Literacy Leader Interview: Robin Smith
by Mary Brigid Barrett
“My daily thrills come from listening to my students pass books to their friends. I love it when I overhear, “I loved this one. You will too.” Reading is so powerful. Books and stories are gifts the children in the class can share with one another and it thrills me when they do.”
– Robin Smith, Second Grade Teacher, Children’s Literature Critic.
As exuberant as the second grade students she teaches, Robin Smith responds with vibrant passion when asked about great books for kids. Smith’s hands remind one of the famous portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt hanging in the White House, for both Smith and the former First Lady have hands constantly in motion—touching, showing, knitting, giving love and comfort. And her mind is as active as her fingers. Smith is an education whirlwind. She is the teacher in school that you pray your child gets. Her knowledge of children’s literature is not just academic; it’s based on her wide experience working with her kids in the classroom—and her two kids at home.
Smith, a graduate of Smith College where she was introduced to the world of children’s literature by famed children’s book authors Jane Yolen and Patricia MacLachlan, currently teaches at The Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is also a respected book critic, writing reviews and articles for The Horn Book Magazine, Book Links, and Booklist, and is a regular lecturer at the Children’s Literature New England Symposium, an international summit on children’s literature, held annually at Harvard and various universities in New England.
She says: “I was a precocious early reader. But, when I was in college, I took a Children’s Literature course taught by Jane Yolen and Patricia MacLachlan and that was when I fell in love with children’s books. My first job was as an assistant manager of a bookstore, and then I found my first teaching job. But, I never left books. I kept working part time at the bookstore while I worked with my classes. I have always been an enormous believer in bookstores and libraries and spend way too many hours pawing over new books in my local libraries, school library, and many, many bookstores. My school is an independent day school for grades K-8, and we are in the middle of adding a high school. My students’ parents have the same hopes and dreams for their children as all parents everywhere have.”
Robin Smith’s students are blessed in their teacher. We are blessed that Robin Smith chooses to share her passion about reading and kid’s books with all of us. Read a terrific article written by Robin Smith and her husband Dean Schneider titled “Reading and Writing: An Open Letter to Parents” on how you can support reading and writing in your home from preschool through high school.
Robin, do years of teaching experience trigger an automatic response so that you instinctively know it is “back to school” time?
School starts early in the South, but my internal clock starts resetting in early August. When I close my classroom in June, I try to get as many piddly details out of the way as possible — I put together my journals, laminate the letter strips for the kids’ desks, cut the paper for spelling, go through all the books in my classroom…all that stuff…so that my return in August is all about getting ready to teach.
Do you have a favorite memory of going back to school from your own childhood and/or what did September mean to you as a child?
Since I am an Army brat, school was often in a new place each year. So there was the constant anxiety about fitting in that came along with the excitement of the new year. I was a pretty good student — and a goody-goody in general — so I was not really concerned with the work, just fitting in. I normally worried about my socks a lot. I always wanted to know what the kids were wearing in the new place — ankle socks, knee socks, athletic socks, argyles. Maybe that explains why I love to knit socks so much. I liked school a lot and love all the new supplies. Even now, I swoon at the smell of the new crayons and can bring the purple mimeograph paper smell to my brain. I think I will take a deep symbolic sniff right now!
What grades have you taught? What grade do you teach now? Can you tell us something about the school you teach in now and your students?
I have taught everything from first grade to adults, but, for the last twelve years I have taught second graders in a small independent school in Nashville. My first real job with kids was in Newark, New Jersey, where the library allowed me to check out one hundred books at a time for a summer program I ran in a church near a housing project. I learned more in those two summers than I can possibly express. I have also taught math in a boarding school for boys in Massachusetts — but I have been happily teaching second graders for a long time.
What are the needs of your current students?
Kids at my school are highly scheduled and their parents have very high academic expectations for them. The children need to learn to manage these expectations and learn to enjoy learning and reading. Many are not used to managing free time, because there is little of it and often kids who have little free time need to learn to think for themselves. Some of the children have famous parents and these kids need to see themselves as separate from their prominent parents.
Many children begin the new school year with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. But other children are apprehensive about the start of a new school year. Do you have any advice for parents of primary grade children to help them adjust to the first few weeks of school?
The beginning of the year is stressful for everyone. There is the rush of back to school —getting ready, finishing up summer assignments, the inevitable worries about friends, academics, sports, etc. It is really hard for parents to see their children worried. I try to reassure my parents that children often save their anxiety for home and pull themselves together just fine while they are in school. Many children crave routine and that is something the parents can really help with. Getting to bed early, planning the clothing and lunch needs the night before, eating family meals together and allowing lots of conversation time usually helps young children to adjust. Asking the right questions helps: what are you excited about? What do you hope to learn this year? What are some of the new responsibilities of your new grade? Who would you like to invite over first? I am a big believer in leading children to the positive.
You work with kids who are new readers. When a child becomes an independent reader do they need to be read aloud to anymore? Can parents read novels or non-fiction aloud to their kids?
Parents should read aloud to their children until the children won’t let them read aloud. Our daughter was read to until the homework of junior high was too much, and our son showed resistance in sixth grade. It was a sad day for us. But, yes, parents should read aloud to their newly-independent readers. Yes, yes, yes—they can read picture books or chapter books, but I suggest chapter books. These are the years to read the Redwall books or C.S. Lewis or The Wizard of Oz. Grab a copy of Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook for ideas. I would recommend Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider or Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux if you need some sure-fire hits.
How can parents best help the “early readers” in their families?
Turn off the TV. Read aloud. Talk with them. Eat meals together. Save phone calls for later. Patiently listen to them read. Do not correct them unless they are really stuck or ask for help. Read aloud to them. Read aloud more.
What are your favorite “early reader” books?
I love Morris and Boris books, Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, any book with rhyme and repetition. The Bob books, now published by Scholastic, are lots of fun for the brand new reader. I don’t think Pickle Things is still in print, but I wish it was. I bet my own children read that book a thousand times. Concept books are such a help; I still remember reading the marvelous Things I Like and I Like Books by Anthony Browne. The books that the children in my class love as their first real books are Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge, many in the Step into Reading series, The Golly Sisters, and Pilkey’s Ricky Ricotta books. I appreciate any book that looks grown up, but is still easy to read with lots of repetition and a predictable plot. Generous font and lots of white space add to the appeal for these young readers whose eyes do not yet track print very well. They love any book about tornadoes, fires, rescues or disasters. There is nothing like a good volcanic eruption book, even when written for emergent readers, to get a seven or eight year old excited…unless it is a book about a poisonous snake or a man-eating alligator!
What should a parent or guardian do if he or she is concerned about his or her child’s reading process?
Talk with the teacher and read aloud more and more. And then read aloud even more. Talk about the stories you are reading aloud. If you read aloud to your child, allow your child to read easy books aloud to you, and spend lots of time at the library and bookstores. And if your child is not making progress and your teacher is concerned, you might have to have some testing or help from a reading specialist. Some children need remedial work with decoding sounds, but sometimes there is a real disability that needs professional advice. No matter what, reading aloud will help all children.
As an experienced teacher and mom, do you have any suggestions on what parents can do at home to support their child’s classroom experience?
I am really old-fashioned about homework and family time. Sometimes I feel like an anachronism. I think families should slow down, limit all electronic diversions, take a critical look at the after school schedules so that kids will have time for homework…and time to be kids. I can’t see any reason for primary age kids to use computers for homework, unless it is for a little parent-supervised research. Actually — and this might surprise you — I am not a fan of homework beyond spelling and math practice and reading before bedtime. Following one’s interests is at the heart of being a creative person. Quiet, empty time is needed for this type of creativity. Sermon over.
And children should have their own library cards and visit the library regularly. You would be surprised at how many kids do not visit the library. I can still picture the library of my second grade year — I think I could still find the picture books, my beloved Nancy Drew mysteries and the little shelf where the librarians would save books for me. I can remember the sound of the punch cards in the machine when I was checking books out and the rug where I heard the new Newbery book — A Wrinkle in Time.
Many children now have televisions in their bedrooms and some have their own computers in their bedrooms. What is your opinion concerning the kids’ use of electronic media?
I am not a fan of any sort of electronics in a child’s bedroom. I am not really a fan of TV in the parent’s bedroom. TV and computers have their place, but I think they should be in public spaces so that the family watches TV together and the computer — the most tempting of all time-stealers — needs to be in a public place as well. I can feel the chant of “Luddite, Luddite” being heaped upon my head, but I feel strongly about this. Most kids, even the most avid readers, would rather watch TV than read, and most of us spend far more time with our computers than we like to admit. The best readers are those children who have limited TV time. Some great readers are also great TV watchers, but that is the exception. Many kids will tell me that they do have time to read, but when I ask them what their favorite show on TV last night was, they have no trouble telling me about them. And many of the shows they watch are very adult.
If you were to put together a basket of toys to give to every new parent to support their child’s imagination and education, what would be in the basket?
Blocks and books and a little soft doll — I don’t have a particular book, but I am a huge fan of Bob Graham, so recently I have given Oscar’s Half Birthday as a baby gift. I love board books, so I usually scare up a copy of Moo, Baa, La La La!, a Sandra Boynton book. I can’t pass up the opportunity to give Goodnight Moon.
In my classroom, I have lots of puzzles and games. What do my students love more than anything? They love the blocks my father made for my kids when they were babies. Those blocks are the best thing my father ever made for my children.
Do you think primary and/or elementary grade teachers should have a working knowledge of children’s literature?
