Monday, December 3, 2012

The Literacy Specialist

Last week I was on a tour through central Illinois leading concerts in church basements and fellowship halls for families involved in the Head Start program.

(Head Start is a federal program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.)

It was at one of these concerts that I spotted a literacy specialist doing exactly what early childhood literacy specialists do best.......looking for opportunities to help young children actively listen and make sense of the language around them and helping them learn to pay special attention to those parts of the language that are known to aid children in becoming successful readers.

I suppose this person caught my eye, at first, because he was a man.  It is still uncommon to see men working in the early childhood field and I’m always happy when there are, at least, two of us in the room!    

But what kept my attention was the way that this gentleman interacted with the child next to him. 

At one point in the concert I led everyone in one of my rhyming games. The "Poison Ivy" song. 

Poison ivy under bushes.
Poison ivy under trees.
Poison ivy in the forest.
Poison ivy on my knees.

Poison ivy makes me scratch, scratch, scratch........
Itch and scratch my knees.

In the beginning of the song I noticed the literacy specialist playfully and enthusiastically "scratching" his knees as I sang the rousing chorus. The student next to him watched him and laughed.

Then, as I sang the lines of the second verse (leading up to the chorus), I saw that the literacy specialist had tilted his head a bit and was making a point of acting as if he was concentrating closely on the words:

Poison ivy by the daisy.
Poison ivy by the rose.
Poison ivy by the flower
That I smelled with my nose.

As I sang the chorus about scratch, scratch, scratching my nose, I saw the gentleman pretend, once again, to scratch his nose.  He turned and faced the student (a young girl) and, of course, the child joyfully “scratched” her nose as well.

During the third verse the specialist would alternate, dramatically, between listening to my words (with the obvious rhyming cues) and making eye contact with the student.  It was almost as though he was saying, "Do you hear what I hear?  Listen....."  

And then, of course, he and the child excitedly "scratched" along once again.

This kind of play went on, over and over, for the five verses of the song. 

The literacy specialist, through his play, demonstrated the active part of the song to get the student's attention. But then, through his subtle cues, he also indicated that if she listened to the words she might also start to guess the rhymes before I even sang them!

Anyone watching could have seen the teaching, the learning and the laughter!

But here is the best part of the story.  The man is not a professional literacy specialist......or even a staff member at Head Start.  He is a dad.  A dad who, at that moment, was simply sitting next to his daughter and playing. 

He is fortunate enough to be involved in a program that offers opportunities for children and adults to have proximity to one other and to interact.  In my experience, adults have a natural inclination to become teachers in this way when they are sitting next to the children they care about.  And, with guidance, those caregivers not inclined to get involved can become better at doing so. 

Thankfully, there are programs all over the country that encourage this sort of proximity and interaction and, when needed, offer guidance.   Public libraries offer story times for children and the adults that care for them.  There is a wonderful program called Parents as Teachers.  And, of course, there is Head Start.

When these programs do it right, moms and dads and caregivers do the work of literacy specialists.

And, from the smiles and laughs I observed last week between that dad and his daughter, I know this:

In this instance, in his new role as a literacy specialist, that dad didn't mind going to work at all!


  1. I love watching parents and their children in moments like these. It's one of the best perks of working with families. Sounds like your show was amazing!

    1. I agree that it is the best part of the work! I can't say whether or not the concert was amazing.....but the dad was!

  2. Great post! Thank you for the public library shout out :) I have the pleasure of presenting family storytimes in a public library and I agree, it is pure joy to watch such interactions.

  3. Speaking as a child development opposed to as the guy who sings "Silly Dance Contest"....... libraries do a wonderful job, day after day, of providing (through story time programming) opportunities for exactly these types of interactions. And I am convinced that what makes them most effective is the fact that parents think, as they register, that they are signing up for something that will be fun and playful......rather than some sort of parenting workshop. And of course.....story time ends up being both!

  4. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for capturing such a positive experience. I learned of your post from a librarian in my library system and I just "shared" your thoughts on our branch Facebook page. Wonderful!

    Mary Bird
    Akron-Summit County Public Library

  5. Thanks for taking the time to comment! And thanks for sharing the piece on your Facebook page! I appreciate you mentioning the "positive" aspect. To be honest, I am more inspired myself when I see parenting like this and thought I'd try and communicate that. Maybe I'm not the only one who gets a smile from watching interactions like this.....and keeps that smile all day.

  6. Great story, Jim! Today we took our daughter to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for their family series. It was wonderful! The conductor gave information on the pieces being played, introduced some performers and their instruments, as well as gave suggestions for how we could participate/experience the music. Recalled our time seeing you play with the DuPage Symphony in Naperville, thinking you need to come do the same with the CSO! Also, during Beethoven, I looked at my daughter and said, "The time has me your thumb!" : )


    1. First of all, GREAT CHOICE to go to the CSO! And thanks for thinking of me while you were there. I would LOVE to present some of my pieces with the CSO in the future......who knows! I did work with the CSO on their "Once Upon a Symphony" program......I played a role in the creation of the opening and closing pieces of music that they use in every production. That was QUITE AN HONOR to go down there and work!

      I have an arranger, at this moment, working on some pieces for a string quartet that members of the Akron Youth Symphony are going to play along with me. That should be fun.....and will include a version of "Beethoven's Five Finger Play". Thanks again for thinking of me!