If you know me at all then, you will know that I love books and stories. In particular, I love Children’s books. Over the course of my thirty-year teaching career, I have read thousands of books aloud to my students; some of which have come to hold a special place in my heart because of the content of the book, the beauty of the illustrations or the purpose that the book served at the time. I have decided to share some of those books with you in this blog. I think reading aloud to children is important and it all starts with a reader, a listener and a good book. Here is today’s special book. Enjoy.
The Name of the Tree is an Bantu tale retold by Cecilia Barker Lottridge. The illustrations are masterfully done by the great Ian Wallace. This book is magical and has always been one of the first books I read aloud each year to my Primary students. Let me tell you why.
The first week of school is always a very important time when it comes to creating a culture in a classroom. In addition to introducing the rules and routines that will form the operational structure of your classroom, the first week of school is when you begin planting the emotional seeds that you hope will bear fruit over time in the form of increased self-confidence, initiative, creativity and inner peace. You can call this establishing the tone of the classroom, if you like. As a teacher, almost nothing is more important at the start of any school year. If you create a welcoming, safe space for children; a space that values and celebrates the special qualities inherent in each child then, chances are good that your students are going to want to come to school each day and that, once there, they will give you their best effort because they will trust you, as the classroom leader.
***If anyone is interested, I can write a post that specifically addresses the various ways I create a welcoming tone in my classrooms but, for now, I will focus in on the role reserved for The Name of the Tree.
I value the importance of being a literate human being. In a society that is fuelled by information, being literate helps me to successfully navigate through the sea of news and images that fill my TVs and tablets and phones and computers. Being literate helps me to critically evaluate the information I am receiving so I can make intelligent decisions based on what I read. Being literate is a Life skill as important as any other.
But these days, when students come to school, they do so more with a game-based type of skill set that is important for operating technology and for the creative element that comes from game play and from coding. But, increasingly, children come to school these days without the language-based experiences that come from being read to from books. I was read to as a child. I read aloud to my own children at home. But, more and more, children are being raised in households where screen time trumps book time. Therefore, one of my most important jobs as a Primary teacher at the beginning of a school year is to help my students to develop an interest in reading the books that fill our classroom. Because, as you know, reading books is all about developing vocabulary (which is the foundation of personal self-expression), learning information (which is the foundation of our knowledge base) and developing a sense of wonder and imagination (which is the foundation of personal creativity).
When I extend my invitation for my students to join me in the wonderful world of reading and of books, that invitation comes in the form of The Name of the Tree. As the children sit around me on the carpet that first or second day of school, I inform them that the book I am about to read is magical. I tell them that the book contains a trick to help them remember important things in their lives. In fact, I make them a challenge and predict that once they learn the name of the tree, they will never forget it for the rest of their lives! I tell them that if I meet them at the mall or a park or wherever in twenty years and ask them for the name of the tree, they will remember it instantly because, once they learn the trick of remembering, they will never forget.
The short strokes of this story are that there has been a drought in the jungle and the animals are all starving. So, they decide to leave their home and search for food elsewhere. On their journey they come to a tree that is filled with delicious fruit. However, the branches are too high for even the giraffe to reach; the bark to smooth for even the monkey to climb. An elderly tortoise informs the groups that this is a magical tree that will only lower its beaches if someone correctly states the name of the tree. Various animals travel back, one at a time, to their original homeland to ask the King of the Jungle, the lion, (who has stayed behind when the others left) for the name. He tells all who ask but, because of over-confidence or carelessness, each of the animals has misfortune befall them on the trip back to the tree and none are able to say the name of the tree once they return. Finally, a young, small tortoise offers to go. The other animals mock the tortoise because it is so small and young (at which time, I point to my students that they are all small and young, too). Hmmm! Anyway, as you may expect, the young tortoise learns the name of the tree from the Lion (in a comical exchange that draws laughter every time I read the story), remembers the name of the tree using a memory strategy (which is the “magical” element of the story) and helps save the rest of the animals from starving.
After the story concludes, I make a point of reinforcing the memory technique by having the kids chant the name of the tree, just like the small tortoise does. Then, throughout the course of the day, I ask random students at random times to tell me the name of the tree and then, I always make a big deal about it, “See! I told you that you would never forget! I knew you would remember! And you always will!” When the kids are in the hallway, getting ready for recess, I will ask a former student who happens to be wandering by for the the name of the tree. Nine times out of ten, they remember on the spot. If they hesitate, I hum the melody of the chant and it comes back to them. Like magic.
This book! That story!
Once the kids hear this story and learn the “magic” of it, their interest in other books in our classroom collection is usually piqued. At this early part of the school year, I need to open the door to the world of books and have the kids willingly walk through. Once they demonstrate their willingness to, at least, look at books then, I can help them on their journey to becoming readers. The Name of the Tree has been the key that has unlocked this door for my students for the past few decades now. As such, it is one of the most important books I have ever owned. My students and I are forever indebted to Cecilia Barker Lottridge and Ian Wallace for their efforts. Generations of young readers have been born because of this book. This post is my small tribute.