What a Grandma Learned from a Second Grade Book Group
Pedro arrived on Zoom in a pirate’s hat and a mask (the non-medical kind with eye holes). His little sister puts her hands over the camera, and then does a little dance for us, raising her skirt to show us her underpants. Pedro is VERY patient with his sister. Grace joins Zoom in her school room at home, dressed in pink sparkles. Don’s mom is making sure he’s set up for Zoom and has the book we’re reading. Each of these is a second grader reading at a fourth grade level. I am the reading group facilitator. They are eight. I am 77.
Grace is my granddaughter. We don’t say this in the group. Don knows this, but I’m pretty sure Pedro does not! Grace’s mother asked me to manage this high level (for second graders) reading group with the help and advice of the school’s reading teacher. As her mother said, “There is little enough individual attention paid to any kid in this Zoom world of school. I want to make sure Grace and her peers get a little extra from their reading group.
What could be so difficult, I wondered? I have always been an avid reader. I belong to two book groups both of which are populated by exceptional women and men. I have been a teacher, albeit of graduate level adult learners, and a coach. How could I fail at this?
The reading teacher gave me worksheets. She suggested a first book. I read the book (on an electronic collection of books for elementary school students). I assigned roles to each of the three Bookworms (the name of the book group; their choice). Off we went.
Except it wasn’t that easy. After we discussed Fiona’s Luck (about Irish leprechauns) and a chapter book about talking dogs, Pedro and Don wanted to read chapter books with no pictures. They either wanted to read about Greek mythology, or fantasy stories like Harry Potter. Don had already read all of Harry Potter. Grace wanted to read about teenaged girls.
I suggested they each read a book of their own choice and report to the group about what they read. In the next meeting, they were only marginally interested in each others’ choices. Pedro read about Greek Mythology. Don read about a talking animal family. Grace read about teenaged girls.
All of this took about three months. Don had been in Asia during this time and connecting first thing in the morning for him. Grace and Pedro were connecting in the late afternoon in California. Sometimes Pedro forgot to join. Sometimes Don had to leave early for school. It was a mess.
I was on the verge of giving up. My step-daughter (Grace’s mother) intervened and tried to engage both the reading teacher and the children’s school librarian in a search for a book they’d all enjoy. The reading teacher came up with a good possibility, but I didn’t have access to the software that allowed me to read the book and the librarian said I couldn’t have it.
With Ellen’s help (my step-daughter’s), I accessed the book through my local library and the Bookworms are reading it together now. It is a book that engages all three of them. It is a story of three girls visiting their estranged mother in Oakland, California at the time of the Black Panthers.
I’ve been at this now for more than four months. I’ve learned some things I never in my life expected to learn.
- Just because I am old, or just because I am a teacher, or both, I do not automatically command respect. Don has no trouble telling me he thinks he can pronounce or define words better than I can. This has been surprising to me. We live in a pretty affluent California suburb and all of these kids have moms and dads who are present and paying attention. The kids themselves have minimal attention spans. If we were sitting around a table or reading in a circle at physical school, would this be different?
- From the time I started reading adult novels or studying non-fiction in high school, I have paid no attention to children’s books. I have assumed that they were beneath me. Now I read the Childrens Book section of the New York Times Book Review every Sunday. I’ve found that there are quite a few books I’ve put on my own reading list. Children’s books deal with race, politics, economics, gender identification, and domestic abuse. It is by no means all Dick, Jane and Spot anymore.
- I’ve congratulated myself about being good at facilitation since the last decade of my corporate career. I was responsible for ongoing learning in those companies — about leadership mostly, but also about personal growth. Others told me I was good at it. I need to reassess this in terms of second graders. It is not always clear to me how to engage them or what lines to draw where discipline is concerned. Is it OK for me to email Pedro’s mother and ask her to keep little sister out of the room when Pedro is in book group? I don’t know.
- I started this mostly as a favor to Ellen, my step-daughter. I thought it would be fun. I’ve tried other new things for fun during the pandemic. This seemed an easy opportunity and a way to have a different relationship with Grace, maybe a deeper one. It has turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. I’ve spent time before and after the actual once-a-week meetings reading, noting new words I didn’t think they knew, forming questions to ask like: what is a leprechaun, what is the word that describes giving human characteristics to dogs and pigs, who were the Black Panthers? The three high level readers do not necessarily appreciate me or what I want to add to their reading comprehension. So far they tolerate me and my queries. I can live with this. I’m not a quitter. But I have to say that it is less the highlight of my week than I thought it might be when we began.