#TeachersTalkKidLit – Jane Johansen

Hello, readers and fans of Melinda! My name is Jane Johansen, and I have known Melinda for many years as our husbands went to West Point together. Melinda and her husband are two people whose friendship we value deeply. 

When Melinda put the call out for teacher friends to help, I quickly raised my hand. I am an avid reader and love to share that passion with my students. You know those people who wake up early in the morning to work out and everyone is like, “No way, I could never do that”? You should see the looks I get when I tell my students that I get up early so that I have time to read! It is true. I treasure the quiet with a warm cup of coffee and my book in my lap every morning, possibly with a cat or two by my side.

At the beginning of each school year, the first reading assignment I give my class is to write letters to me about their personal journey with reading.  In turn, I also write a letter to them explaining that I was a late reader. I remember being stuck at the same reading level all through 1st grade until my mom found me a book that I truly connected to, Hooray for Pig, by Carla Stevens. (Flashback, I was terrified to learn how to swim.  Lake Champlain is enormous, dark, and frigid, and I was having none of it until my mom found this book.)  If you could see my copy of this book and turn the love-worn pages, you would see that it was read hundreds of times throughout my childhood.  This book makes an appearance on my textual lineage time and again. 

Connection

Connection is one of the keys to finding books that children want to read, and it is a lesson they are taught as readers from their very earliest reading instruction. Look for the connections: to yourself, to the world around you, to other books you have read, to current events…these are the invisible strings that pull readers in and keep them immersed in books. When I have my students think back and reflect on books that they loved when they were younger readers and create their own textual lineage of books, a common theme in their choices is that they felt connected to the characters in these books in some way. 

Characters

A second key is to find characters that are likeable or unlikeable, for that matter.  A character that kids can root for or against. Characters that speak out and up in unjust situations- kids are all about good versus evil and a fair and just outcome. Books like Wonder, by R.J. Polacio, or Because of Mr. Terrupt, by Rob Buyea, both with casts of characters in a common setting where they can imagine themselves being there, too. A setting where characters have space to make mistakes and are given the time to fix them in a realistic way.  Reading to understand the world from a perspective other than their own provides young readers with a wider lens on which to focus their gaze while they are lost in those pages. 

Worlds

Finally, in my experience, as readers grow in their abilities, they like to experience worlds that are different than the one they inhabit every day. Fantasy is a great way for readers to escape the mundane and possibly a genre that parents may shy away from – I know I did with my own children.  My own deeply rooted dislike of being scared kept me away from prompting my kids toward this genre. However, their teachers and librarians did a fine job of encouraging them, so they are both huge fans.  Being a fifth-grade teacher, my students are just crazy about this genre and I have had to grapple with joining the bandwagon, but I have done it.  I am just finishing up reading Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always with my class. When I started it, I was nervous and agitated that it was going to be too scary, dark, or upsetting to some of the class. However, it’s been the complete opposite reaction.  They are begging me to read more each day than what our allotted time allows for. They are diving so deep into the plot and character development they are blowing me away with their analysis.  A good point to remember is that just because you might not like a specific genre doesn’t mean you should not let your kids try it if they are curious; to each their own, as they say.

Learning to Love Reading

Throughout my years as a teacher, no matter which grade level, I have encountered anxious parents who worry about their child not “loving” reading. The advice I have given you here is parallel to what they hear from me. Keep trying a variety of genres, go to the library, talk to your school librarian, check in with your child’s friends’ parents and ask what they are reading, or, better yet, create a book club for your child with friends.

Finally, the most valuable advice I can give you is to never stop reading aloud with your child. Choose a favorite book from when you were young, or take an expedition to the library together to choose a book.  Reading aloud creates a bond between us as readers who are sharing a character’s journey. Dive in, snuggle up, and start building memories together one page at a time.

About Jane

Jane Johansen is currently a 5th grade teacher at Renbrook School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has also taught Kindergarten and third grade; don’t ask her which is her favorite…she cannot decide. Jane enjoys spending time outdoors, gardening, hiking, running, and of course reading on her front porch. She is also a passionate nature photographer in her free time. Jane lives in Avon, Connecticut with her husband Eric and their two children Emma Kate and Eli, along with their many furry family members. 

After Rejection – Caroline Pavlakos

I was 17 years old and starting the College Road Trip journey. I wanted to go to college in Boston where my boyfriend (now husband) was at school, and how fun it would have been to be in the same city. I was so excited about attending college and learning how to live on my own, especially the opportunity about hopefully living in a new city for a few years. The most challenging point in thinking about where exactly to attend college was the fact that it had to have opportunities to attend smaller classes and a supportive Office of Disabilities because I had (and still have) a form of Auditory Processing Disorder, which makes reading comprehension, test taking, following multistep directions, and navigating mathematics quite difficult and challenging for me.

Getting Started

Being the oldest of three children, I was motivated and driven to pave the way for my siblings on the whole process as I thought of it as a game. The SATs were taken, my major of Psychology was picked, and I was confident that I could go wherever I wanted as long as I did my research on the resources the colleges offered for me to be successful.

I was at Boston University at a college visit day, and the Director of Admissions said in her address to us that even if we did not get the chance to attend our first-choice college, “You will go to college. You will succeed. You bloom where you’re planted.” The Director of Admissions at Simmons College said something similar on our visit there later that weekend. That stuck with me that day and as we continued to visit colleges throughout the year in preparation for the fall of my Senior Year, when I tirelessly completed college applications.

Not as simple as it sounds…

Losing Hope

My plan for going to school in the city of Boston epically failed. I was waitlisted and received a letter to be accepted as a transfer student to one of the colleges I had my heart set on attending.  I received another rejection letter from another college I so badly wanted to attend.

Now those words came back and boomed in my head – “You bloom where you’re planted.”

I was so angry at those words. Furious, actually. How could this have happened? Those words meant everything to me that day I heard them. I felt they were meant for me, and I put so much hard work into making my application and college essay stand out.

I cried for days as I saw my friends running into school waving their acceptance letters over their heads and shouting how excited they were about getting into their top-choice schools. I fell into a rut, not talking much to anybody, sitting by myself at lunch, and cringing whenever I heard a teacher say, “When you’re in college…”

The letters of waitlisting and rejection kept rolling in as I applied to over 10 schools, most between my hometown of Brooklyn and in Boston. It was then I began applying to local smaller colleges close to home where I could commute on the subway.

Making a New Plan

I felt like having my learning disability kept me from doing everything I had planned to do, living on my own in a new city, being close to somebody I loved, and creating my own independence. But finally, a letter arrived and the first word was ‘Congratulations!’ I got accepted to one of the smaller schools I had applied to. Ultimately, as more letters of acceptance rolled in and my family and I discussed where I would attend, I chose Wagner College in the borough of Staten Island, NY. Wagner was closer to home, but my parents agreed to let me live on campus, and I am so grateful to have had that opportunity!

While Wagner wasn’t my top choice, I still ran into school waving that letter over my head and hugging my friends. That next fall. as I was checking my mailbox at school, a letter arrived from one of my former top-choice colleges, stating that they would love for me to join the class of 2012 the next semester as a transfer student. At that moment, I grappled with my emotions, reflecting on how happy I’d become but remembering how I had wanted to live in a new city. I prayed that night for God to extend His right hand down and guide me in the right direction.

Learning to Bloom

Rome

I continued my college journey at Wagner, declared my double major of Psychology and Education, and jumped right into college life and even studied abroad in Rome!  I ended up staying another 2 years after graduation for my master’s degree and worked in the Early Childhood Center on campus, my first teaching job ever.

As I continued my college years, “You bloom where you’re planted” boomed into my head. I joined a sorority, took on leadership positions in the clubs and organizations I was a part of, and jumped right into Student Teaching and academic honors. I had made my college a home and learned that no matter what happens about rejection, you will bloom where you’re planted. The seeds have been planted, you establish roots, and you will grow stronger.

Graduating!

Leveling Up

I learned this again when my husband received his first assignment as a Pastoral Assistant.  We moved into a small apartment, and I immediately began applying for teaching jobs. I was rejected more times than I can count and thought “Why? What do I NOT have that others do have? How could anybody say no to me?” Again, I cried and was angry that I’d spent so much time and energy creating my portfolio and studying for the 4 teaching exams I was required to take and pass. But I pushed through and finally landed a position where the hours were extensive and the pay was less than what I could be making elsewhere. However, it was in my field of education and the lessons I learned and the friends I made were the most valuable, and I fell in love with teaching all over again! A seed was planted in me to teach the youngest age group of toddlers, roots established moving up to PreK Lead Teacher and sending the students off to Kindergarten, and the blossoming came when we moved to Florida so my husband can be ordained a priest and I finally became a Public School teacher! 

Trust and Go Forward

Rejection is something that is human and happens to us all. At the end of the day, if there is only 1 spot left on a team and there are 100 people who yearn for and want that spot, 99 of us are going to walk away and bloom elsewhere. Christ says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” I learned to lean on Christ and take His hand, and let Him lead me to a place where I will succeed and bear fruit. Christ sees and hears it all, rejection especially. It is hard and hurts for days, weeks, and sometimes years. He wants us to feel loved and wanted, not rejected. It’s almost like Him saying to us, “Yes, you really wanted to go to that school/wanted that position. There are others waiting for you.” The words “You bloom where you’re planted” remain with me. Gardens don’t take one day to bloom; they need water, soil, and somebody with a green thumb to tend and nurture them as Christ does for us. We have our hearts set on attending that top school and scoring that amazing new career and promotion, but as Christ’s branches, we might bloom elsewhere and many times in places where we never thought we could grow.

About Caroline

My name is Caroline Pavlakos, and I originally hail from Brooklyn, NY, but now live in the sunshine state of Florida. My husband Fr. Andrew and I serve the parish of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey, FL. We’re the proud parents of our beautiful baby boy, Kostantinos, who is almost one year old, and I enjoy spending time at the beach, baking chocolate chip cookies, and shopping.