve been reading for seven long years, which I’ve long since memorized, and little homemade cards with each word written out. “Peekaboo puppy, come and play. Who will we find on the farm today?…”

Peekaboo Puppy, the dance remix  November 2014

Peekaboo Puppy, the dance remix
November 2014

We recited the words pointing at each little card, then Monkey rearranged the words asking where to find what in order to create new sentences. Then Monkey made a train of words from one end of the room to the other marching across each word gleefully as we recited the story. The other twin tried to pipe in from across the room and was told to zip it. The forgotten Fourth loitered outside the room and was sent to her room.

And now every night Monkey runs to the word-covered note cards, positively dances with tapping feet as we organize and order them on the floor. Monkey then draws robots and figures with chosen words written across their chests, like for, two, who, we and see, words that taste good and look like small clusters of coils and sticks and rounds.

I sit in wonder and watch this child turn and open up the closet that is Monkey’s own brain and dig through old helium balloons and stuffed animals and all the detritus in a hoarder’s brain-closet in search of the word or the letter or the sound shoved to the back corner under mismatched slippers, wriggling under memories of Christmas or swim parties. I don’t know what it will look like when Monkey wants to write about Ernest Hemingway or Hitler or the life cycle of a sea worm. It might not be pretty. It might be just plain ugly. Or it might be gorgeous poetry.

Three robots November 2014

Three robots
November 2014

For now I watch as Monkey digs out the pile of shimmering, crinkled letters tossed aside in his brain, presses out the wrinkles and hands me a word positively shivering with wonder.

“Dats… um… ‘and‘, Mama?” he chirps.

Reading and writing will happen on Monkey’s own incredibly complex and original terms. And right now that looks like pure, inspired  joy.

(And because literary milestones, no matter how small or imagined, ought to be feted, let me report, this is my 100th post. Take that, Peekabbo Puppy.)

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17 comments on “On Learning to Read, A Study in Adjusting Expectations

  1. kellylmckenzie
    November 17, 2014

    Such a refreshing read. How I wish I’d spent more time helping my Monkey with reading way back when. Quiet and “no trouble” the teachers tended to pay less attention. It was later – about grade 5 that I realized we needed to do more work in that department. Nice work Mom! Hang in there.

    • jgroeber
      November 22, 2014

      Ah, thank you for the support! Sometimes it’s beyond frustrating and he’s sloooooow and out there. I wonder if anyone’s home, right? And then yesterday he wrote a sentence and illustrated it. A sentence!!! “I see me.” Which seems existential somehow. At any rate, it all goes in there somewhere and hopefully the good outweighs the bad.

  2. sbhansen2014
    November 17, 2014

    Love this post. My middle kiddo had an unusually complex brain…deeply understanding some things, weirdly missing general stuff…it was hard to know how to help him because I never knew what level he really was at! Cool memories looking back, though, because it’s all so interesting to see how kids from the same parents can turn out so different! Good job! 🙂

    • jgroeber
      November 22, 2014

      I love having twins for exactly that reason. I mean, they’re TWINS! And yet so very, very different. And it’s the complex brains that perhaps will have the most offer. Or at least, that’s what I’m banking on. 😉
      Thank you for the comment.

  3. Jenn Berney
    November 20, 2014

    I swear, Monkey and Smoke are leading parallel lives. Delayed Rs: check. Fist-grip: check. And I nearly LOL’d over the last name comment because twice this week someone has asked Smoke his last name and he’s given them a blank stare. I swear he used to know it!

    • jgroeber
      November 22, 2014

      How’s your gross motor skill going? Because that’s still a bit shady. Although Monkey tore up the soccer field this fall, so there’s that. Somehow though, the complexity leaves me with more to hang my love on.
      I bet they’d totally pick each other as best friends. 😉

  4. Jenn Berney
    November 26, 2014

    Well, Smoke’s a total klutz and accident prone, but he can climb like nobody’s business, and he seems to be able to hit a ball with a bat, so the jury’s still out.

  5. Anna Spanos
    December 5, 2014

    Wait, seriously – how long am I going to be reading those board books? I’ve started intentionally losing some of them…
    And can you tell I’m catching up on all the posts I’ve missed? Love doing this blog binge of your work 🙂

    • jgroeber
      December 20, 2014

      Can you tell I’m going through and catching up on embarrassingly old comments?! And those board books are still around for awhile in my house. But it’s worth it to finally hear them actually read you a book (albeit a board book they’ve memorized!)

  6. elmediat
    May 11, 2015

    Looks like you have a kinetic tactile learner on your hands. 🙂 They organize spatially and link ideas & events to place & action. Totally different way of processing and organizing information. Bet he would be better with a tablet than with static paper, where he can move the words on the screen. Does the classroom have a smart board ?

    Your efforts are wonderful. It is demanding working with young minds that process and express themselves in ways that our society and education system finds challenging. The kids are not “challenged”/disabled”, it is the underfunded education system that is challenged & disabled.

    Best of luck. 🙂

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2014 by in The Children, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .

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