I occasionally lead in-service groups of teachers. They are hungry for books and titles to use with their students. I think that many teachers know the books of their childhood, but not current books unless the book has been in the news or has won a major award. Many states no longer require children’s literature as part of teacher training, and that is a shame. If I hadn’t had such a fabulous children’s literature course in college, taught by children’s authors Jane Yolen and Patricia MacLachlan, my knowledge of children’s books would have consisted of Dr. Seuss, the Berenstain Bears and the Little Golden Books. Oh yes—and Mr. Pine’s Mixed-Up Signs.
We demand a great deal of elementary school teachers and many do not have the time or the money to take courses in children’s literature. Do you have any suggestions on how teachers can keep current on what is available in children’s fiction and nonfiction?
Yes. Teachers need to visit libraries and get to know their librarians well. I troll through the stacks looking for new books and rely on The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Booklinks and other review journals to keep myself up to date. I am a big fan of the CCBC website which highlights new, excellent books. All teachers can do this. Go to the best bookstore in your area and read through the picture books. When I used to work for a bookstore, we were required to read every new picture book as we emptied the boxes. That was the best way to know the new ones. Most libraries have ways to search books online and sort them by publication date. You can then reserve the new books of interest and take the whole stack to share with your students. Have them review the books for you, if they are old enough.
What books did your family enjoy reading together when your kids were in primary grades?
We LOVED the Tom and Pippo books by Helen Oxenbury when the children were small. Both kids learned to read with the Bob books. Not great literature, but my kids loved them. My children loved Vera Williams’ books and the Pinkerton books by Steven Kellogg. We might not have had a lot of money, but we always had books, and we always went to the library. We always read aloud to our children and there are some titles we read many times: Charlotte’s Web, Shiloh, The Trumpet of the Swan. One summer, my husband read all the Wizard of Oz books. I must admit that I did not listen to them all, but the kids loved them. Both children have rich memories of sitting on the couch with their blankies while their Dad or I read to them.
Do you have any new “must have” children’s books to recommend for this fall?
Of course I do.
I love Oscar’s Half Birthday and all the books by Australian writer Bob Graham. I just picked up the Stink book by Megan McDonald for my classroom. Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a stunning story of a family from slave times to the present day. I plan on reading that early in the year. I have recently discovered the work of Bostonian Leo Landry. His Sea Surprise was one of my favorites last year. I also found Eat Your Peas, Ivy Louise to be a hit with the kids in my school. I can’t wait to share Traction Man is Here! by Mini Grey with my class. They all learn to knit and will find the unraveling suit hilarious. Canadian author Jessica Scott Kerrin’s Martin Bridge books are perfect for the children in my classroom. I am going to read the new one aloud early in the year. I am not sure if this one is out yet, but I really enjoyed Fashion Kitty by Charise Mericle Harper when I reviewed it. I shared it with my son’s girlfriend, age eighteen, and she couldn’t put it down…so I knew it would be a hit. It is a graphic novel for seven to twelve year olds about a cat with the power to spot and stop fashion faux pas – faux paws?? Oh, I do amuse myself!—The thing is, I want my students to know that reading is fun, and I can only do that if I find the books fun.
Do you have time to read yourself? What are you reading now?
Sure. But, since I review books, I tend to be reading brand new books. I did just finish A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind. It was the all-faculty summer reading book at my school. It was especially interesting because my son is starting college in California and it made me stop and think a lot about what it means to start in a school that is far from home, with all new challenges. My son just passed me The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford, and I have been reading that in fits and starts. I love The New Yorker for that kind of reading as well. I always read You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley right before school starts.
In looking back over all your students, do you have a cherished memory of any one child’s reading struggles and accomplishments, a memory that haunts you? A memory that still makes you smile or brings tears to your eyes?
As a second grade teacher, most of my students come to me already reading, at least a bit. But, many of them haven’t become readers yet. That is my challenge and a challenge I love. But, one year, I taught a boy from a bookish family who did not seem to be able to read. His parents were fabulous — they read aloud to him, got him every book on the Titanic — his passion — that they could find, and worked with him each night. They were perfect — concerned but not overwhelmed. One day, I was reading with him during Free Reading and all of a sudden I realized that I was no longer helping him. He was just reading aloud at his own pace, with almost perfect fluency and even a bit of expression. It was all I could do to just sit and listen. When the time was up, I said, “Did you hear yourself? You were reading!” He blushed and said, “I know.” This boy will be a senior in high school, and, though I know he is more an athlete than a reader, I will never forget the moment when he learned to read. I can’t imagine the thrill of being a first grade teacher who gets to have that feeling fifteen or so times a year, can you?
My daily thrills come from listening to my students pass books to their friends. I love it when I overhear, “I loved this one. You will too.” Reading is so powerful. Books and stories are gifts the children in the class can share with one another, and it thrills me when they do.
* Literacy Leader interviews sponsored by Verizon Information Services
© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance