Kim Jocelyn Dickson is an elementary teacher and creator of the website, http://theinvisibletoolbox.org, where she shares research, inspirational material, and videos regarding the importance of reading to children at an early age. With nearly 30 years of teaching under her belt, she shares in this interview her inspiration for writing her book The Invisible Toolbox, how she got started as an author and why reading to children at an early age is so vital in ensuring their developmental wellbeing.
Kim is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has also completed the coursework to earn her Master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Currently, she is fulfilling her passion of teaching, at an independent school in sunny Southern California.
1. What made you want to be an elementary school teacher?
Teaching has always come naturally to me, I think. Even as a child I played school a LOT, and if memory serves, I somehow always played the part of the teacher. The tools of the trade fascinated me: I loved to write on the chalkboard, use the magic markers and, probably most important, always loved WORDS. As a teenager I taught swimming and lifesaving and became a camp counselor and waterfront instructor at a camp on Cape Cod. When it was time to decide on a major I think I was heavily influenced by family friends I admired who were teachers. It was a fairly natural choice for me. And of course there are the children. I’ve always found that there is a special kind of joy in being around children. I am probably still very much in touch with what it felt like to be a child. I think that helps a lot in relating to kids.
2. What has been your favorite aspect of being a teacher?
One of my favorite aspects of teaching is choosing books that will fascinate and inspire my students. We study Greek mythology, for instance, which most kids love. And we study the story of the Titanic, which is a mythic story itself. There are so many dimensions to the study of literature that kids can engage with. I teach my students how to read critically and how to discuss books. There’s nothing more fun than observing a group of eleven year olds debate the ethics of whether artifacts from the Titanic should be recovered or left in peace in the depths of the Atlantic.
3. You’re an elementary school teacher who writes. How did you become an author?
I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. I think because I was a reader, writing always came pretty easily for me. I received some acknowledgement for my writing abilities from peers and teachers during my early years, but never seriously entertained it as a career to pursue full-time. It certainly wasn’t something that my parents would ever have recognized or supported me in, and I didn’t have the self-confidence then to take myself seriously as a writer. Teaching came naturally to me and was an easy, practical choice at the time.
I was in grad school when I first began to think about writing seriously. I had discovered a treasure trove in the published diaries and letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her life story was fantastic and fascinating from a historical and biographical point of view, but the thing that hooked me was this underlying theme of struggle with self-doubt. Anne desperately wanted to write, but didn’t believe she could do it. The fact was she was an extraordinary writer, so why was her inner world so at odds with the reality of her giftedness? It was a theme that permeated her work and motivated me to dig deeper to try to understand. I recommend her diaries and letters for anyone who struggles with this. These books were the catalyst that inspired me to deal with my own unrecognized wish to write and the thing that kept me from doing it. This is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about the power of books and reading. Books can profoundly impact a life. Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, my first book, was the result of this journey.
4. What sparked the idea for The Invisible Toolbox?
During a long stint teaching third grade at my local public school, an outstanding school, by the way, that everyone wanted to have their children in, I was perplexed by the fact that even by third grade some children still struggled with reading. The strugglers had entered the same kindergarten as the children who were thriving, had experienced the same excellent teaching, and had even received extra help to get caught up. But they continued to lag far behind their peers. What made the difference, I wondered? I noticed a common denominator in the kids who were most successful. Their parents, from early on, had read to them regularly. It became clear to me then that kindergarten was not an even playing field. I realized that every child begins school with a lunchbox in one hand and an “Invisible Toolbox” in the other. The contents of that “Invisible Toolbox” have everything to do with whether a child will experience success in school. It’s essential that parents understand this for the sake of their children.
5. When did you realize the importance of, as well as your passion for, reading aloud to children?
It was at that time, and my passion for it has only grown over subsequent years. It’s rarely part of the cultural conversation, but the fact is the United States has a literacy crisis.
The generation that’s currently in elementary school—Generation Alpha*—are the kids that were born in 2010, the year the iPad was introduced. (*McCrindle, an Australian company that studies cultural trends, coined this term.) These children have not known life without smart devices. The fifth most popular YouTube channel in 2015 was Little Baby Bum, which plays nursery rhyme videos and songs for babies and toddlers. This generation is being raised on screens, yet the American Academy of Pediatricians advises no screens at all for children under two. There are neurological reasons for this. The first three years of life are a critical time for the brain to do so much of its work. Neurons want to fire, synapses want to make connections! Reading, singing, and speaking to our babies stimulate these things. Screens do not—at least not in the way that develops the language capabilities that are essential for healthy child development.
Ironically, at the same time this is happening, curriculum expectations are shifting downward into previous grades. In other words, what used to be taught in first grade is now taught in kindergarten. Preschools are now putting more emphasis on academics. This is a mistake and it’s not having a positive impact on future achievement. In 2019, 65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders in the United States did not score ‘proficient’ in reading on the NAEP, the nation’s report card that tests a cross-section of American fourth and eighth graders every two years.
So what teachers are now seeing are more children who are less developmentally ready than ever for school. Their toolboxes are empty.
6. What can readers expect to learn?
Readers will come away understanding that reading to our children from birth is as essential to our child’s well-being as all the loving things we do to care for our children physically—cuddling, feeding, bathing, and doctor visits. The book is grounded in easy to understand research, as well as my anecdotal experience as a parent and teacher who has taught hundreds of children over thirty years. Specifically, readers will also come away with:
· Ten priceless tools that will fill their child’s toolbox when they read aloud to their child
· Tools parents can give themselves to foster these gifts in their children
· Practical tips for how and what to read aloud to children through their developmental stages
· Do’s and Don’ts and recommended resources that round out all the practical tools a parent will need to prepare their child for kindergarten and beyond
7. I understand you’ve emphasized reading to your child as early as possible in your book, The Invisible Toolbox; what advice do you have for parents who may be kick-starting this reading journey a bit later than desired?
My advice is it’s never too late. It may not be easy—statistically, 75% of children who begin kindergarten behind will never catch up—but it is certainly possible. In my book I address what a parent can do to help their child join that 25% who DO catch up to their grade level peers. New habits are harder to form later on, but they can be formed.
8. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of parents have embodied the role of a teacher for their children during this homeschooling period, what advice would you have for these families?
There is a great deal of variance in what schools have provided during this time. I think the most critical thing a parent can do during this time is to inspire and support their child’s love of reading. The quarantine has been the perfect opportunity to hunker down and simply enjoy reading. Daily reading will pay huge dividends for a child missing out on regular instruction. The parents of one of my students did a smart thing during our time of Distance Learning. They bought him every single volume middle grade author Rick Riordan has written. So far, this boy has read 19 books during this three-month period on top of the work that his teachers have assigned. His parents will not need to worry about him ‘falling behind.’ Another smart thing to do is to create a daily Family Read-aloud Ritual. That can be a powerful way to inspire a love of books and create an emotional bond between parent and child.
9. Following that, I understand that many kids are now required to spend even more time on their devices due to homeschooling. What advice do you have for parents of these children to balance out the frequent electronics usage?
It’s true, and I think there may be some device fatigue. I know we’re all experiencing Zoom fatigue! During this time and during any time, really, it’s important for parents to set limits on electronics. Too much time online simply drains away the desire to read. Some of my students are spending time hanging out virtually through video games when they finish their schoolwork. They need to have this kind of connection when they can’t actually be together in person, but even so, a parent needs to set limits and encourage their child to go outside and play or go read a book.
10. Do you have a preference between electronic books and physical copies? In your opinion, does either choice impact the Invisible Toolbox children develop through reading?
Physical books are preferable. Electronic books can be practical for older children under certain circumstances. They’re convenient for travel, for instance. But for younger children I don’t recommend them at all. The kinesthetic-tactile experience of holding an actual book affects the brain differently than reading on a screen. Children learn how books work from using actual books. You read from front to back, from left to right, from top to bottom. The sight of a physical book helps to retain the experience of reading it; that doesn’t happen as vividly with a device.UCLA professor Maryanne Wolf talks about how reading on screens precludes ‘deep reading.’ We read differently on devices; we scan. A teacher I know experimented with all online textbooks this year. Their comprehension was very poor. He’s going back to physical textbooks next year.
11. What is one message you hope families take away from The Invisible Toolbox?
Just this: as parents we all—regardless of where we come from—want the world for our children. We do everything we can to help them develop fully into who they are meant to be so they can have meaningful lives. Reading to them from birth—or even before—is a powerful place to start. BUT, if you are reading this and your child is older and you haven’t read to them much, I want to reassure you that it’s not too late. My book is also for parents who didn’t grow up being read to and so may not have known how important it is to read to their own child. As I state in my book, “It’s never too late to parent yourself”.
1. Favorite book to read to your own children/ students? E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
2. Favorite color? Blue
3. Favorite quarantine activity? Baking banana bread—cliché, I know, but what else do you do with the ripe ones?
4. Favorite word? Energy
5. Favorite grade to teach? Fifth
6. Favorite ice cream flavor? Vanilla frozen custard with hot fudge sauce from Ted Drewes’ in St. Louis
7. Favorite outdoor activity? Swimming, horseback riding, whitewater rafting
8. Favorite song? “In My Life”
The Invisible Toolbox
The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
Longtime elementary school teacher Kim Jocelyn Dickson believes every child begins kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an “invisible toolbox” in the other. In The Invisible Toolbox, Kim shares with parents the single most important thing they can do to foster their child’s future learning potential and nurture the parent-child bond that is the foundation for a child’s motivation to learn. She is convinced that the simple act of reading aloud has a far-reaching impact that few of us fully understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance.