Sparking Up Storytime

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Imagine yourself reading a picture book to students. If you’re a good sideways or upside down reader, you can keep the pictures in view the whole time.  You may use different voices for each character, using inflection the way a chef uses a knife. A little library instruction may start or end the session : ‘What does the author do?’, ‘The illustrator?’. You might even draw attention to how the cover does this or that. But have you ever discussed the gutters or layout?  How about the typography or endpapers? Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Reading Picture Books with Children : How to Shake up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See does exactly that.  In association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Lambert has developed the Whole Book Approach, a dialogic method used to read with students, not to students.

If the thought of opening up what can be a fairly controlled and practiced performance scares you – don’t worry. Lambert takes you through the deconstruction of a picture book, showing how the sum of the parts is more than the book itself. This gives the librarian new tools in interpreting the author and illustrator’s intentions for the story. Inspired by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenewine’s Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), Dowd opens up the storytime to include what she describes as ‘See, Hear and Say Reading’. The elements of the picture book itself serves as prompts for questions during the reading of the story. Storytimes can become conversation times, ripe with enriching experiences where students themselves are actors on the text, not just an audience.

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Along with new knowledge of what formatting can add to texts, Lambert also includes instructions on how to create a Whole Book Approach to storytime. Working to create a welcoming interactive storytime with you as the storyteller shifting intention from performing to discussion is a major first step. For some of us, (me included!) letting go can be scary. What happens if complete chaos ensues and of course, that’s when the head of school decides to do a pop-in. Actually, using the visual thinking strategy questions support student engagement with the text. A simple, ‘what’s going on in this picture’, can lead to increased child interest. Allowing the students’ spontaneous questions and reactions to drive the discussion creates authentic learning and deeper engagement with the book as a whole, instead of just the storyline or your knock-out performance.

As a performer at heart, I was more than a little concerned trying this method. However, the Whole Book Approach has become a trusted tool in my belt. While there are times when a performance style reading is appropriate, increased interaction during storytime with students is optimal. The most important thing is to establish a ‘question and response welcome’ environment, or students may continue to be content as an audience. Once that dam breaks, be prepared to be as engaged in the conversations as the students. Don’t be afraid to make them work – and allow ambiguity to be a member of the crowd too. A properly placed ‘I don’t know – what do you think’ may broaden their minds exponentially. For those of you looking at state standards, these discussions are rich with “key ideas and details/concepts”, “craft and structure” and “integration of knowledge and ideas”.

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If you are intrigued with learning how to read with rather than to children, please make sure to check our Lambert’s book (book description on amazon but order through an independent book store!) as well as her website. Teaching near Boston, I was lucky enough to bring Megan Dowd Lambert to our campus for professional development. While it was only 90 minutes, many of my teachers remarked that it was one of the most interesting and useful pds they’ve had in a long time (ok – for some that’s not a big reach!). Perhaps a better indicator is that the two copies I purchased for our professional collection have both gone missing – and I’ve been begged to replace them. To a librarian, that indicates worth. Don’t take my word for it, check out Lambert’s website and see if this might be a good addition to your storytimes.