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Field notes 1: reading with Erica

et502's picture

The book that Erica was reading, titled “Smile,” is a graphic novel. It is set in San Francisco. The main character is a white, brown haired girl. She wears her hair in a ponytail, and has to get “on again off again” braces. This girl is in middle school – by around page 60, she has transitioned into 7th grade and is worried about what other students will think about her braces and pimples.

Mariah, the director, went upstairs to check whether Erica had a tutor with her. Since Erica was on her own, I offered to go sit with her. Erica is 11 years old, and in 5th grade. She is black, and appears to be tall for her age. She was wearing a school uniform - a maroon, short sleeved polo shirt and khaki pants. 

When I got upstairs, Erica had her legs stretched across the couch. I asked her if she wanted to read out loud with me, but she shook her head from side to side. I went to the bookshelf and found a book that I had already read – The truth about forever, by Sarah Dessen. I went back to the couch and asked her to move so that I could sit on the couch too. I got two rectangular ottomans for us to put our feet on.

“This is one of my favorites,” I told Erica. “Do you know Sarah Dessen?”


“Sarah Dessen – she’s the author of this book.”

Erica asked me if I this was a girl or a boy. I said she was a girl, but then I said, “I guess she could be a boy. I never thought about it” – since some authors use a pen name. Erica said his parents must not like him if they gave him a girl’s name. Then she stopped talking and opened her book again. She also touched a bookmark that was on the couch next to her. The bookmark had a small timer at the top; the numbers read 15.

For the next 15-20 minutes (we had a few interruptions), we each read our own book. Occaisionally, Erica said a few words to me, and quickly went back to reading after I responded. For example, 

E: "I'm 11."

Me: (brief pause) "I'm 21."

E: "That's... 3 times 7!"

Here, I just smiled and went for a fist pump. But Erica tried to high five and end up just patting my fist. Then she went back to reading. For each interruption, she stopped the timer.

After she finished reading on her own, Erica wrote the title of the book on a form. She also wrote a sentence about the book, and the number of minutes she read.

Later, we both went back upstairs to continue reading. She found Smile again, and we read together – I read 5 pages, then she read 5 pages. While we were reading, Erica responded to several words or phrases – so we had a few conversations based on different events in the book.

“She was my only friend who was less mature than me” – we spent several minutes talking about this phrase. When Erica asked for an explanation, I tried to rephrase this sentence several times. I asked her if she knew what the word “mature” meant. She said it was someone who was older, more adult. She said that the girl in the book didn’t look mature because she had her hair up in a ponytail. I had my hair down, so asked her, “What about me? Do I look mature?” She touched my hair, and said yes. Erica's hair was also down. I said, if your hair is down, are you also mature? Then, she told me that her aunt had brushed it out so it would be straight. I told her it looked very pretty.

In another instance, the main character listed her class schedule. When she read the phrase “second period algebra,” Erica asked me what algebra is. I told her, “It’s a kind of math.” “What kind of math?” I decided to use an example, and started by saying a basic equation, 2+2=4. “But if you take one of the 2s and use “x” instead, as a variable –“ here she cut me off – “Oh, I know about variables.”

We had several more conversations much like the following:

E: “I hate social studies”

Me: “What’s social studies?”

E: “History”

Me: “Why don’t you like history?”

E: “It’s boring…. even my history teacher says it’s boring”

Sometimes, I couldn’t understand some of the words Erica said. I thought perhaps she might have a lisp or spoke with a sort of accent. When Erica was writing up the summary of her reading, she wanted help spelling the word “braces.” I told her it rhymed with the word “face,” – “Do you know how to spell face?” She wrote “vase,” on the line. I told her I meant “Face,” but I think she misheard me again. To avoid further confusion, we looked at how the word was written in the book and she copied from that.



Riley's picture

wonderful !

This is such a wonderful characterization of a new connection you've made. I agree with jccohen that the way you both approached each other and began talking to each other is very striking--cautious, but curious; candid and a little funny and very endearing. I too make a point of showing mutual respect to kids I interact with because I remember appreciating that when I was younger, too. It's interesting how our past experiences influence the way we interact with children (what happens when we forget how we felt when we were younger?). I really hope we can talk about this in class and you can follow up on this. 

et502's picture


I really want to develop a better relationship with the kids at my placement, but I don't want to be overbearing. In particular with Erica, I got the sense that she would respond better to me if I let her take the lead, and approach me when she's ready. She seems like a great student - perhaps really excited about math? and a very expressive reader - I'd love to get to know more about her interests and her day-to-day activities. What is she like at school? Someone told me that she used to be very quiet, but this has changed in the past year - why is that? Does this after-school program have anything to do with the changes? 

When I was her age, I appreciated when other people treated me like an adult, not a little kid that needed to be coddled. I think I might be applying that experience to my actions - listening/validating/responding rather than asking/telling/initiating. At least for right now. I think she wanted to tell me more about herself, but was only ready to do this in small steps. Once I've been there for a few weeks, I hope we'll both understand my role better, and we'll develop a stronger mutual respect. 

jccohen's picture

such a nuanced reading...


This is such a nuanced 'reading' of Erica, and so based in your sense of her strengths and enthusiasms -- lovely!

jccohen's picture

first day connection


I read this as a sort of narrative of your first day connections with Erica, and I'm struck by a sense that you were very aware of coming forward to meet Erica, so to speak, and then backing up in order not to crowd her, and (likewise) being available for reading questions/dialogue but also not forcing or even pushing this.  So, I'm curious:  What kind of connection did you feel with E over the course of this first day?  What are your thoughts and curiosities about her, and about continuing to work with her?  What was your sense of her sense of you?  She does seem to initiate a number of those brief exchanges.  The hair exchange seems to me especially interesting, partly because hair can be such a 'hot'/important topic...