Did you ever see that movie Overboard with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? It’s one of my all-time favorites, for so many reasons. Goldie’s so wonderfully disdainful. The riches-to-rags contrast is so exaggerated. The miniature golf theme park is so whimsical. But I’ve always been struck by how the four boys go from being complete hooligans to structured, sweet kids. There’s the one scene halfway through where the four of them are with Goldie in the living room — one is playing the piano, two are doing their homework, and the youngest is reading a Batman comic book with her. “Joker’s saying ‘no!'” he cries. He legitimately sounds out words, and she’s totally engaging with him about the content.
Blegh, I thought, as an elitist pre-teen the first time I saw the film. A comic book? I’m not going to let my kids learn how to read via comic books. They’re not educational. And Batman? Superheroes? So populist. And yet, she got that kindergartener, along with his three big brothers, to start reading. The scene has stuck with me for its inherent irony. Reading = good. Comic books = bad. Or, if not bad, unacademic.
I’m sure that view is maintained in traditional circles. But Byron Center Public Schools, in Michigan, doesn’t share it. According to the post, Students Read What They Love, Develop Literacy Skills, “Byron Center educators have discarded the notion that entire grade-levels should be reading certain books at the same time in a set trajectory that goes from See Spot Run in early elementary to The Great Gatsby in high school.” The entire district has adopted a strong choice-based reading and writing program, and teach literacy via workshops adopted from The Teachers College (Columbia, NY) Reading and Writing Project. The same model has been adopted state-wide in New York, and it’s having a strong impact – all Byron Center kindergarteners, special ed and ELs included, were reading at grade level last year.
Part of the success is a simple, yet dramatic, mind shift on the part of educators. One Byron Center teacher said, “I’m not teaching reading and writing, I’m teaching the reader or the writer.” Teachers match the pace of each student, so students naturally come to points where new literacy skills can be taught and applied.