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I learned to read by way of phonics in the first grade. First, I learned the individual letters and their sounds; from letters and sounds, I moved to individual words; from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to pages, to stories. I learned to read by building up the parts—from bottom to top. Reading specialists would say I was a parts-to-whole reader. Some would say that phonics gets the credit. I slowly and carefully put the puzzle together piece by piece. In school, I read every assignment, every chapter, every set of comprehension questions at the end of chapters, every spelling list, every grammar assignment. I read everything I was told to read; I got good grades and graduated at the top of my high school class.

One problem: I hated to read. I read only the exact number of pages assigned; I never took a book home to read for pleasure. I went to college and continued the same pattern. I spent every free moment in the library, got good grades, graduated with honors in literature, and yet I still hated to read.

When my children were babies, I started to read to them. The baby books said I should, so I did. With our first child, Dawn, something started to change: I loved the big black-and-white checkered book, The Real Mother Goose. I thoughtWinnie the Pooh had been written just for me. By the time we got to Charlotte’s Web, I was hooked on books. I used to secretly read The Secret Garden even when Dawn was asleep. With our son, Bo, I broadened my literary base. I probably have read The Three Little Pigs several thousand times, and I still huff and puff with vigor. Pecos Bill was the highlight of Bo’s preschool years at home. From there he moved on to BMX magazines, and we both became authorities on racing bikes. After BMX magazines, he moved on to motorcycle books. From there, he jumped right into Stephen King and left me in the dust. It was at this point in my life that I had to find my own books to read. I was probably about thirty years old.

When did Dawn and Bo learn to read? I have no idea, but it was before kindergarten. One day, Dawn came home from kindergarten crying because the librarian wouldn’t let her check out The Secret Garden. The librarian said it was too hard for kindergartners and only third graders could have it. The same librarian would only let the students check out only one book at a time, a rule that Dawn hated. One day, she checked out her one allotted book, shoved three more inside her T-shirt, and headed for the exit. She had detention for a week. (This meant that we all had detention for a week, as we lived in the country an hour away from school.)

Dawn and Bo learned to read the opposite way that I did. Reading specialists would say that they were whole-to-part readers. They looked at the picture of the whole puzzle first and then put the pieces together. Do they love to read? Yes. Do they read for pleasure? Yes.

When I first started to notice all of this, it seemed like a contradiction. How could my kids possibly learn to read if they didn’t do the same thing I had done? Didn’t I need to teach them the sounds, the letters, the words first? However, it was clear to me that they were not interested in the parts. They wanted the whole story again and again and again. Since that time, I have been very interested in the various ways that children learn to read and read to learn. This is what triggered my interest in holistic and critical teaching and learning. It seems that many kids who were read to as little children learn to read and love to read. Homes with books and ideas and love seem to produce kids who love to read – except for Jonathan, who was a twelve-year-old contradiction in my educational space.

In the first two editions of this book, I shared the story of Jonathan, who had it all: a family, love, food, fun, and books, books, books. Everyone read and was read to. Jon went to school and got even more-more books, curriculum, teachers, and fun. Still he struggled with reading; his family continued to read great books with him; they talked through all of the content of the curriculum. Jon knew lots, and he knew it all in two languages. He carried his knowledge around in his head, and he had many other talents. In addition, he was a great citizen of the schools. Still, he did not decode reading until the fifth grade. When he learned to read, it was because of a program that was the antithesis of my best judgment. From Jonathan I had to unlearn much of what I thought to be true. He taught me that one-size-does-not-fit-all when it comes to reading, and teaching, and learning. Yes, kids with books learn to read, but we must still be alert to the exceptions. We must also hear the whispering of the juxtaposition. Jonathan is the whispering of the juxtaposition for me. He is the voice of the other. Jonathan teaches me to keep learning from the opposites of my beliefs.

The Whispering Continues

Just when I thought the whispering of the juxtaposition had accomplished its task, it returns to sit on my shoulder with yet another lesson to unlearn about literacy and life. This time it is even closer to home: my grandson, Wyatt, age seven as I write.

Potter Pedagogy

Like Jonathan, Wyatt has it all-family, love, food, fun, and books. Recently, he and his little bother and sister have been consumed with the Harry Potter series. When I say “consumed,” I mean that their mom (whom I have loved since the day I birthed her thirty-five years ago) read the entire series aloud twice in only a few short months. As she wrote to me in a letter,

The kids and I have entered new worlds together, delighting in what we have found. Through the books we’ve discovered a new vocabulary, which now has become our familial code language in love. If one of them is having a rough day and needs love or just wants to express love to me, they will come to sit on my lap, reach up to grab my nose and says, “Got your conk.” Peeves the poltergeist tortures the “wee student beasties” by doing this one evening in the halls of Hogwarts. This scene tickled our fancy to no end as we read curled up on Wyatt’s bed that evening. It has become a part of our family rhythms of reaching out to the other. This saying has become synonymous with “I love you.”

Is there magic in these books? Certainly. Are there elements of good and evil? Yes. Of course, but I’d much rather discuss the relevance of bravery as opposed to wickedness within the confines of a story, to be discussed together, than have my children see people toting machine guns on the front page of the paper daily. Through story we gain context for reality, as we talk about truths that are too large for mere facts to fully encompass.

