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Reading Opens the World | illustration credit: Jorm Sangsorn

Reading Opens the World | illustration credit: Jorm Sangsorn

For a Story, He Was Willing to Serve Detention

March 27, 2024

For a Story, He Was Willing to Serve Detention

The AFT’s Reading Opens the World campaign has bought and distributed millions and millions of these books all across the country, at events large and small. This is one way our union provides real solutions to tough challenges.


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By Sandie Carner-Shafran

I’m retired now, but for decades I worked in an alternative learning environment, a place where other schools send kids who act out, disrupt their classrooms, break school rules or are just a little disrespectful. You probably know how much I love those kids — they don’t fit into a general classroom setting.

In New York state, these schools are run by the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to give our kids either technical instruction or special needs education in the least restrictive environment possible. My school had a more restrictive environment. Students with physical or emotional challenges from several different counties came to our school by bus every day.

The story I’m about to tell you happened 10 or 15 years ago. The students who earned time in there were not supposed to talk in class. I was frustrated that this rule was so punitive, so I began reading out loud to them and they loved it. Later, in the hallways and other places around the school where they were allowed to talk, they would tell me their thoughts about the book and ask questions.

One of the most popular books was a work of historical fiction called Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. That’s the story that started it all. It’s about this kid, a young boy in the 1930s, Matthew “Moose” Flanagan. His family moves from Santa Monica, Calif., to an island called Alcatraz just off San Francisco. They moved there because his father took a job as an electrician and a guard at the infamous prison with some infamous inmates, including Al Capone, the real-life leader of a rum-running operation during Prohibition. There, Moose befriends the warden’s daughter, who is always angling for money and sets up a scheme having convicts do laundry.

This book has a unique setting and well-developed characters — I’ll tell you, it was a hoot to read. It won prestigious awards, and the author wrote three sequels.

But the most important thing about this book was that my students loved it. So much so that one day, one of them told our principal he wanted to hear the rest of the story so badly that he was willing to serve detention for it. Thank goodness, he was given permission to come hear the end of the story without detention.

This child, he had a sweet soul about him. And I was like his mom. He needed a lot of attention; he had a tough childhood, was living with an uncle and required a little extra TLC.

Needless to say, this is a fond memory for me!

After that day, he came back to my classroom many times to hear more stories. My students always had suggestions — they wanted books by Rick Riordan, in particular the Olympians series featuring the character Percy Jackson.

Reading and literacy are so important that my local chapter of New York State United Teachers decided to go whole hog soon after the AFT began its partnership with First Book. In 2014, we worked with them to bring an entire truckload of books to Saratoga. We unloaded 42,000 brand-new children’s books and set them up to be given out to local Title I schools and families in need. If your union hasn’t done this yet, you should try it. Your community will be in awe. They will adore you. And you’ll have literally tons of fun.

Reaidng opens the world event

Today, a decade later, the AFT’s Reading Opens the World campaign has bought and distributed millions and millions of these books all across the country, at events large and small. This is one way our union provides real solutions to tough challenges. We put our values into action by focusing on literacy, the joy of reading and giving kids books while extremists are banning them.

You can probably tell by now that I like to have fun. At every AFT PSRP conference, I would perform in a skit where I’d do an impersonation of Dr. Lorretta Johnson, who is now AFT secretary-treasurer emeritus — but back then she was chair of the AFT’s paraprofessionals and school-related personnel. She was an amazingly good sport about my antics, and we would laugh until we cried.

I still love to have fun with my union colleagues. And although I’m retired now, I loved having fun with my students. I believe it helped them set their personal troubles aside, pay attention and learn.

At the time, it was novel for schools to have e-books. The principal arranged for me to put the book on my e-reader, which was a risk because my kids didn’t really know how to handle those new devices yet. And I was probably one of the only people in their lives who read to them.

It was a wonderful experience. The kids ate it up. It spurred some conversation later, even in the halls. Students would ask: What are you going to do next? We had vocabulary words every month. I would pull big words from whatever book we were reading and use them. It expanded their literacy.

A BOCES school sometimes is seen as a negative place. We turned that around to make it a positive place.

As happens to most educators, whether we’re support staff or teachers, I was recognized by this same student years later when he worked at a small country restaurant in our area. By then he was 6 feet tall, big hair, and he picked me up and hugged me. That happens a lot — my former students lift me up in the air. I’m not a large person, but they make me feel a mile tall.

Sandie Carner-Shafran

About the Author

Sandie Carner-Shafran is a retired teaching assistant in New York who worked in special education for the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES for more than 38 years. As a leader in New York State United Teachers, she served as chair for the NYSUT School-Related Professionals Advisory Committee, co-chaired NYSUT’s task force on school support staff and was a member of the AFT PSRP program and policy council. In 2009, she was awarded the AFT’s prestigious Albert Shanker Pioneer Award and the NYSUT SRP of the Year Award. She is president of the Saratoga County Central Labor Council.

Join the Reading Opens the World Community

Reading is a foundational skill necessary for virtually everything we do. It opens possibilities for all children to succeed—to learn and grow, to explore and imagine, to investigate and verify, and to lead fulfilling lives. Reading well instills confidence and helps reduce inequities. Join this communtiy and register for literacy webinars, learn new strategies, and find free teaching resources for preK-12 students.

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The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities.


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