As a young teacher, I was forced to use basal readers with my 4th graders, and have at least three reading groups—unbelievably referred to in faculty meetings as the three reading levels—Bluebirds, Robins, and Crows. None really fit any of my students, and I got tired of hearing how father and mother gathered the whole family, including the dog for a picnic in the country. Believe me that was a big stretch for basal families, who were usually confined to the area behind a white picket fence.
What I did
I managed to get my hands on a box of assorted paperbacks, with multiple copies, which were in a storeroom. I think they were labeled Library, but the dust labeled them mine. It had some great titles, as well as great authors. I think it was actually for a program called Great Books. Well, I shanghaied that box. Then I did something, which teachers have done forever—I reached into my and bought some new, fresh paperbacks, again in multiple copies. I finished off the collection by visiting our small school library, and lugged back all the books I was allowed to carry out. I was young, naïve, and didn’t think beyond doing what I thought was a good idea and in my mind the right thing.
I collected all the basal readers and shelved them. Then I shared the books I’d collected with my students, and began my own individualized reading program. Most students chose appropriate levels, while some needed help. It was the usual, good readers choosing easier books and poorer readers choosing higher-level books. I never said no to a book, but always suggested students take another—at a more appropriate reading level. By using center activities, I found that I could conference students pretty effectively, as well as individualize reading instruction and assignments. Kids devoured the books, my non-readers became readers, and specific student interests developed.
My students loved Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and went absolutely bonkers for Robert Newton Peck, author of A Day No Pigs Would Die, Soup, and Soup and Me. I began contacting nearby authors to see if they might visit my classroom of readers. Maurice Sendak turned me down; he enjoyed writing for kids, but not presenting in front of them. But I didn’t give up, and called Robert Newton Peck. Mr. Peck’s answer was “Sure, should I bring my horse?” I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could handle the horse. He agreed to come, and even bring books. Peck said he’d speak to the school, as well as my class, so I set that up. Board members and administrators from other buildings wanted to be there—pretty thrilling stuff. Things were working out—or so I thought—I was soon to discover that rocking the reading boat had unforeseen consequences.
A Day My Teaching World Stood Still
On the very morning Robert Newton Peck was to arrive, my principal came to my room and escorted me to his office. He was a WWII veteran, tattoos and all, with a knack for very colorful language. Well, he laced into me, replacing subject, verb and adjectives with a few choice and colorful words. “Who do you think you are to change the way students were reading in his building.” He explained that my insubordination was grounds for dismissal. “Get those basal readers back in that class, and get out of my office!” Again, that’s the non-Navy version. I was devastated.
I’ve spent other head-in-hands days in my career, but that was the first—and it was a very emotional beating. I went back to my class, and continued preparing for the day. My partner teacher asked me what had happened. She was planning her own basal reading revolution. I told her, and my teaching heart shattered all over again.
Robert Newton Peck Arrives
Robert Newtown Peck walked into my classroom, wearing a cowboy hat, and actually had to bend his head to get through the door. He stood well above the classroom chalkboard. Peck was carrying his book Soup, and when he spoke to my class it was a gentle story—telling us things about himself, writing, and the characters in his book. He answered all questions, and even told us about new books he was thinking and writing. They’d heard me read, but when Peck read, you could hear the love he had for his own characters.
Lunch with Robert Newton Peck
Lunch separated the classroom from the afternoon school-wide presentation. My partner teacher and I took Peck’s advice, and we found a spot outside, and sat down for lunch. All three of us sat on some rocks, ate, and talked. After some chatter about characters in his books, he looked at both of us and said, “OK, what’s going on?” My partner teacher shared that my reading program had gotten me into some hot water with the principal. Peck said something about it being the reason he had visited, and that things tend to work out.
The School Presentation
The principal held the microphone and introduced Robert Newton Peck to the school, board members, administrators, and parents. Peck towered above him as he reached out to take the microphone. When he had the mic, Peck started with, “Sir, did you actually pay money for that tie?” Everyone roared. The tie was awful, but I didn’t know where this was heading. The principal’s face turned red as he backed off. And then, Robert Newton Peck talked books—real books—and basal readers. He talked about his books of course, but it was more about books read by students, and he used my class as an example. I’m not sure if all there knew what they were listening to, but I did.
The next day, the principal again escorted me to his office—saying nothing. I was certain it would be for more of a tongue lashing, as well as an order to pack up. Instead, in his office, he asked me to sit, and he quietly said, “I have to eat crow” I really didn’t know the expression, so was glad when he continued. It turned out that after meeting with the superintendent and the board—they had decided to go in my individualized reading direction. “They want you to keep doing what you’re doing.”
I still remember that uneasy smile the principal gave me as I left his office. Again, my partner teacher wanted to know all. The next week, she collected her basals, and set up her classroom like mine. Not everyone in the building changed, but the ones that didn’t were now in the hot seat to do it.
I’d like to think that Robert Newton Peck had something to do with the Day My Reading Program Didn’t Die. I know that I only used basal readers as supplemental resourses from then on.