“A preschool teacher walks into a saloon—”

“Oh, I think I know this one Pal. Eats shoots and leaves?”

“What? No, Kid! Look, here comes Jennie Fitzkee, a preschool teacher. Howdy Jennie!”

“Hello Pal, hello Kid.”

“Preschool? School prior to school? What age are your students?”

“My students are three and four years old Kid.”

“How’d ya git inta the pre-school teacher gig?”

“Back in the day, most women had three career choices— teacher, secretary, or nurse.  I always enjoyed babysitting and playing with my younger sisters, so teaching was a natural choice for me. I have been teaching for thirty-seven years!”

“Must be ya love what ya do, Jennie.”

“I sure do, Pal. I have always taught preschool, no other grade.  Lucky me! The best thing about being a preschool teacher is making a real difference.  And that happens in small and unexpected moments.  The little things are really the big things.  Finding a salamander on the playground, reading aloud a book that makes children belly laugh or cry, cheering when a child writes his/her name, introducing children to art like Starry Night, and to music from Vivaldi to the Beatles, and knowing when a big hug is the best medicine of all.”

“Aw, you soun’ like a great teacher. But we know ya as a blogger.  ‘Member how ya connected ta our Charli Mills over thet book, The Poet’s Dog, by Patricia MacLachlan.”

“Oh, I remember that! Charli read that book to her dog, Bobo. You know, C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” He was right!”  

“Yeah but, how’d a nice preschool teacher like you come ta be bloggin’?”

“I started my blog in March of 2014. For decades at school I wrote newsletters to parents. I had so many things to tell them, because I just ‘knew’. The newsletters were becoming lengthy. I was not only telling parents about what we were doing in the classroom, I was telling them why we do what we do. Educating parents is as important as educating children. I wanted to share my stories with fellow teachers, too. So, I decided to tell my stories and write about children and education on my blog. I’m glad I did! Every thread of what I do in teaching is on my blog— from thoughtful posts to videos, stories and music and art, philosophy and history and geography. Teaching is a wonderful journey. Writing about it is even better.”

“We git a whole bunch a writers an’ readers through here, what with bein’ fillyated with Carrot Ranch Literary Community. We’re all ‘bout stories. Heard you are too.”

“I sure am Kid. On ‘day one’ of teaching, my lead teacher asked me if I would be the one to read books to the children. I will never forget that day, reading “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni and watching fifteen eyes take it all in.  It was a lightbulb moment of knowing. I readily built upon it and quickly learned as I went along. Of course this grew in leaps and bounds.”

“Yep, we heard tell yer highlighted in Jim Trelease’s bestselling book, “The Read-Aloud Handbook.”

“I am. I read to my children a lot. Covid shut down school in March and I immediately set up a YouTube channel to read aloud, so children could see and hear me read picture books, and keep a sense of normalcy. I picked good stories to read, ones I knew they would love.  Gugi Gugi, Harry the Dirty Dog and The Seven Chinese Sisters were the first. If you go to YouTube, select channels, and type Aqua Room, all those stories from March through June are there. And what happened after I read these stories on YouTube? Parents were over the moon. Children could watch Jennie read anytime.”

“I ‘member picture books an’ stories from when I was a young’un. Even now I say ‘Good night, moon’ ta the moon.”

“I’ll bet you’re not the only one Kid. Good Night Moon is a classic that children know and love by the words alone. I recite Good Night Moon every day at school, just before chapter reading. They have memorized the words. I often add children’s names, “In the great green room, there was a telephone and Hannah’s red balloon, and a picture of Emmett jumping over the moon” and so on. When Covid hit, I did a Good Night Moon rap for children on our Aqua Room YouTube channel in April.  It helped keep the normalcy of what they were used to at school, and it added great fun.”

“Thet was fun! Never dreamed I’d hear thet story like thet.”

“It was fun for me and for the children. It worked because it’s a good story. The story, the words, and the illustrations all together make for a good story.  I often talk about the ‘indirect method’, the power of using animals and also words in a story that hint at a bigger message. Children need to be pulled in, not told directly. Every word matters.”

“Words an’ images kin send a wrong message, I reckon.”

“Yes. That’s why a well-known children’s story was banned. But there’s a happy ending. The story has been restored with names and images more appropriate and authentic to the story’s origins; now titled The Story of Little Babaji, it has been revived with illustrations by Fred Marcellino that match Helen Bannerman’s story— more clearly set in India, of course.  Every year it is the favorite book. Children love chiming in to say the words along with the tigers, ‘Little Babaji, I’m going to eat you up.’ We have done play performances based on this book. It’s that good and that popular.”

“I kin see why yer students injoy this tale with the predictable narrative an’ repetitions. They must iden’ify with the clever child overcoming adversity and danger represen’ed by the tigers.”

“Reckon, Pal, they ‘den’ify with the pancake eatin’! Though I cain’t wrap my head aroun’ butter bein’ made thataway.”

“Jist suspend yer disbelief an’ shush, Kid. Jennie, how d’ya use children’s lit in yer preschool classroom?”

“I have a front-facing bookshelf where books are displayed with the cover page out.”

“Like Ernie done with the shelves behin’ the bar!”  

“Yes, I noticed that. This is quite a saloon!”

“It’s fer our literary artist community.”

“Awesome. In my classroom books are not in a basket. Books are there for children to access all the time. All the time! I have two planned times to read picture books every day, plus spontaneous reading, and one-on-one reading with a child. I chapter read every day as we go down for rest. So far this year we have read Charlotte’s Web, My Father’s Dragon, and we’re into The Story of Dr. Dolittle.”

“Wunner if Shorty’s payin’ attenshun. She might wanna read Charlotte’s Web, mebbe gain a little compassion fer poor ol’ Wolferick. An’ thinkin mebbe Dr. Doolittle kin be the ranch vet.”

“Shush yer wunnerin’ an’ thinkin’ Kid, or I’ll be dragon ya behin’ my father’s woodshed. Stop inneruptin’ our guest… sorry Jennie. So, how else d’ya use stories in yer classroom?”

“Books also inspire acting out the stories, art projects, and writing our own stories.  We do play performances for other classrooms and for our families.  We did a performance of The Three Billy Goats Gruff in Spanish.  ‘Who is that boom-boom-booming over my Puente?’”

“Billy goats?!”

“Shush it Kid. Jennie, ya sure are inta stories an’ picture books. Reckon folks thet ain’t even preschoolers or preschool parents or teachers could git educated and ennertained at yer blog. Think you’ll ever write a picture book?”

“Thank you Pal. I have written two picture books. They are based on true events and have a very different twist in the middle of the book. Children’s books are the hardest writing of all, paring down every single word and making sure the few words you write are strong. I’m working on my query letter.”

“Well we wish ya the best a luck with all thet. An’ thank ya so much fer comin’ by fer a chat.”

“My pleasure! Read on!”

Jennie is a New England preschool teacher who has maintained her sense of wonder as she helps her young students find their voice and their way. She shares the journey at her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections.

Free ranging characters who live and work at Carrot Ranch, Pal & Kid now serve up something more or less fresh every Monday at the Saddle Up Saloon . Got something to share? Take the stage! If you or your characters are interested in saddling up for a wild ride as a saloon guest, contact Pal & Kid via  shiftnshake@dslayton.com.


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