Have you ever had to do something scary?
Two sisters who work in the city’s high schools asked that question to a class of Ross-Woodward’s fourth-graders on World Read Aloud Day, which took place across the city’s elementary schools on Friday morning.
“We all know that reading is the gateway skill to knowledge,” Principal Cheryl Brown had said Friday morning in the school’s library, as retired principals, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters showed up to read to the kids.
Two of them were actual sisters — Michelle Sepulveda, a truancy officer at Hillhouse and a West Hills alder, and Mia Edmonds-Duff, an assistant principal at Career — and they had paused between chapters in a young-adult novella, “How Tía Lola Came to Stay,” by Julia Alvarez.
At that point in the story, Lola, a kooky aunt from the Dominican Republic, had been considering substitute teaching at her nephew’s school in wintry Vermont, where she’d come to help out after her sister split with her husband.
The nephew feared his older relative, who paints on her beauty mark, dresses loudly and barely speaks English, might embarrass him. His classmates had already ridiculed his last name, Guzman, saying it sounded more like “goose man.”
Meanwhile, the aunt feared that she wouldn’t know how to teach a proper lesson, given that her formal education ended before middle school. But the school couldn’t find anyone to teach the bilingual class, especially with its limited budget.
“Hmm, sounds familiar,” Edmonds-Duff said.
Have you ever had to do something scary?
Sepulveda and Edmonds-Duff asked that question as they tried to connect the novella to the students’ lived experiences in the fourth-grade classroom.
Part of that was easy. Just hearing a book that alternated between Spanish and English had a girl named Alycia translating for the whole class. “You look like the pro, so I might be coming to you for some help,” Sepulveda said before she started.
At one point, as Lola lit candles “to chase away bad spirits,” Alycia was so excited to see her own experience in a book that she interjected. “She’s like us! She’s like me!” she said. “We love Jesus. We light candles and a whole bunch of other things.”
To help the others connect to the book, Edmonds-Duff asked the students if they ever had to do something that frightened them.
“I had to go on this giant ride that pulls you up, then it drops you down,” said a boy named Nasir.
“I did that before! My son convinced me to do it,” Edmonds-Duff said. “It drops really fast!”
“It was like 50 feet up!” Nasir said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do it again,” Edmonds-Duff said.
A few more students shared their jitters about log flumes and gravitrons at amusement parks. Edmonds-Duff called on another student. “it doesn’t have to be a ride,” said Robert Glassman, their teacher.
“The scariest thing was going up to the principal’s office,” one girl said.
Some of her classmates protested, asking how seeing Principal Brown could possibly be frightening. Edmonds-Duff asked if she’d been in trouble. “Yes,” a friend answered for her, and the girl shot back, “You were too!”
“Going to court,” Alycia said.
“Oh, that is scary,” Edmonds-Duff said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Nasir had his hand up. He wanted to go again.
“My second thing I’m afraid of is when Mr. G gives out homework,” Nasir said, causing everyone to crack up again.
Even though most of the classes at Ross-Woodward only got through one chapter, Sepulveda and Edmonds-Duff started in on the third, before student chaperones came by to pick them up. They didn’t get a chance to finish reading the 160-page book, to tell the fourth-graders how the nephew bonded to his tía and learned to embrace his difference.
But during the breaks, the back-and-forth had gotten something through, the sisters hoped, as the students would later see the difference reading can make by high school.
“The more you read, the better your vocabulary. Whenever you’re reading, you’re trying to understand something,” Edmonds-Duff had told the class. “When you get older, you’re going to have to take a big test called the SAT. That’s how you’ll get into a good college. The more you read, the better you’ll do on that test, so you can get a big, fat scholarship and go to the best school that you want to go to.”
How many students plan to go to college? Edmonds-Duff asked.
All but two hands shot up.
Edmonds-Duff rephrased. How many students want to continue learning after high school? she asked. To do some type of training?
One girl said that she wanted to become a veterinarian.
“If I could, I would hold a black widow,” the girl said. “I’m not afraid of anything.”