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From the Heart

Filling in the Holes

Jacqueline Jules
Falls Church, Virginia
Jacqueline Jules

Jacqueline Jules is an elementary school librarian in Fairfax County, Virginia, as well the author of numerous acclaimed children's books. Her titles include The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle, Sarah Laughs, and The Grey Striped Shirt, a story for children ages 8-12 about the Holocaust. Her work has also appeared in children's magazines such as Highlights for Children, Cricket, and Ladybug.

In 2007, Ms. Jules published No English, a story about a second-grade girl's efforts to befriend a new student from Argentina despite their language barrier. The book, which is accompanied by a Teacher's Guide full of engaging discussion topics and activities, offers an honest, touching portrayal of the challenges and opportunities presented when we get to know someone who speaks another language. In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Ms. Jules discusses her writing, the students that inspired the story of No English, and ways to encourage reading with English language learners.

Note: To learn more about Ms. Jules and her children's books, take a look at her website.

First, tell us about your school.

We are a diverse Title I elementary school with students from pre-K through 6th grade. Approximately 40% of our students have limited proficiency in English, and we have quite a bit of turnover throughout the school year, so new students with varying language abilities and backgrounds are always arriving. Yesterday, for example, we just welcomed two new students from Bolivia who have no English skills.

Where are your students from?

Our students hail from more than 40 countries, so part of my goal in the library is to make sure that all students feel welcome, and that there is something for everyone. I have many Spanish-language books for our Spanish speakers, but I also look for books in the other languages that our students speak. It can be a challenge to find books in some of our students' languages, so if I can't find a book in the language I am looking for, I look for a book in English about the countries that our students come from so that they will be able to at least look at familiar pictures and relate to what they see.

How do your "old" students respond to the new students who arrive during the school year?

My students are wonderful, and because we get so many students during the year, they have a lot of experience welcoming new children to the class. They know what to do and how to reach out. They are quite concerned about the new students, and are, in fact, very protective and even compete with each other to be the guides to show their classmates around the school. They will say to me, "Miss Jackie, we have a new student today! We have to help them!" For them, there is no question that this is the right thing to do, and this gives them the opportunity to be comfortable interacting with people from different backgrounds as well.

What kind of educational background do the students at your school have?

In terms of language and reading, it varies tremendously, and of course kids are coming in at different ages and from different backgrounds all year long. Some of our students come from families who are not literate at home in any language. Others are literate in their native languages, and they tend to adapt very well as they learn English. Others have learned English at schools before they come to America, which makes the transition even easier.

One of the areas where we see a significant disparity is in background knowledge. We have made a concerted effort to build the background knowledge of our pre-school kids who haven't had the kind of exposure and stimulation that other children might have had. Sometimes this means talking about what's at the grocery store, but sometimes it's as basic as learning how to count, so we are trying to help kids catch up as soon as they enter our school.

How does your school approach the parent-teacher relationship with parents from diverse backgrounds who speak different languages?

Our chool works hard to reach out to parents. We have a program called Partners in Print, for example, that gives parents ideas for ways to encourage reading at home. One of our ELL teachers in particular has shown tremendous leadership in this area. We applied for a grant so that we could take parents on a field trip to the public library, and it was a great experience for everyone involved. We are always looking for creative and effective ways to increase parent involvement, and to make sure that the parents feel like it's a meaningful experience so that they will continue working with the school.

What are your responsibilities as a teacher librarian?

I am the head librarian at the school library, and I also teach 27 classes each week with students from pre-K through 6th grade. The kinds of lessons vary significantly by age level. With the younger students, I read stories and try to engage them through puppets, singing, storytelling, flannel boards, stuffed animals — anything I can to get them excited about reading.

With my older students, I do some reading out loud, but I also teach information skills lessons — these might include learning how to use reference materials like almanacs, atlases, and dictionaries, or reviewing books about a topic that a classroom teacher hasn't had time to cover. Our curriculum is very scheduled, and so our teachers are on a strict timeline in terms of what they have to teach and when they have to teach it. As a result, they don't always have time to include the kinds of enrichment activities or literature that they used to cover. For example, some of our students are currently studying Native Americans, but there isn't time to read and discuss different Native American folk tales — a crucial part of Native American history and traditions. As a result, our students are learning about these folk tales in the library. The teachers and I collaborate so that we can figure out what I can cover in the library while they move through the curriculum in the classroom.

Another librarian once told me her job was to "fill in the holes" and that's how I see my job as well. Whether it's the extra reading time or background knowledge, I'm striving every day to fill in as many holes as I can.

