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Literacy Expert Spotlight: Colette Marie Bennett

Our literacy expert in the spotlight for the month of September is Colette Marie Bennett.  Colette is the Coordinator for Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media, and Testing for the West Haven School District in Connecticut.  She is also a certified Literacy Specialist (K-12).  Colette has over 23 years of experience in the classroom grades 6-12.


Colette, please tell us a little about yourself.
Oldest of nine; mother of two Marine Corps Officers (both Annapolis grads); blogger; talker; teacher in rural/urban/suburban classrooms teaching AP, Drama, Journalism, and seven grade levels of English Language Arts for over 23 years; and now an curriculum coordinator who has retired the red pen.

I am now the English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Library Media Curriculum Coordinator in the West Haven Public School System in Connecticut.

What are some activities that you’ve done with your children to promote literacy?
I made sure that our house was filled with all kinds of books.  I read to my two boys when they were young, and I read with them when they were older. We shopped together in bookstores.  I did not censor their choices. I recommended books when they were young, and they now recommend books for me. I read for pleasure and helped them to understand that reading is an engaging activity….which meant reading should not be casually interrupted to ask if there is milk in the refrigerator.

What were some of the favorite children’s board, picture, or chapter books you’ve read or come across this year?
I just bought Meet the Dullards (written by Sara Pennypacker; illustrated by Daniel Salmieri) for my nephew Max. I laughed so hard in the bookstore that people moved away from me. The illustrations and text are very witty …and kids will understand what a dullard is! Max loved the book.

I also just bought A House Held Up By Trees by Jon Klaussen  and Ted Kooser. I attended the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Farm in Farmington, CT in June this year where Kooser (United States Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006), read several of his poems. Afterward, I stopped to get one of his poetry collections, and I noticed this collaboration between this remarkable poet and one of my favorite illustrators. I read it as I stood in line waiting to have my new copy signed, my eyes filled with tears. This house, personified as we all personify our houses, gains the reader’s sympathy –once loved, then abandoned, then rescued.  I asked Kooser to inscribe it for my friend Catherine, who is a literacy specialist in Sherman, CT. That night, she tweeted:

“Moved beyond words by Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees. Thank you for this beautiful book.”

What are some of your must-have children’s books for a home library?
I have a special spot for Tomi Ungerer’s illustrations picture books (The Three Robbers, Flat Stanley), The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne (but only if the text is illustrated with Ernest Shepard drawings); P.D.Eastman’s Sam and the Firefly and Put Me in the Zoo;  any book by David Weisner (but Tuesday is my favorite); D’AulairesBook of Greek Myths; Eric Carle books (choose…any one will do): Fredrick by Leo Lionni ; Don and Audrey Woods’s The Mouse, The Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear and King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub (hilarious!); Nancy Drew (but only if the child wants them); Maurice Sendak’s  Where the Wild Things Are;  Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal; E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I became a reader because of Little Women.

Do you have any literacy rituals that you practice in your family?
Read. Often.

Besides reading, what are some other things parents can do to set their children up for literacy success?
Watch movies together, listen to audio-books, go see theater….and talk about these experiences. These are all story-centered activities and stories improve vocabulary. Stories develop empathy. The world needs to have people who view others with kindness and compassion…stories do that.

If you could give parents one piece of advice about reading with children, what would it be?
Read. Often. (see advice above!)

That is because any reading practice helps everyone read better, parents included. Many of my teachers at the middle school level have told me they notice they are becoming better readers because they read with their students during silent sustained reading.

Here is another interesting fact: We ran a “How Do I Feel About Reading” survey for grades 7 & 8 in West Haven, and well over 50% of students said they share what they read with members of their family…that’s amazing! That means 11-14 year olds admit they share what they are reading with their parents!  That percentage was almost as high a percentage as sharing what they read with friends.

We could conclude that parents are the under-appreciated part of the reading equation!

Hardcover, Paperback or e-book (when reading a book on your own)?
I am omnivorous. Whatever way the material is available at the time. I like the efficiency of an e-reader, but I do have some problems finding my way back through a text for a quote or fact …I just do not have the hang of the digital marker yet.

Fiction, non-fiction or some other genre (when reading a book on your own)?
Again, I am an omnivore. I have been reading more non-fiction lately, but I think that is because the quality of non-fiction is so much better. There is a narrative style like in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake or or Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk that makes for good storytelling. Like Nora Ephron said, “Why write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing?”

Name an adult book that:

a) Inspired you: Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. The premise is that English teachers have killed reading by limiting choice and over-teaching. I agree. I am working hard to correct that practice.

b) Made you laugh out loud:  Roz Chast’s  Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast’s mother had dementia. My mother has dementia. She shares the same funny observations and heartbreaking moments that I am now experiencing.

c) You recommend to others often: I have recommended The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt-2,000 years on the history of writing and Epicurian philosophy makes you feel smarter. I just read Joseph Ellis’s The Quartet. Right now, I have a mad crush on George Washington…he was dignified, poised, well-spoken, and self-effacing. Dreading the upcoming political election season …. I long for George Washington.

What books are on your nightstand or e-reader right now?
James McBride The Good Lord Bird; just added Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea  to the Kindle to re-read (I wrote about her commencement address in ’83 to Mills College…amazing!) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein…it came highly recommended.

Are you working on any special projects that you want to share with others?
I am creating a book flood in the West Haven schools, grades 5-12.

The book flood idea came from Readicide where students are flooded with titles they might like to read. I began the practice in July of 2010 for Regional School District #6 (Litchfield, CT) Wamogo and continued through June 2014. I added gently used books that I purchased (.50-$2.00) to Middle/High School classrooms. That first year (June 2010-2011) I added well over 2,500 books for less than $2,000.00 by shopping at thrift stores or at seasonal public library book sales!

Expanding classroom libraries allows students at each grade the opportunity to choose the books they want to read. So, examples of titles I look for at book sales are Dork Diaries; Captain Underpants; Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The titles students want to read can still build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school.

Independent reading builds vocabulary.

Here is an interesting set of statistics: a student who reads  67 minutes a day is exposed to 4,733,000 words per year; a student who reads  17 minutes a day reads 1,168,000 words; a student who reads  1 minute a day reads 51,000 words.  Independent reading is also a predictor of student success.

How can people get in touch with you on social media or on your website?

Twitter:  @Teachcmb56

Your turn:  Did you enjoy this post?  Are you interested in being featured?  Do you know someone who might want to be featured?  Feel free to let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail.

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