Partnership Building 101: Ms. Janney’s Kids

Last month I started to share the story of St. Mary’s Barnstable, my congregation on Cape Cod, and the journey we are making into a partnership with Hyannis West Elementary School. We’ve overcome some of the hurdles we faced last month and will have several more volunteers in the school after February break. Three people will help with set-up and classroom reading on Read Across America Day (March 2), which celebrates Dr Seuss’s birthday.

This week I want to introduce you to some of the children in Ms. Janney’s classroom.

Jerome* has chocolate skin and a lithe frame. He has a need to move – always. He sits in a chair backwards, one leg between the seat and the back of the chair. He tips the chair back on one chair leg. Sometimes he goes for a whirl around the room, grabbing a pencil out of another student’s hand, or dropping to his hands and knees so it’s hard to see where he is. Ms. Janney does a balancing act – she notices everything, encourages the other children to focus on their work, and redirects Jerome, reminding him what he’s been asked to do. I’ve read with Jerome each day I’ve been in the classroom. Sometimes I sit on a tiny chair near his desk and wait for him to return. He wants attention, he knows he’ll get some from me, but he has to come back to his seat. One of my sons had trouble sitting still and staying on task when he was bored. He is a college graduate with a job at a high-tech firm. Jerome’s restlessness is familiar to me, and I want to be part of the team giving him the support he needs to become a reader

Paul* is slight with a narrow face, dark hair, and a crooked front tooth that gives him a beguiling smile. His family is from Brazil, so he speaks Portuguese. One day I didn’t understand the words he was using to describe a picture. I asked him to tell me the story in his own language and was entranced watching his eyes and facial expression. He was excited, and I told him I was sorry I didn’t speak Portuguese because I wanted to enjoy his story as much as he was. He looked surprised when I told him he knew more than I did, because I could only speak English, and he could speak two languages – English and Portuguese. Children who are learning English are often marginalized, as if they lack something essential, when a mere shift in perspective reveals them as courageous, emergent bicultural learners, ready – if we will listen and observe – to lead English-only speakers like me into our increasingly multi-lingual and multi-cultural world.

Last week as I was leaving Paul came out into the hall to give me a quick hug.

Like Jerome, Isabelle*’s skin is a warm deep brown. She wears her hair in short braids. She reads so fast she stumbles over her words. Like a toddler running down hill, her physical momentum gets ahead of her balance, but she doesn’t tumble often. When she does, I stop her and we can go back. She works really hard to get it right. She wants so badly to please me that sometimes she guesses a word that makes no sense, but because she’s not listening to the words she’s saying, she sometimes doesn’t realize the word she just said doesn’t fit.

Working with all of these students is a good reminder that learning to read is hard work.

These are just three of the children in Ms. Janney’s classroom.

When I first signed up for the six week stretch between December and February vacations I thought it was the only commitment I could make this year. Serving as AOC’s director is time consuming, and my morning with Ms. Janney’s class takes a chunk of my week. I emailed her recently to ask if it’s OK for me to come in when I’m in town, even if I can’t make it six consecutive weeks. She said I was welcome anytime, as long as she knew so she could prepare. I’ve already told her I’ll be back after break. And I’ve asked if I can stay longer, through Buddy Reading. Maybe it’s also time to dust off my Dr Seuss hat.

Next time: Why starting a partnership with a “pilot” group is a really good idea.

* To protect their privacy I have changed the names of the students I’m working with at HyWest

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