Beyond the Bookends: Making Lasting Connections

One of the most frequently used comprehension strategies is that of making connections.  As they read, students are asked to make text-to-self connections (between the text and the reader’s personal experience), text-to-text connections (between the text and another text that was read previously), and text-to-world connections (between the text and something that occurs in the world).  When attempting to draw these types of links, the readers are actively thinking about the text, what it might mean or how it might relate to his/her life and environment.  In this way, reading becomes less of a passive activity but something that is alive and engaging.

One of the ways our family tries to take this into the next step is to see out events or activities that could really drive the text-to-world connections.  Two years ago, we planned our week-long summer vacation around a non-fiction book that my then-7-year-old had written and published for her second-grade class.  Every homeroom was assigned a continent, then students got to choose from a list of animals from that continent to research, then write about.  Because my daughter was shy, by the time she got brave enough to speak up, all the popular animals were taken, and she ended up with something called the elephant shrew.

Have you never heard of the elephant shrew?  Well, we hadn’t either.  There was very little information on this small African creature that, in my daughter’s own words, “has the body of a hamster, the legs of an antelope, and the trunk of an elephant”.  In fact, it is so unique that it belongs to a family (the macroscelididae) ALL BY ITSELF.  I know this (and more), because my daughter researched the heck out of this elephant shrew.  I mean, to this day, she’s probably still the only person outside of our family who knows about the animal and can tell you all the wonderful things it does.

The summer after her book was published, we were scratching our heads about where to go for vacation.  My daughter, quite innocently, said that she wished she could see an elephant shrew in real life — an animal from Africa that no one knows about, mind ya! — and because it was late and we were such fabulous parents we decided to humor her and Google where you can see an elephant shrew in America.  Turned out, there were only a handful of zoos in the US that housed this animal, BUT, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., “only” ten hours away by car, was one of them!

Since my husband and I both loved Washington, D.C. growing up, we decided to turn this into the Field Trip of All Field Trips.  A few minutes on Priceline later, we had a hotel (a mile or so from the zoo), and a sketchy itinerary that centered around a visit to the elephant shrew.

I cannot describe the excitement that built up around The Day We Went to See the Elephant Shrew — I am getting goosebumps just recalling it.  We had custom-made a shirt for her that said, “Got Elephant Shrew?” and she even got to bring her book.  We triple-circled the small-mammals house on the zoo map where we would find our special friend, and planned our route so it would be one of the last things we saw.  The anticipation throughout the day was unbelievable; just like on long car trips, all we heard was, “Are we almost there?  Are we almost there?”

Here are some pictures of when she finally got to meet her elephant shrews…they say pictures are worth a thousand words — I think these show just how awesome she felt.

Ella showing the book to "her" elephant shrew

Ella showing the book to “her” elephant shrew

Ella explaining to passersby why she thinks the elephant shrew is so amazing!

Ella explaining to passersby why she thinks the elephant shrew is so amazing!

Ella, her book, and the elephant shrew

Ella, her book, and the elephant shrew

The Amazing Elephant Shrew!

The Amazing Elephant Shrew!

All this to say that this is a perfect example of a reader/writer who has made lasting, meaningful connection between the text, herself, and her world.  Of all the things she’s read and written in 2nd grade, it’s safe to bet that this is THE ONE she’s going to remember for a long, long time.  (And this wasn’t the only connections we were able to draw on this trip.  Washington, D.C. was full of sights and sounds that the kids had learned about at school.  Our favorites included the Ford Theater — Lincoln was assassinated — the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — where, again, the words that our daughters had read came alive — the Space Museum, the Botanical Gardens, the Capitol Building/meeting the TN senators, and so many more.)

We have two upcoming vacations planned thanks to our now-4th-grader: a trip to the Panther Creek State Park in Morristown, TN (a recent research paper), and a visit to Zoo Atlanta to see where Ivan the gorilla (on whom the book The One and Only Ivan was based) used to play and live (I just found out today that he died about a year ago around this time of the year).  Maybe they still have one of his paintings for her to buy and remember him by.

So, where are you heading for your next vacation?  Maybe you can draw inspiration from a book you or your children have just read, or something they’d had to research at school.  It might involve a bit of planning, and the trip might be a bit out of the ordinary, but I promise you, you’ll be making memories and connections that reach well beyond the bookends.

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