Roominate on This!

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I just returned from a visit with grandnieces Audrey (11) and Lila (8) and, as always, I loved observing what they were up to regarding literacy/ies. They had a two-day holiday from school, so in all, we had three days for fun. We started by seeing the new Star Wars film, which they judged to be “way too long” but engaging; they were outraged by the death of a favorite character, and they loved Finn. They also deftly pointed out several product placements, showing that their critical antennae are up at least part of the time.

The next day we had rain and even some snow, so that meant—reading! We have our own book clubs when I’m not there: each girl chooses a book, and we read two chapters and then have a text or FaceTime talk about it. I am constantly impressed with their reflections and with how they anticipate what may happen next (and why). This day, though, we could read together. Lila chose one of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Phineas L. MacGuire books, and over the course of the day she read the entire volume to me out loud. She has a wicked sense of humor and a very soft heart, so we had to pause and laugh or commiserate often as the adventures piled up. Once she misread, saying “He rode his book” rather than “He rode his bike” and got so tickled that she lost her breath laughing—and then rode around the room on her book. She also took to correcting Phineas (known as Mac), who is prone to refer to “Me and Marcus.” Lila silently changed this to “Marcus and I,” nodding disapprovingly as she did so. This book’s lessons are pretty obvious—compassion and kindness win out over obnoxiousness and selfishness every time—so we talked about that and about experiences she had had with both in her second grade class. Eight-year-olds have a lot on their minds, as this reading experience reminded me.

And so do eleven-year-olds.  Audrey and I took turns reading the third book in Lois Lowry’s Giver series. Since we’d already read the first two books in our typical book club way, we spent some time talking about what had happened in The Giver and Gathering Blue, including a meditation on “utopian” and “dystopian” and the role these words played in the series. Then we plunged in to The Messenger, which Audrey soon said “cut to the chase” better and more quickly than the first two. She picked up right away on the word “trade,” saying “there’s something going on with this word!” And she was right, as the plot turns on an ominous Trade Mart that comes to threaten the village. We stopped often to reflect on events and talk about our expectations and hopes for the characters, our assessment of the story (“really gripping!”), and words (“Wow, ‘subtle’ has a ‘b’ in it. How cool!”). We didn’t finish the book in one day, but did so in the car on the way to the airport. Now we are embarking on the fourth and last book in the series, Son, and I look forward to many text messages and emails and phone calls about it.

After a day of reading and with the weather still bad they turned to building. They each had a Roominate kit (started by girls and meant for girls—and boys—who want to build things). The kits come with four pieces of plastic (about 10” by 8” ) meant to serve as three walls and a floor—and then a bunch of other smaller plastic parts that can be fit together in different ways, colored paper and felt, and a few other things. There are some pictures but only bare-bones instruction:  “just build whatever you imagine!” they say. Lila quickly announced she was going to build a restaurant called Avery’s. She papered the walls, built four tables for two, fit them out with napkins, menus, and candles, and set up a serving station. She made a big menu board (ice cream sundaes for $4; chicken tenders for $3; grilled cheese sandwiches “on the house”) as well as a “daily specials” board, a welcome sign, and a tipping policy (“give a lot”). 

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Audrey took more time to think but then decided to build her ideal cabin for Camp Kanata, where she and Lila will spend two weeks this summer. If you can enlarge the photo below, you’ll see how intricate the work is: the stack of tiny felt t-shirts on the top shelf of a cupboard, next to a dress hanging on a paper hanger; the two bunk beds with quilts and pillows and signs for the girls assigned to them (Eva, Audrey, etc.); the windows, broom (made with a cut-off pencil) and paper dustpan; the bedside table with its candle (“really, really hard to make”) and The Giver on it; a bookshelf (Smile is there, along with Moby Dick); and what she called “signage”—Cabin Clean Up Score Card, Camp Rules, Chore Chart, even a fan (top right) that she rigged up with batteries (it works!).

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Audrey and Lila worked all day on these construction projects, chatting away, often to themselves, about challenges and problems they had to solve and the effects they were trying to create. Since they were working with very small items like candles, a lot of hand-eye-brain coordination was called for, along with concentration and focus. I had a hard time getting them to take a break for lunch! They graciously let me join the team and I was sometimes allowed to help out (“Aunt A, would you cut another circle just like this one?”).

So the maker movement—and reading—are alive and well in Chapel Hill. And on these two days, while both girls used the Internet to look up things they needed (definitions of terms, how to do this or that), they were not as tied to the iPads as they are sometimes wont to be. For now, I’m starting our next “book club” books and watching for additions and improvements to the Roominates!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.