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Chronicles of a mentorship: a book bag partnership becomes successful via interactive professional dialogue.

The book bag literacy partnership is a multi-faceted collaboration between school and home, and between children and adults. It uses literature to elicit readers' responses and perspectives. Designed for children from infancy to the elementary school years, the book bag is a successful educational practice--a learning experience that can be enjoyed by everyone. For the authors, bringing the book bag home for a group of 5th-graders also resulted in a provocative professional journey.

For the answers to the above questions, we invite you on a vicarious journey--first backward, and then forward--as we address the following questions: What constitutes a book bag partnership? How did this particular partnership evolve? How did the teacher confront the unexpected challenges that are so inherent in the culture of schools? How did children and family members respond to the project? What did we learn? How did this remarkable journey enhance our growth as educators and as collaborators? How are we enhancing the outreach? We hope that our "travelogue" inspires you to make the trek yourself, and enables you to experience the exhilarating joy and satisfaction that we did.

What Is a Book Bag?

ROSE: The book bag is a rich tool for involving families in a literacy partnership with their children. The book bag project nurtures children's literacy learning and engages all the participants in interactive literacy activities, allowing children to benefit from shared responses when they read with supportive adults. Each family plays a significant role in enhancing the book-related school experiences when students bring the book bags home. Typical book bag contents include:

1. A Book--a quality piece of literature thoroughly enjoyed in the classroom. Books usually have a special focus--math, science, multicultural, music, art, or nature.

2. A Child Draw/Write Journal--a blank journal (teacher--or parent-made) that includes a page for each child to record, pictorially and in writing, his or her book reading experiences. The child's endeavors become even more empowering when the experiences are shared with peers at school.

3. A Family Response Journal--a smaller blank journal in which parents record their comments and reflections about the literacy engagement at home.

4. A Prop--a story-related visual object such as a stuffed animal, puppet, puzzle, story board, etc. The purpose is to stimulate play, interaction, intergenerational oral language exchange, imagination, and enjoyment of the book. Rashmi included newspaper clippings to make the connections between fiction and real-life stories.

A Long-distance Partnership Evolves

ROSE: The conception and inception of this long distance partnership were somewhat coincidental. In the spring of 2001, I was the co-editor of the "Classroom Idea-Sparkers" column in Childhood Education. During this time, Rashmi Kumar submitted a write-up for inclusion in the column. Impressed with her enthusiasm for teaching, and for writing about teaching, I encouraged her to continue the correspondence and share more creative ideas. Shortly afterward, I invited Rashmi to explore the possibility of launching the book bag project in her classroom. Over many years, my work with this endeavor had proven to be a most worthwhile family literacy tool.

RASHMI: I was touched by the sincere interest and kindness of a person who only knew me from a distance. Rose was eager to introduce me to an idea that could expand the teaching and learning opportunities in my classroom as well as reach out to the families. In Rose's classroom(s), the literacy partnership had been a tremendous success, and she had guided many teachers in establishing this sound literacy practice in their classrooms. Now, she was willing to guide me through the process. I am always on the lookout for ideas that build my students' vocabulary, give them opportunities and resources to connect with their previous knowledge, and above all steer them toward print and its meaning (Heilman, Blair, & Rupley, 2002). I was intrigued. The very next day, I asked her to send me details and any supporting literature that she had.

ROSE: Thus, the amazing journey began--mine with Rashmi; Rashmi's with her students and their families; and finally, Rashmi's with the school and her colleagues. "Professional partnerships are important in initiating programs and in keeping them growing" (Kulleseid & Strickland, 1989, p. 33).

Delighted by Rashmi's eagerness to investigate, I immediately sent her details to peruse, so she could take charge of the form and the pace of the project. From many years of sharing and demonstrating the "how-to" of this family literacy project, I firmly believe that teacher enthusiasm and ownership are essential to its success. Teachers bring commitment to standards, knowledge of the students, and understanding of school and family cultures to their work. Teachers also harness their expertise and creativity to create optimum learning situations. All the above elements are critical to providing students with rich opportunities for expanding knowledge and deepening their understanding of the word and the world.

