Friday, September 14, 2007

Chasing Vermeer

AJ is settling into first grade, but I’m still working out the kinks. One of the things the first graders have to do is to read an assigned book each night. In AJ’s case, he’s reading longer books for a total of 20 minutes a night. After AJ’s reading assessment at the beginning of the year, the teacher asked if I could help provide him with books at an appropriate level, since, as she put it, “he’s off the charts” and she doesn’t have enough books to challenge him in the classroom.

The first book AJ picked was one of his beloved Magic Tree House books. He loves the blend of fact and fiction, the associated research guides, and his old friends Jack and Annie. But the books are getting too easy for him to read and he’s not getting a lot out of them anymore. He’ll check one out from the library a mile from our house and will have finished most of it by the time we pull into our garage. So for his second book, I asked him if he could think of something new that he wanted to read.

We came up with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. We were both interested in the book for several reasons. AJ likes the math manipulatives at school and has been wanting to get some for home. I’ve been wanting to try working with pentominoes and tangram puzzles with him. Pentominoes play an important part of the book. AJ was also excited about the secret code that is used in the book. Some passages have to be deciphered. AJ has been fascinated with codes and codebreaking lately after finding a book about it at a library sale over the summer. Third, as the title suggests, there is art involved in the plot. AJ loves going to the Art Institute of Chicago, where some of the book takes place, and I thought it might be a good way to bring some more discussion about art into AJ’s world. I was envisioning reading through the book slowly and taking time out to pursue some of the affiliated digressions, perhaps ending with a field trip to some of the places mentioned in the book, like the University of Chicago and the Art Institute.

But AJ is still in the mindset that he should read books as fast as possible, just because he can. The problem with Chasing Vermeer, though, is that he misses a lot when he reads in his usual way. There are words he doesn’t know. And even more complicated than the vocabulary, which is largely explained in context, is the frequent use of metaphors with which AJ is unfamiliar. I’m getting the sense that his experience of the book is probably somewhat like that of a person from a foreign country reading the book. He doesn’t have all the cultural references.

To deal with this, he’s been reading it out loud to me and we’ve been discussing the phrases he doesn’t know and looking words up in his dictionary.

“What does it mean when the teacher says, ‘I’m not letting you off the hook this time!’?”

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll give you a hint. Think about fishing. What happens when you let a fish off a hook?”

“He escapes.”

“Right. And if the teacher’s letting them off the hook?”

“They’re escaping?”

“Sort of. They’re escaping having to do what she asked them to do. But she’s saying she’s not letting them off the hook. That means they’re not going to escape this time.”

“They’re going to have to do the work.”

“Exactly right.”

I’ve been worried that I’ve been pushing AJ too hard on this one, mainly because I haven’t yet encountered a book that elicits quite so many questions. But AJ is loving it and is not at all daunted or discouraged by what he doesn’t yet know.

Then I was worried that it wasn’t quite what his teacher was looking for. Was she trying for more fluency and independence?

I got the chance to talk to her today and she confirmed all my positive first impressions of her (no doubt because we had the same opinions on everything). She thought it was great that he was doing a challenging book, suggested maybe alternating harder and easier books to give him both the sense of independence and the chance to expand his reading skills, and thought the book discussion format sounded great. And she filled me in on some of the things she’s doing with him in the classroom, which include some followup on the books he’s reading at home. AJ signed a Reading Contract with her to do some extra work, which is including some discussion of literary elements as well as some creative writing. For his first assignment, he was to find the longest sentence he could and bring it in to class. Later he’ll be writing new endings for books he’s read, writing stories, etc.

Because the school’s been doing reading placement testing for the last week or so, they haven’t done much with math yet. I’m hoping we’ll be hearing more about math in the weeks to come. In the mean time, AJ has been busy playing with his pentominoes at home. And that’s enough for now.

1 comment:

Violet said...

"But AJ is still in the mindset that he should read books as fast as possible, just because he can." It never occurred to me before, but I think I do this, too.

Life with AJ sounds so fascinating!