Read Across America Day was launched in 1998 by the National Education Association (NEA). It is a day to encourage children and teenagers to read and falls annually on March 2, which is also Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Last week a principal asked me to come to her school on Read Across America Day and read to her fifth-grade students. I was super excited to be teaching students, as in the past few years, my audience has always been adults. I couldn’t wait for my session with the fifth-grade students. Although I grew up on Dr. Seus’s books, reading one of his books wasn’t even an option. I took this as an opportunity to ignite a flame of learning that would last a lifetime, and I was able to do just that. Let me show you how I accomplished this in an hour with these fifth-grade students.

First, I exposed them to their history. I introduced the students to IMHOTEP, the first recorded physician and architect of the step pyramid. Additionally, I reviewed the plethora of  Black Inventors of America in the book by McKinely Burt, Jr.  At this point, I had their undivided attention as I reminded them that they had academic excellence in their DNA and that their ancestors are geniuses. You couldn’t hear a pin drop, and every hand went up with questions. I had achieved what I call the critical I (Interest) of any lesson. Once a student’s flame of interest has been lit, then and only then can learning occur at an optimal level.

Now that I had their interest, I had to keep it. Secondly, instead of reading about Dr. Seus, I introduced them to an author who went to the same elementary school they attended and attended the same middle school and high school they are so excited about attending in the future. The author was me. Did you really write a book? Are you from this side of town? Another student asked, how many books have you written? The students were in awe that they were actually speaking to a real author and even more perplexed that the author went to the same school they did and was from their neighborhood. Obviously, I still had the I (Interest), and now I wanted what I call the Elusive E (Engagement).  It was showtime!

I immediately showed them the three books I authored, and due to time, I decided to read them the shortest one Because My Teacher Said I Can, which is about a student who was struggling in school. Because My Teacher Said I Can, is a first-person narrative told by Amari, a 7-year-old first-grade student who struggles because he thinks he’s a failure but discovers his potential when his teacher tells him that he is smart. The setting of the story is in urban south Atlanta during the 2009 school year.

This young boy is certainly not perfect in his actions, and his troubled upbringing influences his lack of self-esteem. However, a flame is ignited when he gets to school and hears the words of his teacher. “When I go to school, I feel happy. Because my teacher tells me I can do just about anything I want to do if I put my mind to it”. Amari has a tremendous lack of confidence throughout the story, and readers will find themselves enthralled by how a student is motivated by his teacher’s words. In his folksy voice, Amari weaves through various dreams (If I could, I would) during the story as he has yet to discover his potential. However, school is the place where his dreams become possibilities.

I then provided them a brief overview of my other books before beginning the next activity.  The final activity was the icing on the cake. Students will now discover their P (Purpose). I had everyone’s attention, and each student was eagerly anticipating what was next.

Traditionally, we always would ask students what they would like to be when they grow up? This is not only a challenging question for grade-level students but collegiate students as well.

Therefore, I no longer ask that question and instead help students discover their purpose and purpose of learning.  To achieve this goal, there a critical questions that must be asked.

Five Critical Questions:  

1)     Are you familiar with the academic excellence in your DNA and the brilliance of your ancestors? If yes, explain.

2)     What do you love to do?

3)     What are you good at?

4)     What career is connected to questions 2 & 3?

5)     What are the connection to each content area and your purpose?

I began the activity by asking students. Are you familiar with the academic excellence in your DNA and the brilliance of your ancestors? If yes, explain. This is asked to introduce students to their greatness and the greatness of their ancestors. For this group, the answer was yes, as this is how the session began.

The next question was, what do they love to do? This is asked to ensure that students’ interests are valued and assist them in discovering their passion. This allows their minds to open up as they are eager to know why what they love to do so important? Next, the students were asked what are they good at? At this point, students will begin making the connections to what they love to do and begin to ask themselves, does it match with what I’m good at? This is critical in them discovering the possibilities of a profession.  

Students are then asked will someone pay them for what they love to do and what they are good at? This is when it gets real for students. For example, during the session, one student mentioned she loved to cook and eat. The class laughed. However, the laughs turned into shock when we discussed the restaurants they love to eat at around the city, the annual amount of money they make, and the top chief’s salary in restaurants is $95,500. This creates a connection to provide students with a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation (vocation).

The final question is what the world needs? At this point, students are well into the lesson. As they have answered these five questions, they have discovered their passion, profession, vocation, and mission, leading them to find their passion.  Additionally, students could connect their purpose, what they loved to do, and school. Boys began talking about wide receiver routes and the angles in football and mathematics. Basketball players began discussing science and the respiratory system.  The girls began to examine social studies as Paris is a great place to design fashion and how demographics and where you live in the country dictates culture. Finally, all students stressed that reading and language arts are necessary for all professions.

It didn’t take long before students began comparing their purpose and discussing how all content areas are related to each other’s profession. Then a male and female raised their hand and simultaneously stated, “Dr. Jackson, you need all content areas regardless of your purpose!” For example, my purpose it being a hairstylist. I have to know measurements (math), science (chemistry), reading (instructions and communicating), and social studies (as it’s essential to know all cultures and their hairstyles). Then boy stated, “I want to be a mechanic like my grandfather. I didn’t know that being a mechanic had so many content areas attached to it. It requires measurement for tools (mathematics), science (lubrication and heating and cooling), knowing the type of tires on your vehicle (geography), and you have to be able to read instructions.”

In conclusion, this session provided students with a few things: 1) students discovered their purpose, 2) students were interested in the lesson, and 3) a high engagement level. To achieve these three critical components of tasks must be culturally relevant, students must see themselves in the lessons, and educators must connect the content to their interest and purpose. This is known as the “Purpose of Learning.”