However, in spite of these months and years of books and love, Wyatt was a very reluctant reader in the first grade. Like Jonathan, he carried an amazing amount of knowledge in his head and could express it well with a vast expanse of oral language, but he did not decode, which has primacy in first grade. All my years of saying, “Just keeping reading with the kids,” again was called into question. However, as any one who has ever experienced a child not learning to read when he is supposed-to knows, it is terrifying. Where on earth did we ever get the idea that all kids need to learn to read at the same age, much less in the same way?

The Path Pokémon

Somewhere between grit and grace, I took a deep breath and told Dawn, Wyatt’s mom, “Just keep reading with the kids,” as she agonized over him not reading in first grade. Her response to me follows:

Hell has officially frozen over. This is what I muttered to myself as I stood in line about to purchase my first pack of Pokémon cards for Wyatt. Pokémon intuitively appalls me. Wyatt’s peers have been collecting the cards for years, but I refused to buy any for Wyatt.

“Mom, you and all the girls’ moms are the only ones who don’t allow Pokémon,” Wyatt told me earnestly one day.

I remained unmoved.

Then one day one of Wyatt’s friends came over to play. He brought his binder full of Pokémon cards to show Wyatt. I remember thinking, “Oh, no. How quickly can I get them away from those cards and onto the trampoline?”

Except that Wyatt spent the next two hours reading those cards. He and his friend sat on the living room floor going over every letter and word in detail. As I dried dishes in the next room, I became aware of Wyatt’s efforts to read all of those cards. Wyatt usually shies away from any attempt at individual reading. Now he sat poring over letters and words, trying to make meaning.

“He’s reading!,” I thought to myself.

The next day I purchased Pokémon cards and a collecting card binder. Wyatt has been reading those cards daily ever since. His literacy has grown considerably.

Mom, just like you had to unlearn many of your assumptions when Jonathan learned to read, I’m currently in the midst of unlearning much of what I’ve assumed about what constitutes appropriate routes to literacy. Paulo Friere counseled us to follow what holds meaning for the students. No one path exists; only multiple, intertwining paths to literacy and learning. I’m in the midst of taking a leap of faith and following Freire’s wisdom, even when the path involves Pokémon.

Captain Underpants to the Rescue

Critical pedagogy is a challenge to our assumptions. We are often resistant. The whispering of the other can be jarring. Dawn’s words to me about Wyatt’s literacy development challenged many of her cherished assumptions about “high-quality” literature. On the surface, this is a story of one boy as he learns to read, but it is also a story of one mom unlearning–never a pleasant experience. Dawn’s words to me continue:

Just when I thought I could sink no lower than reading Pokemon to the kids, Captain Underpants became a part of our lives. I have read the J.R.R. Tolkien and Redwall series. We’ve read the Harry Potter series, umpteen Norse, Celtic, and Southwestern myths and legends. The kids love the tales of adventures, and I love the exquisite use of language of the writers, and I am proud of the rich vocabulary these books gave me. However, what they didn’t seem to do was to teach Wyatt to read.

“Honey,” you told me over the phone a month ago, “you’ve got to quit reading all that hard stuff to them. Those books are too intimidating for Wyatt to pick up and try to read himself.”

That is when the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey began arriving in our mailbox. I must admit, had it been anybody other than you sending these, I would have immediately donated them to someone else. Wyatt was beside himself with glee. Finally, he too owned a Captain Underpants book, previously spoken of in only hushed and reverent tones when I was out of earshot.

We sat down to read. I picked up the book gingerly between the tips of my thumb and index finger, much as one would pick up some foul vegetable that had been left in the fridge far too long. I probably even had the same expression on my face.

“I cannot believe I’m reading this,” I thought. I took a deep breath and repeated silently to myself, “Let go and let Grammie.”

And so we began. First, I read three pages for every forced paragraph, that I could get Wyatt to read. Within days, Wyatt’s reluctance to attempt to read lessened dramatically, and we were now taking turns: one paragraph read by him, for every two pages I read. Within two weeks we were taking turns every other page.

“He’s reading!” I thought to myself, “He’s reading about some weird little dude saving the world in his BVD’s, but he’s actually reading!”

I sat on the bed every night and tried to muffle my giddiness behind nonchalance, as Wyatt sniffs out performance expectations better than any Labrador-and then promptly shuts down.

“Mom,” I called you, “it’s the darnest thing I’ve ever seen. He’s reading!”

Last night when I walked into Wyatt’s room, he greeted me holding up the Hercules book his brother checked out from the library.

“Mom, tonight I’m going to read to you.”

“Great, Wyatt!” and I climbed up onto his bed, and he read this book to me that he’d never seen before in his life. Of course, I help him with words when he stumbles. He is a definitely sight word reader. Phonics and phonetic rules confuse him almost as much as they do his mother.

Apparently a twisted little, underwear-wearing superhero taught my son to read. He swooped into our lives at just the right moment. This was the month Wyatt learned to read. Who would’ve thought being able to read “poo poo” was the key to literacy?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Captain Underpants is about to save the world from the attack of the talking toilets. Wyatt has promised not to keep me in suspense any longer and read it to me.

“Tra-la-la,” which is what Captain Underpants says when he goes off on his adventure to rid the world of evil and talking toilets.

Jonathan and Wyatt teach us that there is no one perfect way to literacy. Families and teachers need to do whatever is necessary to lead kids to books. And the power of literacy will open the door to the great diversity of thought.