Author Interview: Hope Vestergaard

Weaving the Literacy Web: Creating Curriculum Based on Books Children Love by Hope Vestergaard (Redleaf Press, 2005). From the catalog copy: “provides a framework for developing engaging, developmentally appropriate curriculum in the preschool classroom based on books children love. Six comprehensive chapters provide an introduction to book-based webbing and ideas for activity planning, including math, science, and language and creative arts. This innovative handbook also provides helpful tips for observing children’s interests and evaluating books for your own classroom library. ” Scroll for ordering information.

What inspired you to write Weaving the Literacy Web, and what is the thesis of the book?

I had a work-study assistant teaching position when I was in college and the teachers were so clever and creative in their planning, it really inspired me. They did a crazy fun Where The Wild Things Are unit, for example. When I got my own classroom, I began using books in a variety of ways throughout the day because kids responded so positively to them. And after I became a center director, I wanted to see teachers reading more with kids.

I encouraged teachers to do more emergent planning (start with an idea and spin off activities based on children’s interests and questions), but they often chose themes that were more adult-focused than child-focused. Eventually I realized that books are a great starting point for web-style planning. The books children love tell us so much about their passions, their hopes, and their fears.

I began doing workshops and started a pilot program for teachers to do book-based curriculum webbing, which is an offshoot of Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo’s Emergent Curriculum (1994). Emergent curriculum is non-linear, responsive planning that encourages children to think divergently *and* make connections across the curriculum and enables teachers to modify plans on the fly to better suit their group.

My basic thesis is that good books are rich with themes, concepts, and ideas that provide a springboard for activities across the curriculum. Numerous studies have shown that children learn best with context, and I think good books provide a perfect context for all kinds of learning.

What are the challenges of using literary trade books in the classroom?

The biggest challenge is monetary – in times of tight budgets, people often classify books as a luxury. Preschool directors wouldn’t dream about operating without enough blocks or construction paper or crayons, and it baffles me when they don’t consider books to be important equipment.

Another key is to think of books as a consumable rather than permanent classroom item. Books eventually wear out if they’re being used, and great new books are published all the time. Finding the money to keep a class library well-stocked is really a question of prioritizing.

The other challenge is educational – I find that adults don’t always understand what makes a children’s book “good.” Books should reflect the children in each classroom, as well as provide a window into other cultures. Great books are culturally authentic, have rich language and beautiful art, and feature compelling characters. People who aren’t used to thinking critically about literature can learn to do it with a few simple tools, which is why I included a detailed checklist in my book. I advocate building curriculum around great books, not mediocre ones!

What are the benefits?

Trade books are widely available, even to people who aren’t anywhere close to a brick and mortar bookstore. With so many publishers paying more attention to the bottom line, the bar has really been raised in terms of the quality of books being published today. Every season I find dozens and dozens of wonderful new books that are interesting, engaging, and fun. Even since I was a child, the industry standards have changed dramatically. Stories are much more succinct and less moralistic…they’re more emotionally accessible to young children. Literary trade books are also often available to school in affordable formats through book fairs or clubs like the Junior Library Guild.

What makes this book unique, a can’t-miss read for teachers and school librarians? Would children’s authors also benefit in preparing their school-visit presentations?

I took great pains to provide all the tools that planners might need to successfully plan activities around books. That includes developmental interests and behavioral challenges for each age group, so teachers can target these with activities that both allow kids to be successful and challenge them to try new things.

I also provided activity prompts for all kinds of learners and teachers, across disciplines. Many teachers feel strong on one or two favorite areas of curriculum, but I think my suggestions can really help them become well-rounded and successful outside of their comfort zones. There are existing books that have pre-planned activities built around books, but those didn’t satisfy me as a teacher or director for two reasons. First, the plans are already established. They don’t bend or morph according to the skills/interests of individual teachers and children. Second, once you’ve done all the plans in a book, where are you?

My book only features a few completed webs and they’re primarily for illustration or a starter-plan for people who aren’t confident. People can learn to be more creative with the right prompts.

I really wanted to show people how the process works, so they can customize plans that are exciting for them and the children they serve. With all the beautiful books in existence, the possibilities are endless.

I think the book will also help writers in two ways: the developmental guidelines can help them hone in on why a manuscript may not quite be working, and authors who do school visits can use the guidelines and activity suggestions to help them plan presentations that are meaningful and effective.

I’ve been concerned about the heightened emphasis on standardized testing in relationship to use of trade books in the classroom. Is this a real worry? If so, why and how should teachers work around this competing concern?

I share your concern! So many teachers tell me they find themselves spending lots of time teaching for the tests. Parents are buying into the “measured” achievement model, too. They want their children reading chapter books just as soon as they have mastered the ability to really read and enjoy a book, but children can enjoy picture books all through elementary school and even older for reluctant readers. There are incredibly engaging and informative non-fiction books being published on so many topics these days.

I’ve also heard teachers purchase books based on their tie-ins to things that are on the standardized tests. It seems to take a lot of the pleasure out of discovering and enjoying fabulous books. We’re homogenizing everything. It’s distressing.

That said, I do think that my book can empower teachers who are frustrated by the emphasis on testing to take back their classrooms. Kids who are doing book-based activities are still learning. In fact, they’re likely to be learning more within the framework of a particular book than they would by doing random dittos and sample tests. The simple act of reading and being read to more increases kids’ skills; I’m saying the benefits don’t stop there. The context books provide for all the math and science and social studies activities you can do with them will scaffold students’ learning and increase comprehension and retention. Kids learn by doing. If we are so concerned about learning, we need to give them fun things to do.

You’re a literary trade author yourself, with an emphasis on books for very young readers. What are the challenges and joys of writing for this audience?

People think that the younger the age you’re writing for, the easier it is to write. Not so! I find toddlers to be among the most discriminating readers around. If your book is boring, or doesn’t meet their emotional needs, toddlers will just walk away. It’s quite a challenge to figure out what makes these kids tick and such a joy when you see that you’ve captured their imagination. Very young kids exist to explore and connect with people and things – I enjoy spending time inside their heads.

Could you tell us just briefly about each of your children’s books and their inspiration?

Sure! Much of what I write is in rhyme. The first book I sold was Wake Up, Mama! (Dutton, illustrated by Thierry Courtin). I was inspired to write it when I realized how children often use adult bodies as furniture—the story was originally called “Mama Mountain.” I started Driving Daddy at the same time and finished it when my editor asked for a companion book.

Baby Love (Dutton, illustrated by John Wallace) was my first book to be published. It’s a collection of poems about milestones in a baby’s first year, in the voices of various people who love them. It was inspired by the many babies I’ve taken care of over the years, and by all the poetry my parents read to me when I was young.

Hello, Snow! (Melanie Kroupa/FSG, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott) was inspired by my childhood memories of playing in the snow with my dad, and by my children’s enthusiasm one snowy morning when school was canceled for the third or fourth day in a row!

Hillside Lullaby (Dutton, illustrated by Margie Moore) will be out in March of 2006. It’s about a restless little girl who unwinds by listening to the animals outside her window. The art really underscores the cozy, peaceful feeling I had when writing it. I also have What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo! (Dutton, illustrated by Maggie Smith) coming out next summer. It’s about an older brother who’s tortured by his younger sister’s behavior. Also inspired by real life! I have a few more books in the pipeline but I’ll save them for another interview. ;>)

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’d love to hear back from teachers who read the book and try book-based webbing with their classes, particularly teachers of KG and early elementary students who can help with the planning process. I am always surprised and delighted by the cool ideas people cook up. In the pilot programs I did, teachers who were initially resistant to the approach found it to be very satisfying once they dove in.

Thanks for interviewing me!

Cynsational News & Links

Remember Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) by Rosemary Graham (Viking, 2005)(author interview)? Well, check out C.J.’s blog for his side of the story.

Applit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children and Young Adults.

Books in a Series from the Monroe County Public Library.