School Culture and Challenges

RASHMI: I was encouraged to give serious thought to this idea as I read the articles and examples of implementation by other teachers with whom Rose was working. Included in the package was a list of book bags that Rose routinely made available for borrowing. My gut feeling was that this project had the potential to become a meaningful addition to my repertoire of literacy activities. Yet intuition--however strongly felt--is not a sufficient basis on which a teacher should make instructional decisions for the classroom. Also, I had lingering doubts. All the examples Rose had sent me demonstrated the implementation of book bags in early childhood classrooms, and I was teaching in upper elementary classrooms. Among the deliberations that beckoned my attention were--What kind of changes will I have to make before I move ahead with it? How will this align with the overall goals for the students? Will I be able to convince the school administrators?

I started by organizing all the necessary materials to present to my principal. Included in the proposal were the project's prospects and process, and the assurances from Rose that she would "walk" me through the implementation. I included some current research affirming the benefits of reading aloud to upper elementary and middle school children. My school principal approved the project, and even offered to provide funds. However, she strongly advised keeping participation in this home-school literacy engagement optional, thus giving families a choice in the matter. Finally, I was ready to make the book choice. Choosing the appropriate book was an interactive process of careful planning and investigation, supported by the wisdom of experience and thoughtful advice. Rose and I communicated regularly through letters and occasional phone calls (see Figure 1 for details).
Figure 1

Throughout the decision-making process, Rashmi had some questions;
Rose responded to each of the questions and never hurried the
process. Rose was always willing to act as a sounding board for
ideas and respond to questions.

RASHMI: What advice do you give teachers about the choices in book

ROSE: It works best when teachers and children love the book, and
read it together, and often, in the classroom. A positive experience
is thus ensured for everyone.

RASHMI: In your experience, how do parents respond to writing

(This time, Rose refers Rashmi to one of the writings sent earlier.
Rashmi finds out that the experience of writing in the book bag
partnerships is unique from child to child, and from family to family.
Rashmi finds out that mothers wrote most often; mothers and fathers
wrote together occasionally; fathers wrote by themselves rarely;
followed by even lower participation by non-family members (Merenda,

RASHMI: My students come from multi-dimensional families--dual-income
families, children splitting time between divorced parents, children
living with adults other than parents, and foster families. How will
they respond to extra reading?

ROSE: Presentation is important. Introduce the project as an
opportunity that allows families to spend quality time with their
children while they participate in meaningful engagements with
reading, writing, listening, speaking, playing, and drawing.

ROSE: Each piece in the project is important--the presentation of the idea to families, the book choice, and the methods and purpose of eliciting readers' responses. Routines should be clearly defined and established. The literature choice guides the interactive experiences--reading, writing, drawing, retelling, and playing with words and ideas. Late in the winter, Rashmi and I began to dialogue more frequently via Email. Rashmi is curious, persistent, and intense. Most impressive was her determination to bring the book bag project to a loftier level.

Persistence and Thorough Research Strengthen the Process

RASHMI: I searched for more ideas, and spent time in our school library and on the Internet. In general, poetry is a genre that does not get enough attention during grades 4 to 7. The idea of using poetry for literary activities seems to be more prevalent during the preschool and early elementary grades, and then picks up momentum again in high school. I also wanted to choose a book with content that would have wide appeal among the students, and would allow family members of all ages to make connections with the subject matter.

ROSE: I have seen again and again that a teacher's determination becomes the deciding factor behind the successful implementation of new ideas in classrooms.

RASHMI: For starters, I settled upon two books--Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman (1988) and My Parents Think I'm Sleeping by Jack Prelutsky (1985). Both books inspire powerful imagery, create meaning through rhyme and rhythm, and allow readers to connect with their prior experiences. While many of my students are good readers, I know from continuous observations and collection of anecdotal records that, given the opportunities and supportive resources, they can become great readers. Many of these students are fortunate in having been read to at home when they were younger. Yet, as ample research indicates, parents often stop reading aloud with their children when the youngsters reach the upper elementary grades or as soon as they become independent readers. Conversations in my classroom indicated that this was true for that particular group of students.

I finally had come to a point where I could see what the book bags would look like in my classroom. I was going to use these books to draw children and the adults around them into shared reading and collective responses. The book bags would "visit" each child's home twice. On the first visit, the parent and child would read, recite, write, and draw together (see Figure 2). This would be followed by group work in class that would incorporate, and be based upon, the students' and their associative adults' responses. With the second visit of the book bag, I would solicit the adults to offer feedback and reflection on the interactive literacy activities taking place in the classroom. I knew I had several tasks ahead--documenting the alignment of the project with standards, getting parents and caregivers on board, and giving students a very different kind of "homework" than they were used to as 5th-graders.


Shared Responsibilities Among Parents and Teachers Transform Children Into Readers and Writers

While Rashmi is making plans for her debut with the book bag, Rose sends out her annual newsletter. This brief newsletter goes to teachers who are working with Rose and who have shown an interest in the project, and to those, like Rashmi, who are new to the idea.

The newsletter from the winter of 2003 wraps the readers in a cloak of imagery: "Book bags accomplish so many jobs. They enrich the power of children to be readers and writers, dramatizers and puppeteers, thinkers and organizers.... Outdoors, the tree branches are bare and cold. But, the bookshelves at school, the library, or even the bookstore are not. Peruse and browse, then make choices and plan to put your book bag together" (Merenda, newsletter, Winter 2003).

The newsletter includes examples of how different teachers have adopted the book bag project to meet the needs of their students and classrooms. Rose includes an incentive for newcomers to the field of education and for hesitant educators:

"How can I help? One way is by sharing book bags, lovingly made and ready to come to your classrooms. A phone call, a note, is all you need to arrange for borrowing one from my collection of favorite book bags." (Merenda, newsletter, Winter 2003)

RASHMI I began by sending the parents an invitational letter. And then, I described the project to the students. The students were delighted, and most of the parents quickly returned eager acceptances.

ROSE: The project proceeds in both similar and diverse ways for each teacher. There is always an underlying common theme--young minds develop because caring adults rejoice in the students' learning.

Engaging the Parents in a Dialogue

RASHMI: Each day that the book bag went home with a student, I was excited all over again. I could not wait to read the responses and see the illustrations.

A father wrote:

When my son brought this book (Joyful Noise) to me, I remember being surprised by a poetry book about insects. After a few misadventures in the beginning, we got the hang of it. Then we couldn't stop--we went from the cicadas to the mayflies--flitting from page to page, just like insects. My wife, who had been involved elsewhere, "begged" to join in. My son read the left hand-side, and my wife and I read the right side. All through this, our older son and his friend had been playing computer games. Suddenly they burst in with curious looks on their faces. They wanted to join in. I was shocked--my older son tries to do as little as possible with books and reading. Soon, five people were reading these poems, switching partners, making new alliances each time, and having fun with words. What a wonderful evening!

At school, I would regularly schedule time to share everyone's responses. Sharing and revisiting are important components of the book bags. Often, the students would crowd around in groups, and compare the writings and drawings provoked by the literature. Students of non-English-speaking families were encouraged to act as translators on both sides of the equation. This empowered the students and their families, and enriched our classroom experiences, as we heard varied perspectives. Even though I was elated with the many successes, there were some moments of dismay. It was not easy to let go of the questions about why the families were unwilling to participate. I looked into each case in detail. The reasons were varied--parents unsure of their own literacy skills, dual-income families pressed for time, and adults who questioned the rationale of reading to 10-year-olds.

Brian's (pseudonym) father was one of the last to respond to the parent invitation that had gone home in January. It was only after a couple of gentle reminders that Brian brought the response back. I knew from the dejected form of his body that it was not good news. His father had written, "Both my wife and I work. Unless it is a graded and required project, we don't have time for such things." Over the next few days, it was apparent that Brian was feeling left out because of his parents' decisions. (Kumar, 2003)

The stress and anxiety caused by testing and grades often manifest themselves around kitchen tables and in family rooms. In the homes of 10-year-old students, school activities were being decided by their potential to earn grades. I shared my concerns with some colleagues. I was told, "That's how things are and one just has to accept that." After a lot of deliberation, and after consulting with Rose, I sent paraphrased responses from other parents and some research to Brian's parents. I enclosed those with a note conveying that I would be glad to discuss the wholesome benefits of reading without any consideration of extrinsic rewards.

ROSE: Struck by her persistence, I asked Rashmi to document all her communication with the parents. Her reflections indicated that engaging the parents in an open discussion, while time-consuming, was becoming a critical component of this literacy project.

RASHMI: At that time, it seemed my conversations with Brian's parents continued for a long time. However, much later, I am delighted to write that the parents responded with a kind note thanking me for dialoguing with them. The day Brian brought the signed parent invitation back, he gave me a big hug and walked away. There was no need to say anything.

The Book Bag Fosters Instructional Conversation

RASHMI: Students and parents were becoming intimately involved in the multiple processes of reading, writing, listening, sharing, and drawing. Their interaction with the rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, and imagery was proving to be a powerful vehicle through which adults and children could share perspectives, opinions, questions, and ideas. Parents were able to make connections with their favorite readings and share them with their youngsters. The students were able to see how the parents used writing to express their thinking. They were even more impressed by the variety of responses each individual poem was generating among their parents.

My daughter and I both enjoyed reading the poem "Fireflies" (from Joyful Noise, Fleischman, 1988). Reading with her reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading poetry as a child. I hope this will inspire us to explore more books together.

This poem brought back wonderful summer memories for us. Our friends from England, who were here for a year, were fascinated with fireflies (they don't have fireflies in England). This poem reminds me of our friends and our friendship with them.

ROSE: I remember it was a gray Sunday afternoon in February when I received mail from Rashmi. Her reflections and the parents' responses, together, were creating new knowledge and ideas for further investigation. I asked her to examine the question, "What is making this assignment so special for the parents?"

RASHMI: I was surprised by the reactions of the parents and how meaningful participation in this project was to them. The effect on the parents was, indeed, positive. One parent wrote:

For so many years, my children have been in schools. I have always been the recipient of information, and [of] the opinions of others. I enjoyed this project more than anything my children have brought home because I was able to share how it related to my own reading.

Creating New Possibilities

RASHMI: Just about that time, I decided we were ready to explore the author's style. The students analyzed the author's usage of language, and responded to the text in multiple forms--"comments from young readers," group illustrations, charades, and 3-D models. They emulated Paul Fleischman's style to create their own poems for two voices. Students acted out their poems. Neighboring classrooms saw us having so much fun with the group enactments, and invited us to share. We were able to involve an entire group of students in reciting the poems to the drumming of desks, clapping of hands, and stomping of feet. The thunderous applause made me think of Rose--wishing she could be there to share in our joy.

As a classroom teacher, one comes across many ideas--only some work out. This project had far-reaching impact on the students' enjoyment of reading with family members and my relationship with the parents; it empowered the students and their families. The tremendous success inspired us to present the partnership at the 2004 ACEI International Conference in New Orleans, where several attendees expressed interest in learning more about the project.

The Overlapping Roles of Learners and Leaders

RASHMI: Back in my own school building, I shared the project and its intended outcomes with more colleagues. Teachers were impressed by the scope and success, yet they seemed hesitant to try it themselves. Among the reasons teachers often cited for non-participation were doubts about alignment with standards and complications in dealings with parents. Not too long ago, I had some concerns too. Fortunately, I did not back down from challenges.

The book bag project got expanded in my classes. Picture books were used to relate to core content in the classrooms, and to help students make connections between fiction and nonfiction, events and people, and history and society. The books matched the purpose. During our celebrations of Martin Luther King Day and African American history, we shared the book More Than Anything Else by Marie Bradby (1995). This time, we used open-ended questions to engage students and parents in intense discussions. Parent responses revealed their perspectives about prejudice, bias, and freedom. Students responded with personal reflections and current examples of oppression and liberation. Although it takes time, worthwhile ideas do succeed--after a year, fellow teachers reconsidered the book bag for their classrooms. Two classes sought resources and guidance. Just as Rose had extended a helping hand, now it was my turn to assume the responsibility of working with fellow educators.

ROSE: Determination, flexibility, surprises, and challenges were the key elements in our journey. Mentoring, adapting, reflection, and revision permeated the endeavor. Dialoguing regularly and consistently contributed to the effectiveness of our partnership; professional growth and collaboration affirmed our efforts. Presently, more colleagues have decided to work with Rashmi. Now, her mentoring journey will assume a new direction as she guides her colleagues and expands their roles. It is rewarding to think that the book bag literacy partnership continues to grow and enrich the lives of students, teachers, and families.


Bradby, M. (1995). More than anything else. New York: Orchard Books.

Fleischman, P. (1988). Joyful noise: Poems for two voices. New York: HarperCollins.

Heilman, A. W., Blair, T. R., & Rupley, W. H. (2002). Principles and practices of teaching reading (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Kulleseid, E. R., & Strickland, D. S. (1989). Literature, literacy, and learning. Chicago: American Library Association

Kumar, R. (2003). Chronicles. Unpublished personal journal.

Merenda, R. C. (1996). Family response journals. Writing Teacher, 9, 11-14.

Prelutsky, J. (1985). My parents think I'm sleeping. New York: HarperCollins.

Rose C. Merenda is Associate Professor Emerita, Rhode Island College, Providence. Rashmi Kumar is Teacher, Avon Grove School District, West Grove, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Kumar Rashmi
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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