Jim Bailey with his wife, Laura, and boys Evan and Griffin and the prized Stanley Cup.
Every month we'll highlight a reader in the Great Lakes Bay region and learn more about them, their work, and their reading life. We'll also promote books and share conversation related to a theme.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It's been a hell of a year for mental wellbeing no matter how you look at it. We've all been challenged with how to weather the pandemic and all the ups and downs tossed our way. Students and teachers have certainly been riding the roller coaster. Like other leaders, many school administrators have given their all to figure out how to make online and hybrid education a positive experience for all while ensuring mental health is being nurtured. One such leader is Jim Bailey, principal at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw and he is our Reader Spotlight for May.
How long have you been in education? a principal at Hemmeter Elementary?
I’m in my ninth-year as principal. I taught fifth grade prior to that for nine years. I also ran the afterschool program at Hemmeter. All in, it’s my 20th year.
How has reading impacted your life?
In so many ways, throughout my career. I was not an avid reader growing up. I made it through high school without reading a whole book. I’d listen to conversations or read Cliff Notes to pass classes. Truly, I wasn’t a reader at all. As I was taking college classes for education, I was doing field work in Mrs. Kelsey’s fourth grade class, and I fell in love with Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I wondered… “Where has this been all my life?” When I tell this story, most people who know me are surprised because I always have a book recommendation. I’m the reading principal.
But, saying I wasn’t a reader wasn’t true. I loved comic books. All through my life it wasn’t considered real reading and wasn’t valued. It has been an avenue I’ve tried to promote. And, now graphic novels have just exploded. If I found two or three graphic novels when I was a kid, I’d be lucky. Now, it’s rows and rows of graphic novels. Children’s authors like Dave Pilkey from the Captain Underpants series fame are over the top of the New York Times best seller list.
I was maybe seven or eight years into my career and about ready for change. I was frustrated with the state of education and reading was frustrating me the most. I loved reading. I was an avid reader and wanted to be able to pass that on to students. Reading in school wasn’t real reading. It was filling out worksheets, a basal reader (a grade-leveled series of textbooks produced by an educational publisher), and workbooks. Everything at school was built about AR (Accelerated Reader). This approach was blocking students from being readers. I would talk to a student about Harry Potter. One day he was loving the books. The next day he was reading Dr. Seuss. I asked why the switch. It was the end of AR book challenge and he needed points and Dr. Seuss books could be read faster. So they were reading for the points not for the love of it.
I told a children’s literature professor, I was frustrated. She suggested I read, The Book Whisper: Awakening the Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller. It was exactly what I wanted reading to look like in my classroom. I followed her on social media and ended up getting to know her. She has shaped my view on reading more than anyone. I am blessed to call her a friend. I followed the Nerdy Book Club on Facebook, which was started by Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp. Colby was a teacher and part of the Michigan Reader Association. These were two people who were the top voices for me when it came to best practice reading instruction. This changed the course of everything. My passion for teaching reignited. I wanted to spread what they were saying in their book here (at Hemmeter).
What is the book you recommend most? Why? It changes with the times. I try to keep up on what kids interested. My all-time favorite is The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. I love how she weaves the story together. And, also The Giver by Lois Lowry. Lately, I’ve been loving stories about Peter and Ernesto, who are two sloths. I’ve been really recommending this series to kids. Kids here love, love, love graphic novels. I’m always on the lookout. Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang is really good. It’s set in 1960s. And, for picture books, See the Cat by David LaRochelle is my new favorite book. It’s about a narrator and dog responding on each other on every page. Narrator: See the cat. Dog: I’m not the cat. It’s fun. We read a picture book every day in every classroom. Two of my all-time favs – The Book with No Pictures by BJ Novak and Naked by Michael Ian Black (The boy only wants to wear a cape).
It has been difficult year for everyone. What has helped you through the pandemic? How has it changed how you lead? It’s been a challenging year, just keeping students safe, dealing with restrictions, having quarantines for teachers and/or students, figuring out how to provide instruction to them. It’s been tough navigating through. Everything has become political. It’s hard enough as it is - dealing with all the requirements and different learners. Your job is to help students to reach their full potential. Adding the pandemic then gets that much tougher. More difficult with outside influences and families can’t keep their politics out. Most frustrating thing was when the decision to keep kids’ home was made, half the people were happy, and half are screaming at you. That’s the draining part – just getting through all that.
The pandemic changed the way I lead in a couple of ways. One, doing what I could to focus on the mental health of the people in the building, making sure my teachers are able to have strong mental health. I take something off their plate so they can focus on the most important things and eliminate the unnecessary and work to show appreciation. I try to do little things just to remind the teachers of how much they are appreciated. I brought in meals to staff so there is one less thing to do. Keeping the K cups stocked and candy in teacher’s lounge. Letting them know what a great job they are doing.
What are some positives and/or uplifting stories from the school year? Kids are fantastic. There were lots of people that worried and wondered how they would manage masks and they’ve rolled with it. It has still been a very happy school year. There are some things they can’t do – no assemblies and field trips that kids look forward to. We’ve been able to add new traditions – STEM days, ice cream socials, bring in books/PJs/sleeping bags and held “read ins.” Kids enjoy coming to school. I was worried they wouldn’t with distancing and lack of favorite activities.
The teachers are incredible and have been able to make learning exciting even with restrictions. That’s been a success. Students have engaged even when virtual for several weeks. Some things lend themselves well to virtual. Like writing, for example, in a classroom with 25-30 students, a teacher’s attention is torn between individual instruction and having to keep an eye on other students. Teachers have been able to focus on one student and not worry about the others since mom and dad are helping with the management of things at home.
Do you have a go-to genre of books? If so, what is it? Don’t know if I have a go-to genre. Read a lot of kid’s books, picture, middle grade and YA (young adult). I love Star Wars. I read every new release and there are three or four a year. I also read adult and kid’s science fiction. I also like sports biographies – sports statistics. The author Bill James dives into metrics and mathematics that go into the baseball season. Every year we participate in March Book Madness, which was started by two Ohio teachers. They create brackets with 16 picture and 16 middle-grade books. It’s a huge event here at Hemmeter. Lots of kids read the books that make it into the sweet 16.
If you could chat with an author living or dead, who would you want to sit down with and where? Jason Reynolds is my favorite author. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to listen to him, he’s always has the best stories. It doesn’t matter what he’s talking about. I saw him talking about watching Family Feud with his mom. She always cheers for the black family. It was just hysterical. His stories and experiences are just incredible. A group of teachers were at Michigan Reading Association conference. Jason was the speaker at a luncheon, but we didn’t know that’s the only place he’d be. We were in the hotel and my colleague and I spotted him. We took off running and she put her arm in to stop the elevator and him. He got out and talked to us. We took a couple selfies. And, no, he wouldn’t tell us the ending of A Long Way Down.
What is your advice for kids or adults who don't like to read? Value all reading because that was a message that I didn’t receive as a kid. It would have opened me up to reading more. I loved reading comic books. I can still hear my parents and teachers saying you need to read real books. Comics and graphic novels have complex story lines and characters. The advice is read what you enjoy. That is reading. Look for those things. I read books for work – professional development and want to be able to recommend books to kids and spend time on books I enjoy like baseball and hockey books. Keep an open mind. If parents are trying to get kids to read, figure out what topics and stories they like and keep stories out that you think they will be interested in. Kids will pick them up. When they find the right story, it will ignite their love of reading. Maybe that’s Captain Underpants and if so, then read everyone you can find.
Besides reading, what else do you like to do for fun? I enjoy watching and reading about baseball, play and coach hockey, collect Star Wars action figures and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. We spend time at Target, Game Stop and Wal-Mart hunting for toys. I enjoy spending time with my boys – Evan and Griffin, and my wife, Laura. We also have a cottage in Au Gres and enjoy riding four wheelers and having bonfires.
What’s your favorite quote by an author? Another book I like called, The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell. A quote from her is in the teacher’s lounge. It’s what I think about when kids are reading,
“A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketed teaching method, it just happens to be the only way anyone become a reader.”
Congratulations to Hemmeter Elementary as they recently won the prestigious National Blue Ribbon School Award.