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How to use books to create teachable and memorable moments.

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My mom really sparked a love for story time within me. In fact, whenever I read books with my own children, I imagine her inflections, facial expressions, smiles, widening eyes, and excitement. She is exactly who I got my animated personality from while engaging with children.

So when I created my parent-child-connect (P2C) book series, my goal was to develop resources for parents, teachers, and mentors to similarly create teachable and memorable moments of their own! I never imagined that I would have opportunities to share my stories in front of thousands of children around the world. The support has been amazing!

Several educators, librarians, and administrators have given me the opportunity to read and engage with their students. Of course I collected a few notes during these engagements that help me better serve the schools. Ultimately, each engagement has turned into a teachable and memorable moment using some basic fundamentals that I’ll share with you today.

Me reading Horace the Horsefly during a virtual read-aloud session with a 1st Grade class!

How to use books to create teachable and memorable moments.

1. Voice tone and inflections.

Ever wonder why YouTube channels like “Blippi – Educational Videos for Kids” have been so successful? It’s because the creators have learned to entertain and engage children with their tone and inflection! Your tone and inflection draw the children in and brings the story to life for them. Through contextualization, they are learning to comprehend the words you are reading. If there are pictures, the children’s imagination are transforming the pictures from 2-dimensional to 3-dimensional. I call this the Pee-wee Herman vs Clear Eyes guy dynamic. You can reel the children in with an excited voice, or you can bore them with a monotone voice. Your choice!

2. Body language and expressions.

Body language and expressions go hand-in-hand with tone and inflections. With the younger groups (toddler through about 8 years old), I always try to keep my eyes wide, smile broad, chest out, and my arms and hands open. This is a welcoming posture–almost like I’m inviting them to join you in an exciting world! For the older groups (9+), I usually begin by mirroring their body language and expressions then gradually transitioning to a brighter and excitable demeanor. You have to read the room. Why?

Because the younger group is usually more open to new things and excited to engage with you just because you seem “fun.” The older group usually isn’t as eager to join you. They want to get to know you a little more before they warm up to you. They no longer identify as a “child” anymore; they prefer the title “preteen.” With that comes a perceived transition into adulthood and a disinterest in “kiddie things.” That’s ok; we’ll bring the childlike excitement out of them! This body and expression mirroring technique may seem miniscule, but it has worked for me in every setting–from the classroom to the library to the church. Numerous parents and teachers have asked, “How did you get them to open up like that?” My answer was simple: I met them where they were!

3. Awareness of current trends.

Recently, I was sitting in a presentation that one of my peers gave to a group of marines. The presenter made numerous references and used several memes to drive his point home. If used correctly, this can be an invaluable technique for a presenter! The keywords there are, “if used correctly.”

During this presentation, the presenter referenced movies like The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Red Dawn (1984), and A Christmas Story (1983). These are all great movies and references! The only issue was the majority of the people in the room were between the ages of 18-22 (born between 2000 and 2004)… So they had never seen those movies! He found himself standing in a room full of blank stares. He couldn’t flip through those slides quick enough!

*Side note: I had a similar circumstance when I found out my marines didn’t believe The Lion King (1994) was the greatest Disney movie of all time. Some had never even seen it! Really?! I digress.*

Integrating relevant topics and themes is a great tool, but it’s important to understand your audience and their current interests. This, once again, allows you to meet the children where they are and connect with them on their level.

4. Passion and energy.

This one is simple. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, the children you’re engaging with won’t believe in what you’re saying. If you are dry, dull, and boring, the children will [accurately] believe you are dry, dull, and boring. They will become disengaged, and the entire session will be pointless. Your passion and energy is the driving force behind my first three suggestions, and it is how you connect your audience with the book you’re reading to create a teachable and memorable moment.

5. Be yourself.

It’s easy to read my first few suggestions and assume I’m encouraging you to be someone you’re not. Well, I’m not. In fact, children will quickly realize any fake characteristics. As such, creating teachable and memorable moments is both a science and an art. In other words, simply systematically studying your target audience and attempting to apply your observations isn’t enough. You have to add in creativity and imagination. Then, just like with fine art, the children will appreciate and connect with your intangible characteristics more than they appreciate your technique.

6. Engage with whomever engages you, but don’t forget to engage the quiet one.

It is super easy to connect with the talkative children. Some people would consider it a success if even five out of eighteen students are engaged. It makes the reader feel accomplished! Quite honestly, I absolutely love an engaged audience. The only issue is when in a group setting (even a small class), it’s easy to overlook the quiet one. That is the one I look for. There are a litany of reasons a child would be quiet and/or withdrawn, but I love giving them the opportunity to speak and feel heard. It builds their confidence and gives you an opportunity to receive immediate feedback from a person who may have otherwise been disengaged. Reel them in; they’ll never forget it!

7. Slow down.

I wanted to be a rapper when I was younger! (I know that’s a weird way to start this section, but let’s just roll with it.) I’m not talking about just any rapper; I wanted to rap like Twista or Busta Rhymes! You know, the kind of rap where the artist says about 280 words per minute. So, it’s no wonder I read and talk fast after practicing that for a few years.

Here’s my advice for you: slow down! You’re not a rapper, so you’re not going to entertain children by reading the book fast. Of course I say that jokingly, because like me, you’re talking fast because of nervousness not because you think it’s entertaining. The way to avoid reading too fast is to schedule natural pauses during your practice runs. Obviously, the implied advice is that you practice and do dry runs before reading with children (even at home). Some of you are thinking like Allen Iverson in the early 2000s, “Practice?! We talkin’ bout practice!” Yes, I’m suggesting you practice before “game time” so you’re ready to engage the children with energy and passion with the right speed, tone, and inflection. You see how this is all coming together? Let’s keep going.

8. The fight for attention.

Let’s park here for a couple of minutes, because this one is critical to creating teachable and memorable moments. I’ve done engagements with parents, clients, teens, toddlers, teachers… basically all age ranges. One thing that each group has in common is a limited attention span. Many scholars, like Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching and Phillip C. Wankat in The Effective, Efficient Professor: Teaching, Scholarship, and Service, assert that attention begins to wane after about 10 to 15 minutes. There is even an often cited Microsoft report that says our attention span is only 8 seconds… apparently, that’s less than a goldfish! Uh oh. That can be a bit problematic when you’re booked for 30 to 60 minutes. So how do you deal with this conundrum? Is it hopeless to try to engage for longer than 10 to 15 minutes?!

Lucky for us, there are a couple of articles that counter this “limited attention span” assertion. “Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?” Was written by Neil A. Bradbury. “The Role of Attention in Learning in the Digital Age” was co-authored by Jason M. Lodge and William J. Harrison. Unfortunately, they took longer than 10 to 15 minutes to read, so I didn’t read them. Just kidding! ๐Ÿ˜‚ I read them, and here three quick points I gathered.:

  1. Limit distractions as much as possible. Kevin Hart’s team’s latest stand-up is about two hours long. During this time, spectators secure their phones in individual Yondr pouches. This is obviously to keep people from recording or broadcasting the show; however, the unintended affect is this initiative forces spectators to pay attention to the show without the consistent distraction. Typically, an individual’s attention span is broken when they attempt to multitask or split their focus. So if possible, pick a quiet room or location without immediate access to mobile devices, toys, TVs, etc. Although we cannot accurately predict the infinite number of ways the brain can become distracted, we can temporarily restrict access to common distractions to increase focus and attention.
  2. The focus cycle. As stated above, there are an infinite number of ways the mind can become distracted. For example, have you ever noticed the little lint and dust floating freely through the air while you’re in a meeting? That’s just one of many fairly insignificant things that can steal our children’s focus. With that in mind, we have to constantly work through the focus cycle. This is where the human brain focuses then (sometimes involuntarily) loses focus. An easily-recognizable outward sign of waning focus is drifting eyes. Your job is to identify these cues and use inflection, expressions, tone, body language, and visual aides to refocus your audience on the book you’re reading.
  3. Humans have limited capacity for visual information. Use your visual aides sparingly…even with picture books. Now this sounds pretty weird. I just told you to use visual aides, and now I’m telling you to limit your visual aides even with a picture book. Let me explain before you call me crazy. Although picture books are full of illustrations, the illustrations should complement the theme. So really, you are directing your child’s attention to how two or three pictures relate to the theme. I’ll use my book, Crow From the Shadow, as an example.
The front cover of my book, Crow From the Shadow

I usually begin by pointing out the two contrasting images of Crow on the front cover. “A” is Crow after he learned how to defeat the Shadow. “B” is Crow before he learned how to defeat the Shadow. I use these contrasting images to highlight the book’s theme. Then, I constantly highlight how Crow is slowly transitioning throughout the story. Thereby, the children can enjoy the story while comprehending the topic without having to memorize each picture.

By the way, here’s a really good read-aloud of “Crow From the Shadow” if you haven’t read it already. ๐Ÿ˜Š

Crow From the Shadow read-aloud on “Story Time W/ Kayla!”

9. Respect the teacher and/or librarian and offer to be a resource.

This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised. The teacher and librarian will be the authoritative figure before and after you leave. They are the people who will begin and sustain what you are trying to do. In other words, you are collaborating with the teacher and/or librarian to create teachable and memorable moments for the children. Both teachers and librarians have been extremely helpful in helping maintain order, reinforcing themes, asking questions that can help the children later, and organizing continuing conversations. So give the teacher and librarian a shout out! Not only does that show that you appreciate them, but it gives them a bit of “street cred” with the children. Trust me, it means a lot to them!

10. What about teenagers?

Some of you are thinking, “yea this is cute for younger children, but it would never work for my teenager.” The beauty of this advice is it will work for teens…with some modifications.

You probably won’t be reading picture books with your teen, but nothing stops you from reading one of the books they are interested in, then discussing it in a relaxed setting. If they chose the book, they are interested in the topic. So by reading their books, not only are you gaining a better understanding of their perspective, you are establishing a common ground between the two of you.

What if you don’t have time to read their books?

No problem. Just ask them about it. Start the conversation by saying something like, “I saw you were reading _____. That seems interesting! Tell me about it!” Don’t try to squeeze in a lecture or dominate these conversations. Allow the conversation to naturally progress. Believe it or not, these discussions will create some of the most heartfelt teachable and memorable moments!

11. Have fun!

I couldn’t end this blog without telling you to have fun! Reading is very exciting and you are doing what it takes to increase literacy as you mentor, lead, and guide children. I am proud of you and the work you’re doing! Let’s continue to build teachable and memorable moments together!

Thank you, and have a great week!

Having fun while reading Horace the Horsefly with my 3 year old.