Why We Need LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Youth

By Lester Laminack

As a child in the 1960’s I knew I was attracted to other boys
long before I heard words like queer, homo, pansy, fag, fairy, or
gay. When finally, I did hear those words, they were used to
inflict humiliation or harm to boys like me.

The most common word I heard spoken about me was, “sissy.”
Early on it was more a whisper between adults. As I grew and
became more conscious of the venomous potential of those
words, it became louder. Those words were spoken about me as
I stood just on the edge of earshot. They were spoken to me by
those intending to demean and humiliate me as they attempted
to buoy themselves, to make themselves feel bigger and more
powerful.


Those words attacked my soul, leaving sores that festered into
self-doubt and self-loathing. As a youth I was deeply involved
in my church and avoided, at all costs, disappointing my
community, my teachers, or my family. Everything I heard,
directly and indirectly, made it clear that what was truest and
most natural to me was considered abhorrent, weak, and sinful.
So, did I search for LBGTQ+ characters in the library or in the
literature we were assigned in school? No, I did not lament the
absence of characters who shared my feelings and longings
because I was consumed by denying those longings and trying
desperately to be what the world expects a boy to be. To be
honest I never expected anyone to write about a person like me,
after all people like me were not considered worth writing
about.


In my youth I didn’t know a single LGBTQ+ person. Not one.
Not in my family, my circle of friends, or in my community.
Not on TV. Not in the movies I saw. Not in the news. So why
would I expect to see them in books at the school library?
Imagine your existence neither valued nor acknowledged.
Instead, everything you see and hear makes it clear that people
like you are not only devalued, but also abhorred. Imagine that
the person you know yourself to be, your truest, most natural
self, is something the world proclaims immoral and/or illegal.
Imagine you see reports on television and in newspapers
declaring that your identity is punishable by imprisonment,
even death in some parts of the world. And in your own country
you see religious groups gathering to protest your right to work
in certain professions, and your right to marry or raise children.
You see those groups organize rallies promoting legal
protection of anyone who would deny you services because
your existence offends their beliefs.


If this is what you witness as a young person, how willingly
would you reveal your most inner truth? How likely would you
be to deny and fear your own natural self instead? How likely
would you be to seek out someone like you in a book, a poem,
an article, a movie, or a song? Why would you? Especially
when the whole world proclaims that you, and those like you,
have no right to be who you truly are. So why would you
bother?

Even if I had bothered to search, I would not have found myself
in any book in the school library or the public library. Instead, I
hid and studied men who fit the stereotype of masculinity. I
watched them walk. I watched how they sat down and stood up.
I watched what they did with their hands while they talked. I
listened to how they spoke. Why? I lived in fear that I would be
found out, and I wanted so badly to “pass”. I firmly believed
that if my fear became a reality, it would destroy everything and
everyone that I held dear. So, I did everything to squelch that
part of me, to deny that I had a right to feel what I felt, the right
to be my truest self.

Teachers, literature could have been a validation reflecting my
humanity back to me; it could have been my mentor to help me
understand what I knew about myself. Stories, poems, memoirs
could have held my hand and given me guidance at a time when
the most natural part of me felt dirty, immoral, frightened, and
profoundly ashamed.

The larger culture perpetuated my feelings. There were jokes
and insults about people like me. I heard them among adults I
trusted and honored. I heard them among my schoolmates.

I heard them on TV. If anyone was even suspected of being LGBTQ+, there was nothing complimentary or honorable ever spoken about them.

By the time I was twelve I had a crush on a boy, and I felt all the feelings I had heard other boys feel about girls and and all the feelings I heard girls feel about boys. But I could share my feelings with neither my male friends, nor my female friends. None of them would have been a safe option. I had no guidance on how to share my truth, to claim my being. I had no mentors who could assure me that what I felt, what I feared, what I longed for were all normal human feelings. No one was there to pull me aside and say, “Everyone, yes EVERYone, feels what you are feeling and isn’t it glorious?” So, I hid it. I felt sinful and weak. I felt shame that I had somehow failed to be enough, failed to embrace my faith fully, failed to resist those thoughts and feelings.


Teachers, librarians, administrators, parents, school board
members, what if I had found even one book where a boy like
me was the main character? What if that character had a crush
on another boy in his school? What if that character told a
friend what he was feeling? What if that friend had celebrated
those feelings and acknowledged them as normal human
emotions? What if that character’s world didn’t fall apart, even
if the results were less than stellar, but that character endured,
and his friends and his family didn’t abandon him? And what if
those books were read and discussed by cisgender heterosexual
students? How would that experience humanize the LGBTQ+
classmates they know? How would those books lead to
conversations and insight that could help students focus on
what they have in common? What if literature became the salve
to heal the hurt and guide the heart and mind?

Friends is there any wonder why the suicide rate is three times
higher among LGBTQ+ youth than it is among cisgender
heterosexual youth? Read the statistics for yourself.

Some young people see no way to cope, no way to exist. I
believe that we owe those young people. We owe them
portrayals that move beyond stereotypes and simplifications
and gross exaggerations of their identities. We owe them
mirrors that reflect their full humanity, as well as windows
(Bishop, 1990 https://scenicregional.org/wp-
content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-
Doors.pdf
) that open the world for cisgender heterosexual
youth to see LGBTQ+ students as equally human and worthy
with amazing potential for contributing to this world.

Why do we need LGBTQ+ literature?
Literature is a tremendous equalizing force that has the
potential to validate our existence and broaden our
understanding of what it means to be human. It allows us to
safely step outside the boundaries of our confined experience. It
allows personal, intimate interactions with characters with
whom we can identify and with others who are different from
us. In fact, stepping into a book and walking with a character
may be the one experience in which a student’s personal
feelings, fears, wishes, and dreams are shared and acceptable.
Literature provides our children and youth an opportunity to
broaden their visions of what it is like to share their deepest
truth, to face their greatest fear, and to live through the
aftermath of that experience. It is equally important to read
nonfiction that reveals the truths about Stonewall, state and
federal laws, the role of the Supreme Court in Obergfell v
Hodges, and the contributions of LGBTQ+ Americans to
culture and economy, invention and creation, art and sports and
entertainment.

When I was a young person there would have been nothing in
the library to give me guidance, but that is not true today. In
fact, there is a wealth of developmentally appropriate fiction
and nonfiction written specifically for children and youth
including story, essay, memoir, biography, historical fiction,
and poetry. For a list of titles to get you started, check the link
in the resources for a list gathered by CCIRA. Have a look and
read a few. Get to know what is available so you can be an
advocate for the young people who look to you for guidance
and support. Know what is available so you can participate in
an informed conversation with adults who seek to ban or censor
or limit access to all young people.


We must embrace and advocate for all our young people. We
must embrace our common humanity, all that goes deeper than
the language of our tongues, deeper than the cultural traditions
that guide us, deeper than the spiritual practice we engage in,
deeper than the color of our skin, deeper than who we are wired
to love. Perhaps one of our greatest gifts as human beings is our
ability to see beyond our differences and into our common
humanity. It is our responsibility as human beings to lift one
another, to celebrate all that makes us one diverse and
magnificent family.

And yet…
As I write this in the sixth month of the year 2022, I am an
adult who has come through six decades of this, yet I am
hesitant to save and hit send. Even at this age I pause with a
tinge of fear, the same sort of fear that many LGBTQ+ people
live with each day because of the policies and laws being
passed to limit what can be read and what can be said. But I
want to be the adult I wish I had known as a young person, so I
take a deep breath and press send hoping that this will give you
the insight, strength, and resolve to be the adult all children
need.

And now, my friends, I ask you to do the same. Take a deep
breath and step up. Make a commitment to read at least 10
books from the CCIRA list this summer. Inform yourself
enough to be an advocate for your students this fall and create a
concrete plan for how you will do that. Decide how you will create
a classroom community where every student is physically and
emotionally safe to be who they are. Pledge to stand up and
speak out, you may well save the life of a child.

Resources to help you support LGBTQ youth:


HRC (Human Rights Campaign)—glossary of LGBTQ+ terms

GLSEN

The Trevor Project

Safe Schools Coalition

Youth Pride Association

Five Ways to Support LGBTQ Youth

GLAAD

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender Health/Youth Resources)


Partnership to End Addiction (LGBTQ+, Family & Substance Abuse

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States. Lester has coauthored a number of professional books including Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Instruction into Writing OpportunitiesLearning Under the Influence of Language and LiteratureReading Aloud Across the Curriculum; The Ultimate Read-Aloud Resource, Cracking Open the Author’s Craft and Bullying Hurts. In addition he has several articles published in journals such as The Reading TeacherScience and ChildrenLanguage ArtsPrimary Voices; and Young Children. Lester is also the author of seven children’s books.  Three Hens, A Peacock, and the Enormous Egg (a sequel to Three Hens and a Peacock) will be released in February 2023, and A Cat Like That is under contract. Connect with him on @lester_laminack.

Have a Few Extra Minutes? Use Interactive Writing to Teach Foundational Skills

By C.C. Bates, Ph.D.

Interactive Writing

As the first graders in Room 206 begin to write a list of facts about dental hygiene, they decide to start by labeling the chart Teeth Facts. It may be quicker for me as the teacher to act as a scribe and simply write the title of the chart and the facts learned, but it certainly would not be as powerful. Engaging in Interactive Writing (IW) ups the ante and turns the writing of a traditional chart or text into a multi-layered learning experience. Interactive writing is the evolution of language experience and shared writing. It capitalizes on students’ ideas to create readable texts, and through intentional decision making I can leverage the activity to teach a range of skills and concepts.

FmFs

As teachers, we all have times in the day when we’ve finished up a few minutes early, and if you are like me, I want to make sure I dedicate every possible moment to teaching and learning. I have always referred to this extra time and how I use it as a “five-minute filler” or FmF for short. 

While setting aside a specific time for IW in a daily schedule is important, I also find using these FmFs to engage students in negotiating, creating, writing, and reading texts helps make the most of every minute of the day. Often, the texts I create with students during FmFs are an extension of a unit in science or social studies, either way focusing on IW gives me extra time across the day to integrate literacy into the curriculum. So, over the course of several days, the students in Room 206 will engage in a culminating discussion about a unit on dental health and we will use the FmFs that occur to add to our Teeth Facts chart.

Teaching Foundation Skills 

During IW my focus is on teaching foundational skills as we create an authentic and meaningful text. Through this effective literacy practice, children develop oral language and vocabulary while at the same time learning about concepts of print, engaging in phonological and phonemic analysis, and acquiring alphabetic and orthographic knowledge. Depending on my instructional goals and the opportunities presented as we create the text, I can readily emphasize these skills that contribute to successful reading and writing. 

For example, I can reinforce orthographic mapping. In a recent article by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright (2021), they state that the “links among phonology, orthography, and words’ meanings (i.e., vocabulary) are at the heart of orthographic mapping: the linking of words’ spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory” (p. S29). What better place to connect phonology, orthography, and words’ meanings than during IW? 

To illustrate orthographic mapping, l will use the dental health chart as an exampleOnce the students decided to title the chart Teeth Facts, we immediately began to write the word “teeth.” Most first graders’ vocabulary includes the word teeth but if not, I know the word teeth has been introduced and used on numerous occasions during the unit. My instructional goal during IW was to demonstrate how to link the phonological and orthographic information of a word the students could define. 

When we write, we work from sound to letter. Through a slow and natural articulation of the word, the students in Room 206 identified that “teeth” has three sounds or phonemes. Next, we focused on connecting each phoneme to its corresponding grapheme. A grapheme is a letter or letters that serve as a written representation of a phoneme, which means if a word has three phonemes /t//ee//th/ it will also have three graphemes t-ee-th. 

The many ways long e can be represented is certainly a skill being taught in first grade and IW provides an opportunity to apply these skills in connected text. As the word “teeth” was written, I quickly put the t down and then purposefully selected a student to add ee. Once the vowel combination representing long e was added to the chart, we blended /t//ee/ together and discussed the final sound in teeth, the digraph /th/. I chose another student to add th to the chart and then we reread the word as I slid my finger underneath emphasizing the sound/letter match. Having students participate in the writing of a text allows me to target my instruction based on student’s individual strengths and/or what I may be working on during small group instruction. 

