A Conversation with Sue McCord

Sue McCord
Sue McCord, Former SLHS Faculty
The first edition of the "Storybook Journey" was published in 1995, and our dear colleague and mentor, Sue McCord, is currently in the process of revising this original edition. The new SLP alumni website seemed a perfect place to have Sue tell us more about changes that we will see in the new edition of the Storybook Journey, as well as to reflect a bit upon her professional career that led to the development of the SBJ. I caught up with Sue at her home to ask her about the SBJ, her philosophical perspective on early childhood education, and any words of wisdom she might like to share with SLP alums regarding the use of children’s literature in both classroom and therapy environments. (continued) Read more and view clips from the video about Storybook Journey.

Sue credits her experiences in Colorado, beginning as a teacher at Mapletree Preschool, as being the roots of the Storybook Journey. “I was working with emotionally troubled children – something I had never done before. I was also working with an interdisciplinary team” Sue reflected. “There was an OT, an SLP, a social worker, a psychiatrist, a director, and two early childhood teachers. This team was just an incredible experience. We worked well together, and each played a vital role for some very troubled preschoolers and their families.” Sue continued “The Storybook Journey was “born” at Mapletree, inspired by a little boy named Dylan, His attachment to the story of Peter Pan and wanting to hear it over and over again was so powerful that it broke his three-month silence. By “becoming” Peter, he was able to begin to learn how to relate to his classmates”. Observing this little boy’s emergence, Sue reflects, made the team aware of the impact of living, learning, and playing with one story over time could have on children. “The idea of developing a curriculum around creative, repeated experiences with a story was exciting. The team became very aware of the role of this curriculum could also have on the language and literacy skill development of all children..”

Sue in classroom
Sue with students

Sue began her educational journey at Wheelock College, majoring in early childhood education. She credits the faculty for laying the foundation for her work in early childhood education. Sue notes “I was tremendously inspired by the dedicated professors who believed in the value of play in young children’s lives and the importance of observation.” Sue spent 17 years as at Cornell University, a position that she came to in a fortuitous way. Sue reflects “Charlie was the basketball coach at Cornell, and we were married with two young children”. Sue had taught kindergarten, and had not planned to return to teaching until her children were a bit older. However, the Cornell lab preschool teacher was going on maternity leave and one of the parents thought this short term position would work well for her. Sue laughs, “the only problem was that they hired me full time when the teacher decided not to return. That was the beginning of a very wonderful career with young children and teaching early childhood courses at Cornell. Later, when teaching at Denver University and the University of Colorado, I had the great privilege working with speech language pathology and audiology students and staff who really embraced the SBJ and provided the most meaningful, playful, and creative Journey experiences for the children. It was such a joy to observe them in action!”

When asked about what has guided her philosophy about children and learning, Sue credits all of the people that have been in her life, as well as books that she keeps returning to, as being fundamental to her philosophical perspective. She notes that many of the books that she has found so instrumental in shaping her philosophy relate to play. “I feel there are people in the field of early childhood education that have powerful ideas about the importance of play and how play is truly a child’s way of learning in all areas of development.” One book that has been particularly important to Sue is The Logic of Action by Francis Hawkins. “I had many conversations with Frannie and her husband David over the years,” Sue reflects, “and we certainly held many of the same beliefs about how children learn best.” Other of Sue’s favorites include The Play’s the Thing by E. Jones and G. Reynolds; Caring by Rita Warren, The Soul of Education by Rachel Kessler, A Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, and “oh so many others! These authors in particular understand children and the importance of attentive, loving, and knowledgeable adults in their lives” Sue commented.

Sue still feels concerns about families and educators putting too many academic demands on young children, and the impact of these decisions over the long term. Sue reflects “Lillian Katz, a well known early childhood educator, said “We can teach children anything but will they have the disposition to learn? What one can observe in many preschools and kindergartens today is alarming. Many in this field are extremely concerned about the pressure on our youngest learners. Preschool teachers are feeling the pressure from families that worry about their children being prepared. There has to be a group of use in this world that can reassure people that young children do learn through play. It also means that those of us who work with young children need to be able to articulate not only the value of learning through play but also its role in all areas of a child’s development.”

Storybook Journey Cover
Cover of Sue's Book, Storybook Journey

Sue is currently in the process of revising the SBJ, and hopes to be finished early next year. When asked how the new SBJ will be different, she indicated that she has focused more attention on the planning process this round. Sue notes “The emphasis is to assist educators in moving from the observations of the children in their care, to selecting a story based on the interests of the children and devising a flexible plan. The idea is to avoid getting locked into a plan that dictates having to do something every day instead of observing the children and moving the plans to fit their needs and interests.” Sue continued “This will involve setting up a responsive environment and providing materials that will enhance the children’s ability to live and learn tangible aspects of the story.” I asked Sue whether she thinks the Storybook Journey works for all children. Has she ever had feedback from teachers, or noted through her own observations, that there are children who really don’t like stories? And what suggestions would she make to practioners in these situations? Sue replied “I haven’t really broached that question with teachers, but I guess I am not sure the story is the problem. I wonder if it isn’t more likely to be the children’s levels of maturity or energy, as well as the child/teacher ratio, teacher’s expectations, length of story time, teacher’s experience, or whether the teacher had the choice to use the SBJ as the curriculum.” Sue continues “On the other hand, I have had parents say their child can’t sit still for a story. My advice to them has been to try reading to them while they are eating or play a story tape or CD while they are in the car, rather than a video. Television, videos, and DVDs emphasize the visual and many children have trouble listening to a story being told or only having an unanimated illustration in a storybook. Listening is so important. Much of children’s’ school instruction is verbal. Perhaps we all need to be reminded that true education is engagement ..not entertainment.”

I also asked Sue what suggestions she might have for SLPs who believe in the philosophy of the Storybook Journey, but whose current preschool classroom follows a different philosophical approach. Are there ways to make small in-roads in ways that support the tenets of the SJB that Sue sees as most critical? Sue notes “ I think there can be awkward times or relationships whenever teachers have a number of specialists in and out of their classrooms. There are teaching styles, personalities, and experiences that can get in the way of our best intentions. I have found that if the SLP can take the story the teacher is reading in the classroom (especially if it is only read once) and do a mini Journey with it during their therapy sessions, it is helpful. However, if the SLP is working only with the child in the classroom, this is tricky and I need to know all the circumstances.” Sue also suggests trying to find small ways to bring story-related ideas into the classroom that might enhance the story with the child, and invite the teacher to see some of the possibilities he/she could try with the class. “I do believe that miniature worlds have inspired and encouraged children to retell the story. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be abstract. Three pinecones or three rocks can be the three little pigs, and some ugly root can be the wolf. It’s very easy to create and hold meaning for the children because its tangible and they are in charge.” Sue suggests it may even be possible that the teacher would allow the SLP to create a small group where she could tell the same story as the teacher is reading to the large group, adding the use of a mini world, flannel board, or puppets to encourage their participation.

When I asked Sue if she had any final words of wisdom she would like to share with SLP alums, she smiled at first, and then shared the following. “ No matter what you do….never underestimate the power of a story in a child’s life. I know time is very limited in your busy lives, but sometimes writing a simple story with a child as the main character is extremely powerful in trying to insert the lesson you want to teach. Also, make a sincere connection to the family even if it can only be with brief notes at first. Maybe the family can read the same story at night (if you can get a small grant for a lending library!) Send the child home with the miniature world you can gather from found materials such as bottle tops, buttons, small boxes, pebbles and the like. There are many families today who can use the guidance in fun ways to tell stories with things around the house. The revised SBJ also has a chapter on Building Literacy Foundations With Families that I hope will be helpful. Enjoy what you are doing and that will be contagious.”

In closing, Sue commented at one point in our conversation “You know, this world does not lack for brilliant people, but if we continue to pressure teachers to teach our young children in a rigid fashion, so that material can be tested at every turn, minimizing the time for physical, social, and emotional part of our children’s lives-we will eventually limited the well adjusted, creative, original and ingenious minds that we need in the years ahead.” Thankfully, Sue McCord is one of those ingenious minds near and dear to our own hearts, and we are fortunate that she continues to think and write about how children think and learn through the stories that they hear. You can look forward to the new edition of the SBJ sometime in 2008!

Storybook Journey Video
Storybook Journey Video

You can learn more about Sue's work on Story Book Journey through a 2 part video produced by Landlocked Films in Boulder, CO. Part 1, entitled "Into the Wind," follows the staff and students of Friends 'n Fun Children’s Center in Lafayette through a six-week exploration of Gilberto and the Wind. Part 2, entitled "The Stories We Live," follows two different preschools, one using many versions of the Three Little Pigs, the other using Mem Fox's "Tough Boris", as they integrate home/school experiences, help children connect with each other, and even venture into life's greatest fears and deepest mysteries Co-Produced by The Price Initiatives at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Here are some clips from the videos: