“The Red Moon is Between Mars and Cleveland”

By Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger

Red moons are rare, occurring only once or twice a year when the moon is totally eclipsed by the earth. Hidden in darkness, the full moon glows in crimson luminescence for a few hours, a delicious astonishment set into the glittered night sky. We toast them with our cameras and marvel at their brilliance.

A just-right book is a red moon.

For Bria, a second grader at Stonebrook Elementary in Cleveland, OH her just right book was the very first book she could read independently, Rhyming Dust Bunnies. When she found she could read the book on her own, she cradled it close and wanted to read it to anyone who would listen. For Teri that book was Hello Crabby. Because of Bring Me a Book, both of these readers were able to get their very own copies of their chosen books to take home.

In October of 2021, we casually offered to drop by the classroom of Cleveland teacher/poet Quartez Harris, share some poems and engage his second graders in a writing workshop. Mr. Harris had somewhat nervously warned us that the students had done no writing thus far and went on to describe the devastating impact that the pandemic had on these particular children. They had missed the last three months of kindergarten and spent most of first grade in virtual classrooms. No problem, we replied naively. We’d heard about the “learning gaps” children were experiencing, the reports were all over the news. They’ll catch up, we reassured him and each other with confidence, all kids are in the same boat, same rough waters, same buffeting winds. Right?

What we found on that first visit were eager faces in an under-resourced classroom, in an under-resourced school. Maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising, Cleveland, among all the large cities in the U.S., has the highest number of children living below poverty level. The tax base here has been gutted by a decades-long, slow-moving excavator of declining industry that has left crumbling infrastructure, limited opportunities, and a malnourished school system in its wake.

Still the barren classroom was a stunner to us, perhaps because as paid educational consultants we are generally hired by schools with money – schools with vibrant libraries as well as bins full of books in classrooms that are often outfitted with comfortable seating, cushions, and cozy places for reading. This room was a virtual book desert. On display were some high-quality picture books that Mr. Harris had purchased himself, but there was no classroom library to speak of.

The curriculum at Stonebrook takes a structured approach to phonics instruction and decoding words in isolation, which is what Mr. Harris had been doing up until we entered the classroom last October. It was clear that wasn’t working as the kids repeatedly chorused, “I can’t read.” It was practically unanimous, almost as if there was peer pressure not to read. However, in individual and small group discussions, kids would shyly acknowledge they really did want to read.

It is important to note that we are children’s authors as well as writing and public speaking consultants. Unlike many of the literacy champions dedicated to Bring Me a Book, we are not reading specialists. Bring Me a Book was the perfect resource we didn’t know we needed! We told our story of this classroom to Lois Bridges, and she introduced us to Bring Me a Book where we not only received funding for books for the children but critical professional development support.  The weekly meetings of the BMAB Consortium were invaluable. We learned so much from the other members and the speakers who Lois and BMAB introduced to us. It truly is a community of literacy champions.

Over the course of the rest of the school year, we took a three-pronged approach to engage the students of Room 105 as readers.

1. Building a classroom library and giving students six just right books of their very own.

Kids looking at new classroom books.

If phonemic awareness is the how of reading, books are the why. Words and syllables in isolation just aren’t engaging. BMAB champion Regie Routman guided us in organizing the classroom library and she also encouraged us to write with the children as an inspiration for reading as well as some classroom management techniques that helped bring the students back in from the wilds of the pandemic. We held a fundraiser to start a classroom library with about $1000 in donations from friends and family, but it quickly became apparent we would need financial assistance to give these students access to an individually tailored personal library. Students took an active role in organizing their new books. Having these new books on hand helped students as they chose their own books with funds granted to the students from BMAB. Once books began to flow into the room, kids’ interest in reading increased dramatically! A new chorus of voices began: “What’s this word? Read this to me? I want to read this book!” 

2. Writing with purpose: writing short text about their world, creating literature with which they could make a true personal connection.

Regie also encouraged us to commit to writing as an inspiration for students to read. We wrote short text about their homes, families, dreams and what they were studying, often introducing short poems as mentor text. It was during a writing workshop in which students wrote about a subject of their own choosing using the prepositions “between” and “among” that Nathan came up with the title above, “The red moon is between Mars and Cleveland.”

Over the course of the year we published four chapbook-style books of the students’ writing plus a final anthology. As Regie predicted, this writing served as an inspiration for reading as students enthusiastically read aloud their own writing as well as that of their classmates.

3. Providing remedial small group reading support using phonics and just right books

Michael reading with one of the students.

Our biggest stumbling block out of the gate was that so many of our students needed remedial reading instruction and were unacquainted with letter sounds. The missed classroom time due to Covid was devastating for these youngsters! We decided to devote one morning a week to small group reading support as well as one morning for writing. BMAB literacy champion Sharon Zinke’s Rime Magic became our go-to phonics instruction for our kids who through no fault of their own, were starting from scratch on their mastery of letter sounds. Sharon gave generously of her time explaining how to use the phonics instruction for 10 or 15 minutes and then transition to a book of the student’s choosing. It was in the course of these small group lessons that students really began to unlock the mystery of how big words can be broken down for understanding. Capabilities and vocabularies began to expand.

Of course, essential to all of this were the books. Access to books and finding those “just right” books are what transformed our kiddos’ self-perceptions as non-readers to browsers of lists of books, looking for their new favorite series or author. Michael and Ryan dove into Captain Underpants, Shiare became a devoted Jacqueline Woodson fan, Armanie loved the fashion sense of Baby Mouse, Shamar and Pete the Cat were both enamored with their shoes. All of these students just like Bria who began the year as self-proclaimed nonreader had been swept away by Rhyming Dust Bunnies, were able to discover just right books.

These individual discoveries, each as precious as a red moon, were funded by BMAB, changing these children’s self-perceptions, capabilities, and the trajectories of their learning journeys. Thank you, Lois Bridges and Bring Me a Book!

© 2022 Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger