A good friend emailed me recently about joining my online poetry writing workshop. He said, “I need to be part of something, Georgia. I feel so disconnected and invisible.” My friend was brave enough to express what many of us have been feeling during the past several months. The need to be part of something. The need to connect with people in community. The need to feel like more than a small image on a Zoom meeting screen. Many of the children who look out from their separate thumbnail screens in virtual classrooms have been feeling this way too — disconnected and invisible — despite all the positive ways teachers are working to help students feel engaged and part of a community.
Those of us who teach writing and reading, and also love poetry, know that poetry has always been an antidote for feeling separate and unseen. Poetry can connect us. Poetry can shake the dust off of the stale and the stereotyped. Poetry can inspire empathy for others. Poetry can inspire change. Poetry can beckon us to look in the mirror and see the truth inside.
Elizabeth Alexander wrote:
Do you want to know each other? [Poetry reaches]…across what can be a huge void between human beings.
That void has grown more cavernous since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the past decade, the prominence of high-stakes, high-stress testing has swept poetry further into the corner of the classroom. But since the start of the pandemic, the emergence of “soft skills” such as building empathy, “social and emotional learning,” and “trauma informed teaching” have emerged as essential for educating the whole child. Why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that without attending to children’s hearts and humanity — education can be a dehumanizing experience for some children as we pour more and more content into a vessel called learning?
Joy Harjo the current United States poet laureate says, “Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation.”
At some point in our lives, whether curled up quietly on a couch, or gathered with friends and family at a wedding, or attending a funeral most of us have had the experience of reading or listening to a poem that touches our being, takes our breathe away, brings tears to our eyes, and affects us in some way that’s deep and, almost, inexplicable. How does a poem do this?
When we read a poem that stirs us it is a convergence of words humming the same tune as our hearts. The poem whispers I know you. It recognizes us. And in this recognition we also recognize something forgotten in ourselves. Our circle gets wider and connects us to others whom we have never met. It awakens something that may have been frozen inside us. It helps us remember the sky we were born under as Joy Harjo writes in her poem “Remember.”
Poetry is not something you find only in April. Poetry is not a phonics’ worksheet exercise where children circle the double ee and long o sounds. Like a wild horse, poetry resists being corralled in reading test questions: What does the speaker doubt in lines 14-15?
Poetry is what is present in the voices of people to whom it would hardly occur that this could be so. The way all speak in unselfconscious moments is the very stuff of poetry. The way we speak to our loved ones every day and night: when you tuck your children into bed; the first things you say to your spouse or partner when you wake up in the morning. When we speak in a voice that’s exclusively ours, that’s natural, when we’re not trying to be anything other than ourselves, that’s the stuff of poetry.
In a virtual poetry workshop, right after schools closed in April, fifth grade poets looked around their worlds with poet’s eyes to try to find poetry. Seeing the world with poet’s eyes is more than just trying to find a topic for a haiku or another kind of poem — it’s about polishing the film of familiarity and approaching life with a wide-awakeness, as Maxine Greene says.
“I use the term wide-awakeness,” Greene states. “Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there’s really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious.”
Poetry shimmered all around fifth graders’ worlds. They found poetry in:
Things that sing a deeper history
Doorknobs are like poems. They’ve been touched by so many hands.
Puzzles because there are so many different ways that things connected
but you don’t know until you look at the picture.
After they lived and wrote poetry for three weeks, I asked students if they had any advice for other poets who were embarking on a poetry journey. Here are a few words of wisdom:
My advice to other poets would be that everything holds poetry. You just have to take the time to realize it. You should write from your heart and think about the reason for your poem, and the meaning it has to you.
Poetry helped me during this hard time as it helped me stay calm, and jot down feelings. I wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone feeling stressed. My piece of advice to anyone would be to NOT RUSH A POEM. Let the words come from your heart, not from your hand.
Wise words indeed!
If you’re wondering how to begin with poetry one doorway is to find a poem you love, or have loved through the years. An aha poem. Invite your students to do the same – to find a self-portrait poem, an identity poem, a poem that speaks to how you’re feeling. Carry it around in your pocket, in your head, in your heart as you go about your day. Paste it on your computer screen so when you need a break your poem can refresh you. Place it by your nightstand and let it be the last thing you read before you sleep. Reflect on it, and write alongside it as Teshager, a student of mine, did with Langston Hughes’ poem “Final Curve:”
When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left
“Final Curve” awakened this realization, this truth, in Tesagher :
You too might find that poetry is an antidote for feeling disconnected and invisible during this challenging and sad time. A scientific vaccine for COVID-19 will come, hopefully, soon but poetry can offer a different kind of cure — as the last line of Julia Alvarez’s poem “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry” asks, What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?
Georgia Heard is a founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City. She received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Currently, she is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and in schools around the United States and the world.
She is the author of numerous books on writing including: Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School which was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the “10 Books Every Teacher Should Read,” Finding the Heart of Nonfiction: Teaching 7 Essential Craft Tools with Mentor Texts, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Student Writing and Poetry Every Day (forthcoming). In addition, she has published several children’s poetry books including Boom! Bellow! Bleat! Animal Sounds for Two Or More Voices and My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness (forthcoming).website: www.georgiaheard.com Follow her on Twitter:@georgiaheard1
“What ARE you wearing?” Shayla said, pointing to my matching tank and shorts outfit in the school hallway, where I shoved binders into a backpack for class. “It’s SO ugly. It looks like someone threw up all over you. And it shows your hairy legs.” I remember my quivering lip. I remember trying hard not to cry. I remember looking around quickly to see who might have heard. It was a top and bottom in dusty colors with squiggly lines and geometric shapes. My mother had bought the outfit for me after I told her everyone in sixth grade had getups in patterns. Theirs were from the GAP and the Limited Too. Mine were not.
This is a story I often use when modeling small moments with students in elementary classrooms, and its result almost always leads to students writing about bullying, difference and identity. My vulnerable storytelling opens doors for students to share their emotional moments. Teacher vulnerability in writing workshop builds connections with students, generates trust that primes students to learn, and cultivates a learning stance in students that reaches beyond classroom walls.
The power of storytelling exposes vulnerability for the most valuable learning: the kind of learning that lingers beyond a single conversation. When I was a newspaper reporter, my editor would say “ You’re the best street reporter we’ve got,” which he attributed to my delivery of personal anecdotes before interviewing others, leading to instant connections with strangers. My unintentional vulnerability opened doors to discussion and aligned me with humanity, whether I realized what I was doing or not.
Bring Authenticity: Connecting Through Story
When teachers make connections to students in little and large ways- from preferences in food to bigger reflections from their lives- students are more likely to feel comfortable, safe, and as a result, ready to learn. Teachers’ abilities to think back to their own childhood experiences and bring those moments alive in writing workshop paves the way for students to voice their own similar moments – from times they were bullied to when their behaviors were unkind; from when their pets died to when their birthday parties felt euphoric; from when they fell into a snowbank to when they broke a bone as a result of roughhousing. When teachers boldly brainstorm opinions they have, it gives students license to be equally assertive. Thinking across writing genres, teachers can pre-think their vulnerable moments, creating a bank of ideas that will feel useful in instruction and relationship-building.
“Psychologists have long known that self-disclosure is one of the hallmarks of intimate, trusting relationships,” writes Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She calls this move “selective vulnerability,” connected to “trust generators.”
“Turns out storytelling is one of the universal ways people connect and get to know each other around the world. The human brain is hardwired for stories,” Hammond writes.
Bringing authenticity to teaching amplifies the content. Welcoming humanity in school spaces instead of relegating personhood to lives after the bell rings gives permission to students to bring their full personalities too.
“Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well,” Hammond writes.
There is no need for perfection. There is a need for authenticity. During the pandemic, when teachers and students are coping with the weight of multiple traumas, when educators feel pressure to combat false narratives of learning loss, it is even more imperative that we slow down and lay bare our humanity.
Cultivate Idea Generation: Mining Your Stories
Oftentimes, teachers I coach say they’re not prepared with stories from their pasts, particularly from the age group they teach, that can be called to mind readily in front of children. Or, educators worry their ideas will run dry when modeling live writing during mini-lessons. In my work as a classroom teacher and literacy coach, I have thought about ways topre-plan and think through purposeful moments of vulnerability.
A colleague and accomplished public speaker recently shared that he has several stories from his life written out and depending on context, pieces are moved like Legos in an architectural feat. Like a puzzle, with pre-brainstormed ideas of meaningful moments, he is able to build a story of significance that stays in the minds of participants long after the speech has ended.
This is why it’s useful for educators to brainstorm outside of the classroom moments, opinions and expertise from their lives they would be willing to share and write about in literacy instruction. Alongside teachers during planning sessions, we share stories and jot down our most hilarious or tear-jerking moments. This exercise strengthens my relationship as a coach to my teachers, and it also serves as a model for teachers connecting with students in instruction too.
While I use this mapping template to guide our thinking and conversations, simple lists work just as well. The purpose is to isolate nuggets of color and interest from our pasts that make us the beautifully varied, unique individuals we are. We might even leave a brainstorming bubble blank, without a heading, and allow for free-flowing idea generation. You’ll see several examples from teachers in Illinois schools below.
We use a general list of guiding questions to support our thinking, and I am careful to nudge our story collection back to when we were students’ age as often as we can. Though valid and worthy wedding and baby delivery moments inevitably bubble up, I use those gems as opportunities to get to know my teachers better – not necessarily for writing instruction. When modeling vulnerability stories with students, they are able to better relate when our moments are not from our adult lives, so recollecting about the time I threw gum in Abby’s hair on a dare then felt deeply remorseful (still haunts me) and telling of the time my sister and I bathed our dolls in the toilet (big, big trouble) prove more valuable for students.
When I was in the grade(s) I teach, what moments stood out to me?
What moments do I seem to come back to over and over again?
When was a time as a child when I felt a strong emotion?
What moments have felt hard for me, where I overcame a challenge or consistently struggled?
What lessons did I learn about life when I was a child?
Where in my life can I model for students my humanity and emotion?
What opinions do I have that I want to share?
What can I teach students about life – outside of curriculum- that I can weave into conversations?
What hobbies or interests am I an expert in that I can share with my students?
What places have I been that I want my students to learn about too?
When a teacher I coach knew two students in her class were coping with divorce, she purposefully modeled in writing workshop about the time when she, as a child, was forced to wear pants she hated because she lived between households. She not only built trust and connection between herself and her students, but made space for her students to share their own emotional moments connected to separating parents.
Another teacher shared about the moment when her husband told her their dog couldn’t walk anymore because he was really sick, spurring students in her class to write with specificity about losing their own pets. Her modeling allowed for students to tell of their emotions with a level of detail and introspection she felt was attributed to her willingness to share so emotionally first as a model.
It was in the texture of their storytelling that students were primed for learning and connected on a deep level to the instruction as a result.
Model Perseverance: Highlight Moments of Challenge
One of the most vulnerable types of stories to share with students is when we dealt with adversity and moments of challenge. In addition to building a more trusting classroom, opening a door for children to be vulnerable with their whole selves, stories of grit, in particular, have implications for the learning brain. Beyond strengthening writing instruction, powerful storytelling around struggles and mistakes enhances all areas of instruction by serving as a model of perseverance for students. Furthermore, there is research to show that students can grow the part of the brain that controls emotions, vulnerability, and fear if they venture into unfamiliar situations and push themselves to try.
In the first decade of life the neuroplasticity of the brain allows for the most stretch and growth, says JoAnn Deak, a neuroscientist and author of the children’s book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. When things are hard, our brains signal the part that needs more practice. In the book, she likens the growing brain to a rubber band; when an activity or emotion feels most difficult, that is precisely when we must work harder. Sharing this with students in the context of storytelling about challenges we faced helps students see that imperfection is ideal; hardship breeds growth; and continued practice cultivates strength.
A classroom teacher I coach recently told me when he shared stories of dancing tap and jazz as a child, a student opened up about taking dance too. When he shared vulnerability about being a boy who loved musicals and dancing, so too did this young writer in his classroom. Together, they talked about how they might avoid their fears, even if it felt uncomfortable. “He opened up to me…even if he wasn’t comfortable opening up to classmates.” These are the trust generators that cultivate spaces where students feel more comfortable expressing themselves, taking risks, and learning, particularly in instances of resilience.
As teachers, we must be willing to share what feels difficult for us, and tell students stories about times we overcame – or continued to struggle. This form of selective vulnerability breeds familiarity and connection but moreover, allows students to see teachers as human and imperfect. Vulnerability is necessary for deep learning to occur, as it breeds curiosity, relationship building, trust and understanding of our more complete humanity.
Build Trust, Grow Minds
When I was young, in a desperate attempt to assimilate and be just like everyone else in my class, I ceaselessly begged my parents for a gerbil. After months of pleas, they finally relented, and when I was in Kindergarten, we brought home a dark brown, palm-sized gerbil. We named him Brownie.
He would be dead less than 24-hours later, drowned in a too-big water bowl. My sister and I found him floating face down. When we discovered him, we woke the household up with our screams.
This is a story of sadness and quite frankly, of horror, as we went from elated and jubilant to devastated, sickened, and riddled with a heavy guilt- in such a short amount of time. We felt deeply irresponsible for having caused an end to Brownie’s short life. Even writing about it now makes my stomach roil. But I use it in the classroom to share with students why and how I grew from those feelings. I use it to connect, cry, and question.
Oral storytelling traditions go back long before humans could read or write. Because the human brain is hardwired for stories, when teachers share personal anecdotes in the classroom, trusting bridges are built, and students are better positioned to learn. Being vulnerable spurs students to share more easily stories about themselves. Educators can pre-plan vulnerable moments to share outside of live classroom time, behind the scenes, as part of curricular planning. In fact, keeping a bank of anecdotes and opinions at the ready is useful to purposefully build community and classroom relationships.
As teachers, our instincts might be to present ourselves to students as the all-knowing sages without flaw or fault. We often aim to show ourselves as perfect, maybe even without colorful histories and experiences. But unveiling our vulnerabilities, trials and travails through storytelling not only primes students for learning, it cultivates space for students to be unguarded too. And in that space, powerful learning happens.
Deak, JoAnn. Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. Little Pickle Press 2010.
Hammond, Zarretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Corwin 2015.
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Forever passionate about growing readers, writers and thinkers, Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team at NQC Literacy facilitate tailored professional development, coaching and staff learning experiences around literacy practices in schools and districts. You can find her in Chicago’s Logan Square or online at NQCLiteracy.com and on Twitter @NQCLiteracy.
I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battles or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. — John F. Kennedy
I’ve been thinking a lot about the human spirit and what it means to be a literacy educator.
Sometimes the work can be spirit-crushing: Navigating the ever-changing tides of literacy instruction. Keeping a foothold while major pedagogical approaches fall in and out of vogue like flavors of the day. Straddling the continuously-shifting tectonic plates of standards and curriculums. Sustaining a vision for who your students are and all they can be, recognizing that data points on graphs can never tell the whole story of living, breathing, unique individuals. Surviving professional development that is often dictated rather than designed to meet your own needs or interests. Feeling like an island when opinions and methodologies clash. And all this before the advent of COVID-19, before the mad scramble to online teaching, before becoming a daily onscreen presence in student homes, before losing contact with students as families cope with shutdowns, before the still-escalating illness and loss of life, including that within one’s own circles of family, friends, and associates, before the devastating, divisive, demoralizing year that was 2020.
While this work is not without its own particular “battles or politics,” it is also a story of the triumph of the human spirit. When our times reinvented education, we educators reinvented teaching. As if by some magic (but I know better), teachers instantaneously produced magnificent digital resources, toolboxes, and tips that were shared freely. I have never been more grateful for my network of literacy colleagues close to home and across the globe, nor prouder to be numbered among you in this unfolding story. As teachers of reading and writing, we know the power of words. We know that as we shape the emerging readers and writers of our times, they shall shape those to come.
So, when I was asked recently what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”
Today I am altering my answer a bit.
We need to make room for awe.
Let me explain.
Quite of its own accord, awe decided to be my defining word for this new year. When I turned the pages of my planner from December to January, I discovered a tiny subscript: Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you) can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. There was another sentence about intentionally creating awe; I will get to that in a moment.
Those words speak to me on several levels. First of all, I’d never thought of awe as being beneficial to one’s health or as something that stirred a deeper concern for the well-being of others. I do know, however, that at the heart of teaching lies a recognition of being in the presence of something bigger than yourself. It shines from a kindergartener’s eyes; it is in the spontaneous song of the adolescent. It is also in the timbre of a voice of someone you love. It is the thing that makes any human strive to create something powerful, meaningful, and lasting, even in the crucible of chaos. Awe is the deep language of the human spirit. It is what we experienced when the world paused long enough to listen to the words of a young poet reciting for a new president.
Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman?
Have you heard anyone ask (because I have): “Why is this type of writing not valued in our schools?”
Maybe that question ought to have the word now tacked onto the end. When I’ve facilitated workshops for teachers as writers and we prepare to write around an object, artifact, emotion, or memory, faces suddenly light up. Teachers say: “I used to love this kind of writing!”
Perhaps it is time to return.
Think about intentionally creating awe. Writing tends to throw the awe-door wide open. For us as well as for the students.
Begin by carving out moments to experiment for yourself with language, ideas, creativity. Just play. See what happens. Here’s a few simple things to get going—you can make them as quick and easy or as intricate and consuming as you like.
Dig with the Golden Shovel. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem. It may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.
A line from Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.
Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,
tossed dice, never quite landing, as
we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.
In the spinning we still loved as we grieved
and we’ll go on, won’t we,
even as we did when odds against us grew.
From Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times byKatherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.
Now, who are we
and what should we do,
here where the sun shines not
and Earth’s colors fade.
consider how easily
we glide from
that room to this,
enduring, rather than living, life
—You get the idea, now.
You might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying—anything, really.
Use it yourself first. Switch it up. Use your “golden line” as the first words of your own lines instead of the last. The Golden Shovel is a good tool for awe either way.
Revisit the acrostic. It is an ancient form. You remember, the first letter of each line spells a word vertically…see how creative you can be with the form now. I wrote this acrostic on social distance in the early days of the present COVID-19 pandemic while thinking of my granddaughter, a fan of the movie Frozen:
Soon the spell will be Over and we Can be In the same bright kingdom together Again Let this virus go, let it go
Don’t come back any more. It’s funny how Some distance makes everything seem like Time is frozen Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day Nearer to overthrowing this Corona-nation separation to resume our happily Ever after
Here’s an acrostic attempting to capture a feeling while contemplating the clouded, haloed moon:
Shrouded in clouds, the
Lifts a bit of veil in
Consolation, for enlightening
Every skyward-turned eye on Earth
Did I mention you might use photos for inspiration? I do, all the time.
Write around one word. You can probably guess mine. Here I combine it with quotations from Vincent van Gogh and his painting, The Starry Night, in addition to a new phrase I learned. When the sun is far enough below the horizon at dawn or dusk that its blue wavelengths paint the landscape, it’s known as “the blue hour” (isn’t the sound alone just so poetic?). The sky’s the limit, when playing with the possibilities of just one word:
Awe (The Blue Hour)
on the blue hour
at the falling away of day
and the coming of the night
with hope of stars
givers of dreams
singers of songs
that there is no blue
without yellow and orange
like the crackling fire
in our souls
beckoning one another
to stop, come and be warm
instead of passing by
in wisps of smoke
in tendrils of wrongs
in electric-blue currents of memory
by anchoring itself
to the last blade
of living grass
the color of forgiveness
in the blue hour
A final plug for writing poetry: It’s freeing. It doesn’t have to be bound by capitals, punctuation, grammar constraints…it’s about words and rhythms and images and maybe a thesaurus. English Language Learners can excel at it. I once had an ELL student dictate a poem about his love of baseball to me. Then he owned it. It was his. He practiced reading it aloud with a smile that shines in my memory to this day.
Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you)…
One has to ask who’s making the greater contribution to the human spirit.
Then there are letters.
In professional development on the power of writing, I once encouraged staff to write letters to someone who’d had a big impact on their lives. The person could be living or dead. They were to explain the impact and thank the person for it. I asked for volunteers to read their letters aloud after the writing. One teacher offered; as she read, she began to cry. “I didn’t expect professional development to be so emotional,” she wept.
It is exactly those moments that we remember most, psychologists tell us. Experiences around emotion. Being valued by others. Taking part of in a shared experience. They are brief but powerful, meaningful, and lasting.
Our staff spent some time writing letters of encouragement to one another that year. We kept encouragement folders containing these letters, to reread when our spirits needed a lift.
I know that some teachers are currently writing letters of encouragement to students. I have found myself thinking: What would happen if we wrote letters to parents, thanking them for enduring our online presence in their homes? What if we told them that we admire their strength, their perseverance? What if we read these letters aloud to them?
Such things might transform a culture.
Speaking of which…
Don’t Forget the Read Aloud
It’s magical. For all ages, nothing promotes the love of language like hearing words read aloud by someone who understands that it’s a performance. One of the greatest things I’ve seen this year is an online poetry slam in which students shared their original work; some even had videos of themselves acting out the poetic images and scenes they crafted (some impressive videography at the elementary level!).
Whether letters, poems, or books, reading aloud is an invitation for awe. Consider Gorman again: in listening you actually lose sense of yourself for a moment; you feel part of something larger, vibrant, transcendent. That’s the awesome power of language. Even when I work with small groups, with limited time, in person or online, I read aloud to them for a few minutes. A current favorite book with conveniently short chapters: Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot. It has a theme of overcoming, of survival, of redefining home. Who’d have thought that artificial life would stir the human spirit so.
For it is one thing to be literate, and another to be life-literate.
If we have learned anything this past year, it is that we have only so many moments before the final chapter of our times is done and the dust settles over our cities. Life may be in charge of the story, but we are responsible for the craftsmanship.
And our contribution.
Fran Haleyis a K-12 English Language Arts educator currently serving as an elementary literacy coach. Writing is her favorite thing to do and to teach; she finds awe in helping people of all ages discover the power of their own writing and fall in love with the craft. That’s her primary goal when facilitating professional development in writing for teachers. She authors the blog Lit Bits and Pieces: Snippets of Learning and Life. As a member of several online writing communities, she interacts with educators around the globe. Connect with her on Twitter: @fahaley.
Like many of you, we began hearing rumors last March that schools might shut down because of a virus sweeping over the country. At that point we couldn’t begin to imagine the full scope of the disruption, devastation and death the pandemic would bring, but we each did begin to find emails in our inboxes postponing or cancelling work we had scheduled—and at some point, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening and to know that we weren’t alone, we reached out to each other and began a journey of thought that continues to this day.
In those first early days, huddled together on Zoom, we talked about supporting teachers and schools as they moved to virtual learning. But we’d scarcely settled on meeting dates and tentative questions to explore when our world errupted again with the murder of George Floyd, which shook us out of our “how do we support literacy as we know it,” focus and led us instead to listen to voices like Bettina Love, who talked about abolitionist teaching, and Sonja Cherry-Paul who challenged us to be “the new architects of school.”
All of this convinced us that a return to normal could no longer be our goal. Instead, we wanted to be voices for transformative change, which, in the words of David Kirkland, recognizes that “Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers.”
