Monday, February 15, 2010

Educational Foundation brings classic literature to Pittsfield Elementary

The following article was taken from the Ann Arbor News at


Pittsfield teacher Cory Merante discusses a book with his class.

Photo courtesy of Pittsfield Elementary School

Whatever happened to the classics of children’s literature – Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, Little Women, King Arthur and Robin Hood? These and other titles, once required reading for elementary students, have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of more contemporary books.

Thanks to a grant from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, children at Pittsfield Elementary School are reconnecting with these classics.

Pittsfield Teachers Shannon Lauer, Cory Merante and Ebony Peoples, who were disappointed with the quality of books available for their classes, wanted to provide more challenging (but still age appropriate) reading material. After some research, they proposed a grant through AAPSEF to purchase illustrated editions of the classics (as well as higher-quality contemporary picture books).

Their request matched perfectly the goals of the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund, administered by AAPSEF. This fund was established in 2008 following the death of local writer Karen Thomas, herself a voracious reader. The fund’s purpose is to encourage and support reading at the elementary level, particularly among economically disadvantaged students. Pittsfield Elementary is among Ann Arbor’s most diverse schools, with over half its enrollment qualifying for the free- or reduced-cost lunch program.

As a result, Ms. Lauer’s second-graders are enjoying much more challenging and rewarding books. Her students particularly like Twilight Comes Twice, a lyrical picture book that describes the differing sights, sounds and moods found daily at dawn and sunset. Another favorite is How Many Days to America?, the story of an immigrant family, which is especially appropriate given the ethnic diversity of her classroom.

In Ms. People’s third grade class, the hands-down favorite is the complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia. Also popular are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Both series are a bit of a stretch for some readers, but her students find them well worth the effort.

But it is with Mr. Merante’s fourth-graders that the program to re-introduce the classics has really taken off. While his students were familiar with movie versions of The Jungle Book and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, none had ever read the actual books. Now they are discovering the richness of detail and language they had been missing – discoveries facilitated by the more challenging books taught in Ms. Lauer’s and Ms. Peoples’ classes .

Some of the books are abridged to fit the reading levels of fourth graders. But the grant stipulated that the original, unabridged versions of each book should also be available. Some proficient readers are eager to try the more challenging texts. Mr. Merante was pleasantly surprised to find that many others start with the simplified version of a classic, then re-read it in the original form.

Mr. Merante also gives writing assignments based on these classic books, with some very thoughtful results. One student wrote about Huckleberry Finn’s relationship with his derelict father, and speculated about what kind of father Huck himself might become, given his experiences with Pap.

Favorite genres include science fiction (The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), adventure stories (Treasure Island and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood), fantasy (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Little Prince), horse stories (Little Britches), coming-of-age novels (Little Women and Huckleberry Finn), and, of course, horror (The Picture of Dorian Gray).

Donations to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation can be made at the following address:

Personal note from the author: Karen, my wife of 38 years, was absolutely passionate about reading, and especially loved children’s literature. I can think of no better way of memorializing her than by passing on her love for the classics to the next generation. I cherish the many letters of appreciation I received from Mr. Merante’s students expressing their appreciation for these classic books.