By the time students reach 5th or 6th grade we are actively using the computer and learning how to evaluate online sources. We are lucky at our school because we have access to some wonderful online databases that offer high-quality information and resources, but I do emphasize the importance of evaluating and comparing information that students find online so they can read and make decisions with a more critical eye.

Being a teacher librarian is just one part of your life's work. How did you get started as a writer?

I can't remember when I didn't want to be a writer. I was an avid reader, and I would write my own stories and poems because I wanted to create the things that had brought me so much joy as a child. In third grade, my teacher gave everyone a strip of construction paper and asked us to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up. In my newly acquired cursive, I wrote "writer."

How do you choose what you are going to write about?

In much the same way that my job as a librarian is to "fill in the holes," I try to do something similar as an author. Often an idea for a book will come to me because I'm looking for something that I can't find, and when I realize I haven't found it because it doesn't exist, I think, "I should write a book about this."

My students also inspire me every day. Teaching feeds my writing and my kids give me so many great ideas, partly by just doing whatever it is that they're doing, and other times by telling me what they would like to see more of in the books they are reading. Once in awhile I think that I would have more time to write if I weren't teaching, but I know I wouldn't have the same rich material to draw from if I weren't in school every day!

No English is the story of two young girls confronting a language barrier. Is this an example of a story inspired by students?

Yes. There are really two things that motivated me to write this book. The first was a student who inspired the character of Blanca — she used to come to my library and shake her lovely brown hair and say "No English." By the end of the school year, she was doing remarkably well and when she graduated from sixth grade, two years later, she was one of the top students in her class. I have met so many Blancas — often they come and smile and are very polite in the library, pointing to what they want, but they can't say much else. Usually within six months or so, however, they begin to communicate and they blossom.

I actually had the idea for this book during my first year of teaching at my current school (although it took many years to complete), and I knew I wanted to look at this issue from a child's point of view. I also knew, though, that I couldn't provide an authentic immigrant perspective for the main character of the book. What I could provide was my perspective — my experience of wanting to reach out to someone who didn't speak English, such as the student who inspired Blanca, and the frustration and discomfort that accompanies the missteps along the way as you try to overcome the language barrier. Fortunately, I have also experienced the joy that comes from overcoming those challenges with patience, understanding, and creativity. So the character of Diane really represents me, the American, wanting to reach out to all the Blancas I've known.

There is another reason I wanted to write this book, and another reason that makes it very personal and close to my heart, which is that I am the child of an immigrant. My father came from Switzerland and so I had many cousins there when I was growing up that we would visit, but I couldn't speak with them and that was very hard for me. I learned to say "Ze" instead of "the" because that's what I heard in my household. I grew up in a small town, watching my father trying to communicate with others, noticing that he did stick out, and I could see that it was difficult for him to not always be understood, and that it was difficult for others who couldn't understand him.

As an adult I had more empathy and very much appreciated his courage in coming to a new country where he didn't speak the language, but as a child, it was confusing that people didn't understand my father when he spoke. This book is an acknowledgement of that confusion, and of the ways that language affects our interactions and our friendships, as well as the doors it opens for us.

What is the teacher's (or librarian's) role in making sure new students feel welcomed and accepted when they arrive at a new school?

In No English, the teacher asks her students "Can you understand what it's like to be surrounded by people you don't understand?" She also encourages her students to learn more about Blanca's country, Argentina, on the Internet, just as I encourage my kids to look up new things that they don't know. I think it's so important for adults to teach children how to look at a situation from someone else's point of view, and also to encourage curiosity about learning new things. Students can learn from each other's differences, but in the process they will most likely learn that they have a lot in common too, just as Diane and Blanca find some things they share when they both draw pictures of their families.

What are some of the challenges for you of writing multicultural children's literature?

The most important thing to me is that I am accurate in my portrayals of people from different backgrounds. I often ask my students and the ELL teachers at my school for advice when I am writing, and they are great advisors! The kids get so excited when I ask them for advice. Recently, I saw a student in an Asian market while I was doing research for a new book. I asked her for some suggestions on food to include in the story. She was thrilled as she took me through the market pointing out different kinds of food. It was a great experience for both of us.

You write a lot of children's books about the Jewish tradition, ranging from bedtime prayers and rhymes to fairy tales and Biblical stories. Do you approach this work in the same way that you approach your other writing?

Yes. Again, it all comes back to filling the holes. For example, my editor was looking for a story about Sarah, Abraham's wife from the Bible. I saw that there were no children's books written from Sarah's point of view. I wrote Sarah Laughs and my editor thought it was just right for what people had been looking for. Interestingly, the book has really resonated with educators and religious leaders, and so it seems that I was able to fill a hole that needed to be filled.

What was your motivation in writing a children's book about the Holocaust, and how did you take the difficult material on with children in mind?

The Grey Striped Shirt came out of my teaching experiences. I taught Holocaust studies for a number of years, so I had a lot of experience explaining and discussing this topic with young people.

As I reviewed the children's literature that was out there, I saw another hole. I purposely set out to write a book for children too old for David Adler's The Number on My Grandfather's Arm and too young for Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. When The Grey Striped Shirt was reviewed in School Library Journal (March, 1995), the reviewer mentioned these two books and said I had achieved exactly what I had set out to do, which was very gratifying.

I also felt that while there were powerful and beautiful books which took young people back to the time of the Holocaust, there weren't children's books about the survivors. I didn't just want to write about death. I wanted to write about the courageous people who lost everything — not just their families, but their entire towns and everyone in their towns — and who came to new places and started new lives. I really wrote this book as a celebration of the survivors. So my book is told from the point of view of a child whose grandparents have survived the Holocaust, and I found it easier to write from that point of view.

You are committed to write and share and promote such diverse children's books. Why do you think it's important for teachers and librarians to incorporate a wide range of children's books in the curriculum?

First, I think it's important for students to be exposed to a variety of experiences, traditions, and perspectives. But is also essential for students to be able to connect with what they read, and to see books that reflect their own experiences. It's important in terms of validating their experiences, and it's important in the process of learning to read and understanding print so that they can connect their life to what they are reading. That's why I look for books that reflect a student's experiences, or if I can't find one, I figure out whether it's something I can write!

For those teachers who may want to share children's books with students about a subject they don't know much about or don't feel comfortable teaching, how can they get started?

Ask a librarian. Librarians can connect you with good literature on any topic. Review magazines such as Book Links, School Library Journal, and Booklist can help. Newsletters from websites like Reading Rockets and Colorin Colorado are great resources too! There are also blogs out there devoted to multicultural literature like Shen's Blog. It is easy to get connected to good multicultural literature on the web, and online library catalogs have subject term headings that are very useful. Once people get started, they'll find plenty of material and ways of dealing with new or difficult material.

What do you think librarians and ELL teachers can do to encourage reading for ELL students?

There are so many things: Read rich literature aloud to their students. Experience the joy of stories together. Encourage parents to read aloud at home. Be creative! I have found that audio recordings are very helpful for ELL students when they can listen to a story and follow along the text because we have a lot of books on tape at my school library. However, there is a challenge because some of my students don't have tape players at home to play the tapes, or for younger students, they may not know how to use a tape player. It's important to remember that things we may take for granted can be real obstacles for our students and families.

We also have gotten away from the kinds of read-aloud stories that encourage interaction and participation. For example, traditional folk tales, fairy tales, or nursery rhymes that use call and response, choruses, and repetitive verses not only engage children, but stimulate language development, especially for ELLs. If nothing else, they want to participate, especially as they watch the children around them calling out verses like "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down" again and again. When I read fairy tales with choruses like that, even if the kids don't quite understand the meaning, they are chanting the words by the end of the story and feel like they are part of something larger than themselves because it's so much fun and they can do it with everyone else!

Not many new children's books have been written with that kind of language recently, but the classics provide some great rhymes and verses to try.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am finishing up a picture book called Duck on Turkey Day. It is about a Vietnamese family celebrating Thanksgiving. Like No English, it was inspired both by my students and my own experiences. I heard from my students that they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving with traditional turkey and stuffing, but ate holiday foods from their birth countries.

It reminded me of when I was a child. We didn't always celebrate holidays the way other people did. For example, my Swiss father liked to have a duck or goose on Thanksgiving because he didn't like turkey. So I created a story that reflects that diversity of tradition. We don't all do things the same way, and it's important for students to know that the way their family does things is ok and interesting and important — just as ok and interesting and important as the traditions that they see around them.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring children's authors?

Read all the children's literature you can so you are familiar with what is being published and what is popular. Visit the websites of School Library Journal, Booklist, The Horn Book, and Publisher's Weekly to help you select what to read and to find out what's hot in the marketplace. Join SCBWI, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, to learn the children's publishing business and how to submit a manuscript. Revise your stories until they shine and then revise some more. And finally, be persistent. If this is your dream, keep trying until you succeed. It took me many years before I realized my goal of becoming a children's author. Patience and persistence can eventually pay off!