This wasn’t a difficult shift for us to make, as we’d both been questioning many commonly accepted literacy practices for years. We’d also both been advocating for change, as we believed that the goal of literacy instruction should not just be ensuring students’ mastery of skills, as demonstrated through test scores, but should tap into the deeper, more meaningful aspects of reading and being a reader, which we found was best articulated by writers.
Ursula LeGuin, for example, believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” And, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley advocated for what he called a “moral imagination,” which we see as a capacity to occupy another mind and feel the emotional pulse of another heart, which reading can support. And that led us to think about whether we had experienced that, ourselves, as children.
I, Vicki, keenly remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth, a book that was given to me by friends of my parents, which I’ve kept all these years. I remember being put off by Milo at first. But as I kept reading about Milo’s adventures in the strange, confusing world he found himself in, I began to realize that he was changing – that indeed, humans could change. They could become kinder, braver, and more helpful, as they started doing things they never thought they could, which I found enormously comforting. And it made me want to become a kinder, braver and more helpful person.
As for me, Maria, the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood was an early childhood favorite. Oddly, I had all but forgotten that little girl with the brown pigtails until a random day in the school library with my first graders. I was pursuing shelves, hunting for an unexpected literary gem, when a very worn red spine caught my attention: a copy of B is For Betsy! As I thumbed through the musty, fragile pages, memories of Saturday trips to the library with my mom, long afternoons with nothing to do but read, and nights under the covers with books and a flashlight came flooding back. Through this favored series, I had bonded with Betsy, learning to face childhood fears through the comfort of family, true friends, contagious kindness, and the superpower of red ribbons and plaid bookbags. Truly, Betsy helped me construct ways of being as I went out into the world.
As we reflected on these memories, we found ourselves thinking about something else Bettina Love had said: “Why,” she asked, “had it taken a pandemic to see the humanity of all children?” This opened our eyes to the humanity in our own process. We recognized that we had been privileged to have access to texts that helped us see ourselves and create a vision of the people we wanted to be. But, we were also aware that we were able to do that without having been taught to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it,” or to “determine central ideas of themes of text.” Instead, we did these things by connecting with and being moved by the humanity of a character in a book, in a way that helped us become more humane, too. And believing that every child is capable of being moved and thinking deeply, just as we had been, we found ourselves thinking that the transformative change we longed for was a shift from a system based on standardization to one focused on humanization. But what would humanizing the teaching and learning of reading look like?
Before the pandemic, we’d already been asking educators to consider making some key shifts in their practice, which we realized, as we kept talking on Zoom, served the purpose of humanizing classrooms. For instance,
Shifting from what we saw as a pedagogy of right-answerism to inviting students to think, explore and develop their own ideas.
Shifting from being a deliverer of content (like comprehension strategies, standards and skills) to becoming a facilitator of student thinking.
Shifting from seeing confusion as something to be fixed to seeing it as the place where learning and thinking often starts.
Shifting from seeing learning as something that can be achieved in a single period to seeing it as a much more complex and messy process.
And, shifting from listening to students in order to assess them to listening in order to better understand their thinking.
These shifts all supported our shared belief that, given the gift of time for students to engage in that messy process, they not only have the ability to intellectually grapple with complexity—they crave it. And to see the effects of these humanizing shifts in action, here’s a conference Vicki had with a seventh grader named Yusef whose class was reading “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s short story about village that, for reasons none of the villagers remember, holds a lottery every year and stones the winner to death.
Yusef had been labeled as a struggling reader, and while many of his classmates jumped into “The Lottery,” Yusef was having a hard time just getting to the third paragraph. When Vicki sat next to him, he pushed the text as far away on his desk as he could, and when she asked if he was wondering anything, he simply said, “This story’s too weird.”
Vicki could have responded in any number of ways, but committed to listening to understand, she leaned into his reaction and asked if he could give her an example of the story’s weirdness, and with that he pulled the story back and accusingly pointed to the second line of the story’s second paragraph:
“Right there,” Yusef said. “That’s weird. They just got out of school and it’s like they don’t like it. Man, when I get out of school for the summer, the last thing I want to do is talk about it.”
Here again, listening to understand—and probing student’s thinking without judgment—can reveal surprises. Vicki learned that Yusef’s disengagement with the text wasn’t because it was too hard for him. He just didn’t know how to use his response to engage with the text. And so the first thing she did was validate his response by acknowledging that that was pretty weird. Then she asked if he’d noticed anything else that seemed weird, and he answered, “Yeah, what’s with the stones?”
If you know “The Lottery,” you may be thinking just what Vicki thought: that despite being labeled as struggling, Yusef actually was quite an astute reader who was unaware of that. But noticing and naming could help him begin to see that, so she told Yusef what he’d done: He’d noticed what seems to be a pattern of weirdness, with kids not doing what they usually do, and another pattern around the stones. Then she connected that to the larger work of reading and writing: Writers often use patterns to try to show us something they don’t want to come right out and say, and I think it’s possible that the writer actually wants you to pick up all this weirdness and is inviting you to figure out why she put it there. “Hmm. . .,” Yusef muttered, as Vicki gathered her things. Just before she left the classroom, she turned to look back and saw Yusef reading.
As we began sharing stories from our work with students in conferences, small groups and read alouds, we began to brainstorm what we started calling humanizing strategies. Unlike comprehension strategies, these weren’t meant to be explicitly taught to students. Rather they were strategies for helping teachers create more humane and equitable cultures in their classrooms. We broke them into categories, like these examples:
Strategies that can help students take risks with their thinking:
Unless it’s clearly needed, model who to be vs. what to do, like being someone who’s curious and sometimes confused but who notices things and wonders about them.
Trust and don’t rush the process of meaning-making—or, as Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.
Use conditional language, like what might or could something mean vs. does.
Strategies that can help teachers facilitate the often messy process of meaning making through talk:
Be invitational by asking questions like, “What are you thinking?” or “Is anyone wondering something?”
Encourage multiple voices by asking questions like “Does anyone have a different idea?”
Normalize confusion as something every reader experiences and invite students to share what’s confusing them.
Help students develop a sense of agency by asking how they figured out something that had confused them or that the writer hadn’t explicitly stated.
Honor students’ tentative thinking, even if you suspect that what they said won’t pan out.
Help students see that readers revise, just as writers do, by asking if they noticed anything that gave them a new idea or changed their thinking
Pay attention to students’ expressions and body language, as often there’s thinking behind smirks, grimacing or laughter.
Finally, as we reflect on the whole of this journey, we recognize that all the shifts and strategies we so strongly believe in had the same intention: They were meant to respect and honor students’ intellectual capacities, feelings, and humanity. Perhaps a critical part of transformative change is recognizing that we all want to be seen, heard, and respected – as readers, as thinkers, as human beings.
Maria Nichols is a literacy consultant and author working internationally with teachers, districts and industry consortiums. Her work includes 33 years with the San Diego Unified School District, where she served as a classroom and demonstration teacher, literacy coach, and the Director of School Innovation. Maria is the author of Comprehension Through Conversation (Heinemann 2006), Talking About Texts (Shell 2008), Expanding Comprehension with Multigenre Text Sets (Scholastic 2009), and Building Bigger Ideas: A Process For Teaching Purposeful Talk (Heinemann, 2019). Her frequent presentations at conferences convey her belief in agentive, engaging learning for adults and children alike.
Vicki Vinton is a literacy consultant and award-winning writer who works with teachers, schools and districts across the country and around the world. She is the author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (Heinemann, 2017) and the co-author of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann, 2012) and The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language (Heinemann, 2015). As a frequent presenter at state, national and international events, Vicki brings a passion for thinking and learning and a love of language and books to every setting she works in.
Note: I emailed Hollyanne Bates (CCIRA’s blog curator) on January 1, 2021 to ask if I could submit a blog about our current “book study.” Like many of you, I have read and re-read Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy over the past several months. I envisioned writing a blog focused on identity and equity and to invite CCIRA members to email me with your reflections in May for a blog to close out the book study. Then, January 6, 2021 happened.
Gholdy Muhammad writes, “I define text as anything that can be read – both print texts and nonprint texts. Society members were reading print texts but they were also reading the world as texts (Freire and Macedo, 1987). They read images and the social times as texts” (emphasis mine, 33).
And, oh my. We have been handed a lot to read when we consider the current images and the present social times as texts.
We are inundated with competing voices, multiple perspectives, hostile rhetoric, and (occasionally?) reasoned argument. Our screens load visual images that have us questioning, and maybe leave us anxious and unnerved.
I have immersed myself these past few days in considering Muhammad’s concept of criticality: “Criticality enables us to question both the world and the texts within it to better understand the truth in history, power, and equity” (117). We must interrogate the world and its texts. Passive, disengaged consumption of texts is not enough. It has never been enough. But today, students must “interrogate the world not only to make sense of injustice but also to work toward social transformation” (120).
It’s a tall order.
Gholdy Muhammad’s definition offered at the beginning of her book stayed with me each time I re-read: “Literacy is not just about reading words on the page… Reading and writing are transformative acts that improve self and society” (emphasis mine, page 9).
When I embrace the idea that literacy is a “transformative act,” and when I broaden the definition of text to include “anything that can be read,” her Framework rises to a whole new level of importance beyond another “literacy framework” focused on decoding and comprehension of complex texts.
If I truly believe – and I do – that authentic literacy empowers students, then in what ways will I think and act as an educator? I hold Muhammad’s statement to be true: “Teachers must ask if they will be transformed by the learning as they expect and want students to be transformed” (emphasis mine, 78).
The classroom must be a transactional environment as well as a transformative one: “Criticality does not believe in hierarchies in teaching and learning” (122). What instructional decisions do I make to disrupt that hierarchy? What does classroom discussion look and sound like? What texts are students reading – and who is making the decision for those texts? And what criteria drive those decisions?
I am a learner within a community of learners as I work with students in the interrogation of the texts in front of them – print, nonprint, visual, oral, and digital. Further, I learn the identities of my students: identities as readers, identities in cultural contexts, in historical contexts, and in the context of an educational system that has not served all of our students in equitable and meaningful ways.
Ultimately, at this moment in time marked by anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, I understand Gholdy Muhammad’s declaration that “Who we are is connected to historical, institutional, political, and sociocultural factors” (69).
If teachers are to be “transformed by the learning,” then we must center student voices; we must honor and value all that they bring to the classroom. We must read and listen closely to learn “the realities and lived experiences of persons experiencing the moment, which equally contribute to the same narrative” (120).
We are, all of us, connected to, and can be connected through, this moment in time.
I invite you to share your reflections and responses to Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. My goal is to gather many (if not all?) of your responses in a blog later in the spring. Email your thoughts to email@example.com and please, for ease in gathering, use “Cultivating Genius” in the subject line.
Vince Puzick served in public education for over 32 years as a college composition instructor, high school English teacher, and K-12 content specialist in literacy and language arts. He now provides professional development in standards-based curriculum design and instructional practice. When the weather is nice (which is every day), he is fly fishing on one of Colorado’s rivers and probably daydreaming. He is working on a series of literary nonfiction pieces tentatively titled Americana. Vince lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Jannetta, his daughter, two stepdaughters, a dog, and a cat named Trout.
Will you take a moment to think of someone you admire as a reader? As you gather your thoughts, I’ll share mine: I immediately think of two long-time friends. One reads voraciously, as if they are satisfying hunger. They read widely across genres and topics; their critiques and opinions about books are compelling and thought-provoking, often affecting my perspective and my reading lists. They are also book pushers – recommending and passing along texts they’ve loved or that they think I’ll love.
My other person COMMITS – for him, reading is laborious and requires enormous focus, but even so, he makes time for it and reads deeply about anything of interest. Coyotes – he read so much in a short time that he has become a cocktail party coyote expert. Medieval Japan? He’s read on this topic for years – something that has nothing to do with his daily life and everything to do with his curiosity. He says that the act of reading isn’t exactly pleasurable, but its results are rewarding.
So, now, who are the readers you admire? What are the characteristics you find admirable?
I ask about this during certain workshops. As teachers turn to each other and share, we listen to stories about the best friend who goes to readings by every single author (emphasis on single) at the independent bookstore in her town, whether or not she has interest in the featured book, saying that’s how she makes her best discoveries (and potentially a love connection). We hear about people with self-driven reading pursuits and projects, like the teacher who shared that her wife wanted to build a deck on their house. She read every house magazine, blog, and resource on DIY deck design and building.
We hear about the wide variety of social lives around reading, including stories of a grandma who has been faithful to the same bible study for fifty years, a big family who gifts already-read books when they get together for the holidays, and a couple who fell in love during their bookstore cafe courtship and created a ritual of seeking independent bookstores wherever they travel. But mostly, the reasons we admire others as readers are less Hollywood-ending or rom-com meet-cute. Often we admire others for the simple reason that they manage to read – like the teacher who shared the story of a colleague’s reveal: she hides out from her family in the guise of ‘using the bathroom’ which this teacher found admirable because it proved her valiant commitment to reading at least a little bit each day.
Nobody has ever shared their admiration for their best friend’s SAT score. Nobody has talked breathlessly about their husband’s reading level or their sister-in-law’s self-correction ratio. I’ve never heard anyone say they admire a colleague because they read super-hard books nor has anyone expressed awe for a neighbor who is fabulous at predicting. Nobody has ever named a lover who has amazing reading stamina. Actually, come to think of it, nobody in my workshops has ever even said “lover.”
When I work in pre-school to middle school classrooms, I’ll sneak moments here and there to ask children a version of the question, “Who is a reader you admire, and why?” Again, I’ve collected responses, and here are the kinds that tend to recur. (Fig. 1.2)
The differences between the children’s responses and those of adults are revealing. While adults tend to appreciate characteristics of a person’s reading life and reading habits, the kids seem to admire readers based on their perceptions of reading strength and skill, characteristics that are, in some ways, more quantitative: reading speed; book level; page count, and test scores. Children also reveal their sensitivity to and awareness of who’s getting what kind of instruction, who’s being hauled off for extra reading help, and who’s praised or left unnoticed by the teacher. Finally, children often admire another based on what kind of book they’re reading- the more chapters and pages, the more to admire.
It’s rare for a child to name a characteristic they appreciate about someone else’s reading life, the way they think about texts, or their habits around reading. Children’s responses reflect what they believe is valued in school and suggest that so much of our reading instruction is focused on how to read, skill-wise, and most of what kids know and admire about each other is what they read, level-wise.
There’s another question that I ask teachers at the beginning of certain presentations. I’ll ask them to take a moment to think of something they’ve read that continues to matter to them in some way.
Teachers’ responses often include texts or characters from books that have had been instructive or helpful at particular moments in their lives. For example, one teacher named three titles she has read over a stretch of time – a novel, a memoir, and a self-help/affirmations type of book – that deal with the death of a partner because that’s her ongoing journey. Another teacher asked if songs count and said she has a playlist of songs with lyrics that have spoken to her in different times in her life. Someone talked about how a particular book changed how she viewed her twin brother’s wife and has had a profound and lasting effect on their relationship…for the better.
Adults often cite texts that remind them of a time in their lives. For example, one teacher named DaVinci Code, explaining that she wasn’t usually attracted to that genre or type of book. It was left behind in a youth hostel where she was staying. She read it, just because it was there. Now, years later, every time she thinks of the book or hears a reference to it, she is immediately transported to a time in her life when she was unencumbered, traveling on her own, seeing the world. Another teacher named his grandmother’s old-timey cookbook, saying that he keeps the cookbook because it’s full of his grandmother’s margin jots about the recipes. This book matters to him because it connects him to her. As you might expect, when I’m in classrooms, I’ll ask children, “What’s a book that really matters to you, that sticks with you, and why?” Here are some responses that are most typical:
Although this is certainly not a scientific study, I can vouch that a large number of children just don’t know what to say or how to answer, or at least they don’t have the title or recollection of a text of personal significance right there on the tip of their tongues. When children do name books, they often cite the one they are currently reading in school.
Children’s responses about significant books are, again, qualitatively different from what adults say. Please know that in highlighting the contrast, I am not belittling children’s responses. Nor do I expect (or hope) a six year-old will respond like a sixteen year-old, or a sixteen year old will respond like a sixty-year old. A child’s unfiltered response is worthy of our respect and consideration, as is. The important reason to attend to the contrast in responses between adults and children when asked about texts of significance is because of what it reveals about children’s understandings of the purpose of books and other texts and act of reading.
Most grown-ups tend to name texts that have insinuated themselves into their lives, even though these texts may have been read long ago. Usually, adults name texts that matter because they inform or inspire, provoke or evoke, challenge or comfort, transport or affirm, and so on.
Many children, especially in elementary school grades, name books that epitomize an achievement, and by this, I mean books that show off reading growth with respect to level or reading status. One story this tells us is that for a great many children, the primary function of books is to serve as ladder steps enabling them to climb to higher levels, and what they (and the adults around them) value is the level or the achievement more than the impact that book had in their lives. Another story this might tell is that children haven’t yet had time and space in the rush through curriculum and frenzied scramble through levels to even consider significance or what it feels like when a book really matters. That would require a bit of slowing down and lingering. Who’s got time for that?!
Another story children seem to internalize about what makes a book significant is that the harder the book, the better the book and, therefore, the better the reader. There is status and an intellectual aura conferred upon children who, for example, read chapter books in early grades, who read thick, page-dense books in upper grades, and who read edgy or content-mature books in middle school.
If these are the reasons books matter to kids, well, then these reasons matter, partly because they illuminate how important it is for our instruction and our classroom environment to provide opportunities for children to internalize more and varied stories about Reading Lives and about how engaged readers pursue, acknowledge, and hold on to texts that matter to them.
One of the stories that seems to be missing, for many kids, is that text significance lies not in the size or level or page count of the text they’re reading, but in the effect the text has on them, the response it inspires, the human connections it forges, the understandings it facilitates, the empathies it enables, or, simply, the way a text, a character, a series can become part of or change the stories of their lives.
I want to be clear, though. It’s not that we need to expect many six year-olds to say that Knuffle Bunny matters to them because it’s an incisive commentary on personal responsibility, nor for ten-year olds to say that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid opened their eyes to the idea of white male mediocrity. Instead, something we can hope for is that children can name books that matter to them, and when asked why, children will declare, with enthusiasm:
“Because I Like It” is not to be underestimated.
When children say a book matters to them because they like it, it may sound like a quick, simplistic, superficial response, and, as a consequence, it’s undervalued. But the truth is that being able to name texts one likes is the necessary and humble beginning to becoming someone who chooses to read, has favorite texts and authors, and identifies as a reader. ‘Because I like it’ books and other texts can be the launch point of an activity, passion, hobby, inquiry, vocation or habit that can grow big and important in one’s life.
It’s worth our teaching time to nurture children’s dispositions to fall in love with texts, authors, genres, series, and so on. In addition, it’s also vital to provide opportunities for children to articulate why they love a particular thing as well as the process for how they fell in love with it. When kids’ processes for falling for a text are shared out loud, the act of falling for a text is more easily or likely to be replicated with another text or by another child.
In 2007, 2012 and again in 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report including data about adult pleasure reading habits, which Dana Gioia, then Chairperson of the NEA, described as “the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation’s reading trends, and perhaps more important – their considerable consequences.” (2007).
The report does several things. Drawing from data gathered from many different sources and studies, it details a story about reading volume and reading proficiency among the nation’s adult population. I want to acknowledge that these points are debatable if we stretch the definition of reading from a narrow focus on reading words to also include reading visual texts, and when we expand the boundaries of reading terrain from book reading and literary texts to include on-line content, alternatives to books, and texts that are not considered literary. Furthermore, we have to ask who is defining reading proficiency, and the corollary question, who benefits from the definition? Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that a report compiled in 2007 or even 2012 couldn’t possibly include comprehensive data about digital reading habits associated with tablets and smart phones and other devices, the impact of social media on reading, and adults’ interactions with the newer text types, including memes, gifs, posts, blogs, tweets, quick videos, etc. In any case, the volume and proficiency of adult readers (and associated debates around these matters) are not the parts of the report that I will focus on.
The report shares correlations between adults’ pleasure reading, also referred to as voluntary reading, and its relationship with other measures of adult lives. According to the data, there are clear indications of the importance of having a voluntary/pleasure reading life as an adult and the potential consequences of not having one.
Mr. Gioia writes, “Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.” According to the NEA study, engaging in pleasure/voluntary reading as adults correlates with several things, including academic and economic success, more participation in cultural activities and events, higher civic engagement, and, wait for it, increased exercise!
I want to acknowledge two things. First, that old saying, “correlation does not mean causation” needs to be applied here. In other words, just because data show that having a pleasure-reading life correlates to more civic engagement, it doesn’t mean that pleasure-reading is the cause of civic engagement, or that participating in the civic life of one’s community is caused by reading for pleasure.
I’m sure we all know people in our lives who may not read for pleasure but who regard voting as a sacred act; or someone who would never choose to read, given an hour of free time, but who performs as a mime every weekend in a local park and who co-founded the International Organization of Juggling Mimes in Parks – or something artsy like that.
Obviously, having a pleasure reading life isn’t the singular pre-requisite for civic engagement, cultural event participation, exercise, or higher salaries. It’s just that a pleasure reading life strongly correlates with these things among survey respondents, which included thousands of adults of varied race, ethnicity, socioeconomic levels, educational attainment, and so on.
So, my read on this report goes like this: Sure, the report is a decade old, and yes, there are likely to be some reliability and validity issues, as there are for many studies, but it makes TOTAL COMMON SENSE to me that reading for pleasure can be important to the lives of individuals and to the health of communities. And, by the way, I still can’t get over the surprising correlation between pleasure reading and more exercise!
When kids have lots of experiences with texts they like and when they find pleasure in the act of reading, it stands to reason that as they grow up, they’ll be more likely to be an adult pleasure reader. This may increase the chance that they’ll be an awesome citizen and neighbor, healthy and active, and involved and connected with their community in a number of ways. Maybe that’s just me dreaming the dream. I acknowledge that I have no ‘science of reading’ data to back this up, but I know that reading for pleasure can’t hurt and certainly can help our children’s reading lives. As Sharon Murphy writes, ““When pleasure and reading are companions, we know very well that children become engaged readers and are likely to continue to read throughout their lives. (2012)”
So, children’s regular expressions of “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” in reference to texts and to the act of reading are not simply a bonus outcome or fringe benefit of our reading instruction. Instead, “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” must be a constant inspiration and steady companion to our instruction, standing tall alongside beside the Big Three of our instruction: Reading with Accuracy (decoding skills), Reading with Fluency (fluency skills) and Reading with Meaning (comprehension skills). Here’s to adding Reading With Pleasure and creating a Big Four.
Our world might very well be better for it.
(This is an excerpt of a chapter from Whole Readers (working title) Stenhouse Publishing, 2021.)
Kathy Collins is coauthor with Matt Glover of the Heinemann title I Am Reading. Kathy is the beloved author of Growing Readers as well as Reading for Real. She presents at conferences and works in schools all over the world to support teachers in developing high-quality, effective literacy instruction in the elementary school grades. Kathy has worked closely with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and she was a first grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York.