You Know You Have Their Attention When…

21 first graders miss five minutes of recess and don’t mind a bit.

I still can’t believe this talk with my daughter’s first grade classmates went this well. And I have you to thank for it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

When I first arrived in my daughter’s classroom, I discovered Ms. Teacher reading a book to the class. Actually, she was holding up a book, while the children sat on the floor and listened to a book on tape. Some were paying attention to the story, interrupting to ask questions. Other children were goofing around. Ms. Teacher was irritated and kept telling them to sit down or to listen.

To be fair to Ms. Teacher, she has to work it if she wants these kids to pay attention. If she has an off day, she’s doomed.  One length of the classroom is made entirely of windows with the most spectacular view. The playground. And I don’t know about you, but I know if I had a chance to be a first grader all over again, and I had that view, I’d be counting down the seconds until I could climb that jungle gym or fly on the swings.

All I kept thinking was, if the kids are this antsy now, what are they going to be like listening to another book and even worse, a talk about taking care of books? Before their recess? Nothing like a little internal pressure…if I failed, I’d have one embarrassed daughter and first grade mutiny. From my classroom observations, I already identified the rabble rousers. And I knew the rest would follow along. Easily. I was the only person standing in the way of recess.

I thought about Tricia’s mantra, “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” I didn’t have a choice since Ms. Teacher introduced me to the children, so I figured I’d better sit down and look each one in the eye. Just so they knew I wasn’t afraid. I especially paid attention to the rabble rousers. One of them grinned at me.

The kids were jumping up and down, they kept looking out the windows and they looked suspicious of anything I had to offer them. Thankfully, I remembered all your words of advice.

So I talked about books and how they start from dreams and ideas. Thank you to Liz in Ink and Becky Levine. Then inspired by Becky’s idea, I had the children tell me their ideas for books and wrote them down. The kids were so excited talking about the good guys (themselves, comic superheroes, and animals), the bad guys (their siblings) and problems. They kept watching the list, and were thrilled their ideas made it to paper. They raised their hands, and for the most part, were good about waiting for their turn.

When we finally had all the ideas together, I looked at the children and then asked, “Who wants to throw away their idea?” (Also Becky’s idea) Complete silence.

“What would happen if someone ripped this paper in half?”  If you ever want to see 21 first graders in shock, I’d suggest this question.  It is priceless.  

Once the kids recovered, they couldn’t wait to talk about this.  
“No, this is my idea!” said one girl, standing up, ready to defend the paper.
“I have a great idea.  Nobody better ruin it,” said a rabble rouser.
“That would be mean,” said one boy.  And all the children agreed.  By this time, the kids were all standing up, edging closer to the paper, watching my every move.  
So I talked about how these ideas turn into books,  and how books are what keeps their imagination alive.  And these children got it.  They were bright eyed and hanging onto every word.
I asked the children if they ever watched the children’s show, Charlie and Lola.  And they all smiled and said yes.  So I told them about their creator, Lauren Child, who my children adore. Quick note: If you’re curious about the pictures of me on my blog, my children were inspired to draw these pictures because of Lauren Child’s artwork.  
I then brought out a book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book by Lauren Child.  Mme T, thank you for this suggestion.  I forgot about this book and it was perfect. Thankfully, I was able to find a copy at the school library.  I wasn’t able to find Oliver Jeffer’s book, The Incredible Book Eating Boy (recommended by Anamaria and Tricia).
Chris from The Simple of the Ordinary, Jonathan, and John Mutford suggested comparing a damaged book with a clean version.  I didn’t have time to find a damaged book, so I ripped a sheet of construction paper and folded it over different pages so the children could see what they would be missing if a page was ripped.  Again, another aha! moment for them.
Then, I read the book to them.  Now I’m the type of person that loves to read books with different voices. My children love it.  So I acted the part of Herb, Goldilocks, the Three Bears.  Then there was Cinderella, the Stepmother, the Queen.  On and on I read.  And I had to ad lib a bit to hurry up the story when I realized it was almost time for recess.  
Not an eye left the book, not a sound could be heard, but my voice and the pages of the book.  I was thrilled.  I’ve never had the experience of having 42 eyes intent on a book, 21 children listening to every word, drawn into a world they could see.  It was truly inspiring.
I made up the ending, since I saw the first graders from the other classes run to the playground. I figured my daughter’s classmates would want to get bogeying.  But, nobody looked outside. They didn’t pay attention to t

heir friends lining by the windows, peering in, curious about what was happening in the classroom.  I even told them it was time for recess and instead of getting their jackets to play, the children wanted to ask questions.  Ms. Teacher finally broke the spell, probably motivated by an afternoon with a group of first graders who haven’t had a chance to release some energy.

Thank you, everyone.  You helped me make this talk on taking care of books an eye-opening experience for 21 first graders. Ms. Teacher asked me if I’d like to come back.  
“In a heartbeat,” I said.  
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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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