In Closing

During the first FmF, we only got the title of the chart written, but by the end of the week I was able to capitalize on the extra time in our day and the students and I wrote five facts they learned about teeth and dental care. These short bursts of IW spread across the school week eventually produced a completed text. Each time we added to the chart the students reread what they had written which led to opportunities to practice phrased and fluent reading and to engage in comprehension monitoring. If you are interested in learning more about IW including ways to use the text as a teaching tool to support reading, I invite you to read my book Interactive Writing: Developing Readers through Writing

Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly56, S25-S44.

C.C. Bates, Ph.D., is a Professor of Literacy Education at Clemson University. Her work has been published in The Reading Teacher, Young Children, and The Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education. She is the author of Interactive Writing: Developing Readers Through Writing (Benchmark).

Creating a Narrative of Progress: Broadening the Definition of Reading Growth

By Dr. Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind

This spring, we were kidwatching during Independent Reading in a first grade classroom. A boy with a huge pile of books in front of him beckoned us over. “Listen to me read!” he said gleefully. He read book after book, pointing out all the funny parts. “I’m a good reader!” he proclaimed. 

Later, his teacher confided in us, “I’m worried that no one will recognize his growth. No one will know how he felt about himself as a reader in September and compare it to how he feels about himself now.  They won’t see the joy that reading brings him or how he sees it as part of his life now, when in September he only occasionally picked up a book.  They will just see his level on the test and label him as a struggling reader.”

This encapsulates the ongoing contradiction between how reading growth is traditionally measured and defined by tests, and what teachers observe and experience to be a more complete concept of reading growth. Current policy and testing practices continue to reinforce the misconception that student reading growth encompasses solely the accumulation of skills and strategies (Afflerbach, 2022), thereby reducing the definition of what constitutes reading growth.  However, both the experience of teachers and an overwhelming amount of research tell us reading is more complex than that. What constitutes reading growth and how it is measured needs to better reflect this complexity (ILA, 2018), expanding to include aspects of reading such as engagement, motivation and self-efficacy. 

What we see as growth, and what students feel is growth is disconnected from what is officially recognized as growth.  At the end of the school year, reading growth is too often reduced to a grade on the report card or  a number or letter, or is defined by a set of discrete skills that can be measured by  standardized tests.  These measures do not capture the joy or the nuances of being a reader.

What data counts?

Data promises to inform and support the work of teachers, and yet data has become a burden.  In reality, many teachers are drowning in data, and not the sort of data they find useful.  Typically, the data teachers are directed to utilize is confined to big data such as standardized tests, universal screeners or benchmark data. That sort of data is often used to tell a story of “learning loss” or name who is “below grade level.”    A recent Hechinger report (February, 2022) asked “…  has all that time teachers spent studying data helped students learn? The emerging answer from education researchers is no.” This comes as no surprise to educators themselves. The big data that is valued by the system is not the data that supports the work of teachers in classrooms in meaningful ways, yet it tends to dominate our time, our definitions of achievement,  and the stories told about our students and our work.

An over reliance on this big data runs the risk of narrowing the vision of the role of the teacher.  When framed by deficit-minded data, the teacher turns into someone who fills gaps  and catches students up to the benchmarks that indicate grade level proficiency.  

Our role is to teach responsively, not to “fill gaps.”  Our role is to be asset-minded. Our role is to assume a stance of non-judgemental relentlessness in the pursuit of growing readers. Our role is to uncover student strengths and provide relevant feedback that will build upon those strengths. Our role is to center students. In our hearts, we know that big data often limits our role as teachers of readers and does not tell the whole story of our students.  When small data, such as kidwatching or conferring notes, is valued, we are suddenly presented with a more nuanced portrait of growth that indicates relevant next steps for each student.

Navigating the Contradiction

We urge teachers to harness their sense of agency and take control of the narrative by expanding the definition of reading growth to tell an authentic  story of progress. Maxine Greene, the great educational philosopher, believes that teachers have an obligation to choose to engage with struggle, such as the contradiction discussed above.  She states that by engaging in these struggles, rather than giving in to one side or the other, teachers can move toward a state of “wide awakeness” that welcomes the creativity and agency necessary to humanize and transform possibilities in education.  In Releasing the Imagination (1995), she writes, “…to learn and to teach, one must have an awareness of leaving something behind while reaching toward something new, and this kind of awareness must be linked to imagination.” How can we navigate this contradiction  and imagine new spaces of possibility for our students and ourselves? 

Here are some practical ways to navigate this contradiction:

  • Prioritize Independent Reading and the Read Aloud

Both Independent Reading and the read aloud are research-backed literacy practices that satisfy standards while meeting students where they are.  Independent Reading time has the potential to develop reading comprehension ability, vocabulary, grammar and spelling (Krashen, 2004), spark actions for a more just world, (German, 2021), improve reading fluency (Allington, 2014) … and the list of advantages goes on and on.   Every student has the right to Independent Reading; it is not an add-on or a luxury.  Similarly, the read aloud is an enjoyable and impactful time of day. Effective read-alouds increase children’s vocabulary, listening comprehension, story schema, background knowledge, word recognition skills, and cognitive development. (ILA, 2018).

During Independent Reading and the read aloud, teachers have the opportunity to engage in intentional kidwatching, to notice and name the strengths of students as readers, and to begin to build a broad understanding of reading growth for each child across the school year. During Independent Reading and the read aloud, students have the opportunity to be their authentic reading selves.

  • Honor, consider and follow the growth of the identity of each reader

 On this blog in March  of 2021, we shared our definition of reading identity (Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Reading Identity in Independent Reading ) We define reading identity as having five aspects: attitude, self-efficacy, habits, book choice and process.  If we use these aspects as a jumping off point for imagining what reading growth means, then reading growth becomes authentic and includes much more than a grade. Reading growth can (and should)  include:

  • Choosing different genres
  • Reading for longer periods of time
  • Having favorite books
  • Using a variety of strategies to decode words independently
  • Holding on to multiple plot lines and characters
  • Comparing and contrasting genres and books
  • Responding to texts in a variety of ways
  • Wanting to read
  • Knowing book preferences
  • Declaring: “I am a reader.”

As you  confer with students during Independent Reading, provide feedback on what you observe about their growth. Invite students in class discussions to reflect on how they have grown as readers. Ask: “What are the ways in which you have changed as a reader?  What made you change?”  Encourage students to tell stories about themselves as readers and how their reading life has developed. 

  • Reclaim Your Role

Regie Routman (2003) writes that “teaching with urgency means focusing relentlessly on what is most important every single day.”  Therefore, teaching with urgency means to teach responsively, to start with student strengths and to provide relevant feedback that build upon those strengths with clear next steps. Students are what is most important every single day.  It is through the lens of deep understanding of our students as readers and learners, that we must approach curriculum, assessment and methods of instruction.  To put students at the center, teachers must continuously reflect on the impact of their decisions, the curriculum and assessment opportunities.  It also means that as a result of this reflection, teachers feel a sense of agency to not only embrace and expand upon what is working, but to give themselves the grace to let go of those practices, routines or tasks that no longer invite positive or productive outcomes for students.

 In one classroom, a veteran fourth-grade teacher chose to abandon a read aloud text that had worked for years, because it no longer captured the attention of her class.  Instead, she presented the class with a variety of possible texts that fit the genre and purpose of her current instruction; when the students were involved in picking the read aloud, their engagement in class discussions soared.  In another classroom, a teacher realized that she never got to the read aloud, because it was at the end of the day. She changed the schedule so that she started the day with the read aloud. Students were actively involved in class conversations, and the read aloud became a jumping off point of instruction. 

  • Trust Small Data and Broaden the Definition of Reading Growth

We know that big data does not tell the whole story. Instead, big data measures such as state tests might show that students are “behind” or “at mastery” or “meet the standard.”  

In contrast, small data, such as kidwatching notes, presents a more nuanced portrait of growth and indicates relevant next steps for each student.  It provides actionable, in-the-moment data upon which teachers can take action.  Take charge of how time in data-focused meetings is spent. Shift team meetings to include analysis of small data; focus on naming strengths, and the natural next steps that build upon those strengths.  In tandem, these two moves can shift both the instructional and emotional climate to embrace a narrative of progress that is beneficial to the morale and growth of students and educators alike.

Final Thoughts

So how are you going to move forward? We urge you to focus on and imagine what could be, rather than feeling weighed down by what is, because imagining and expanding upon what reading growth can and should encompass is a step toward reclaiming a narrative of progress. 

We urge you to take the brave step of moving away from limited definitions of growth and advocating for all that counts when we consider the authentic reading lives of students in and beyond school. For teachers, a wider stance allows us the ability to center students and focus on teaching readers, not just reading. For students, this wider stance honors their authentic reading lives, their whole reading identities and their everyday reading successes.

As your school year comes to a close, know that your observations of students and students’ reflections  count as data. Encouraging your students to believe in themselves as readers, and supporting students to understand their identities as readers counts as growth. Broadening your students’ repertoire of strategies counts as growth. Nurturing your students’ sense of trust that they are and will continue to be readers counts as growth.  It all counts.  

Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant.  Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. 

Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah are the authors of Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading, published by Heinemann. They are the  co-creators of Trusting Readers (@TrustingReaders), a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design high quality literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.

Works Cited:

Afflerbach, Peter. 2022. Teaching Readers (Not Reading): Moving Beyond Skill and Strategies to Reader-Focused Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 

Allington, Richard L. 2014. “How Reading Volume Affects Both Reading Fluency and Reading Achievement.” International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education 7 (1):95-104. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1053794.pdf.

German, Lorena. 2021.  Textured Reading: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Greene, Maxine. 1995.  Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hechinger Report. 2022. Proof Points: Researchers blast data analysis for teachers to help students.  New York, NY: https://hechingerreport.org/proof-points-researchers-blast-data-analysis-for-teachers-to-help-students

International Literacy Association (ILA). 2018. Literacy Leadership Brief: The Power andPromise of Read-Alouds and Independent Reading.  No. 9445. Newark, DE https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-power. promise-read-alouds-independent-reading.pdf.

Krashen, Stephen. 2004. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Routman, Regie. 2003. Reading Essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

ONE SIMPLE RITUAL, ALL YEAR LONG

By Amy Ludwig Van Derwater, 2023 CCIRA Conference Speaker

Many years ago, my friend Tim bought a VitaMix. You know the VitaMix, that blender you could feed car parts into and still end up with a tasty smoothie? Tim made salsa. Gallons of salsa. For every block party and birthday party years after Tim’s purchase, we could count on him to bring salsa. And we loved it. Salsa became Tim’s signature dish, and from the day he bought that VitaMix on, he was the salsa man.

Eating Tim’s salsa, I was reminded of my childhood and of Mrs. Roske, church secretary and mom at my childhood church. Mrs. Roske was well known for her Cardamom Braid Bread. And then there was my husband’s Babci who was famous for her Pineapple Cake. Even as her eyesight failed and she worked from a recipe written in one inch high letters, she made this cake. And Mark loved Pineapple Cake so much that for my bridal shower, I received a copy of the recipe along with a glass baking dish and all of the ingredients.

These cooks were famous for one thing, and decades later, I still remember them for their signature dishes. Well, last year, after 22 years away, I returned to the classroom for one year as a fourth grade remote-and-in-person teacher. I knew how much I didn’t know, and I was nervous, so I made a simple commitment to do one thing well. To stay true to one simple ritual: my fourth grade ELA students and I would begin each class by reading poems out loud. 

On the first day of school, I introduced a poem written on chart paper (remote students shared a Google Slides poetry notebook), and I read it with a pointer. Then we read the poem together. After a whole class choral reading, individual students volunteered to “have a turn.” We read this poem together on each of the first few days of school.

On the first full-week Monday, we read our poem together again and added a new poem. On the third Monday, we added a third poem. On the fourth Monday, we dropped off the first poem so that we remained at reading three poems aloud to begin each class. And each week thereafter we dropped and added a poem. We read funny poems, serious poems, poems with lots of rhythm, poems to celebrate the change of seasons, and challenging poems such as “The Shaker Abecedarius.” We read old and contemporary poems written by so many poets. Sometimes it felt as if choosing the just-right poem was my most important task.

Poems Hanging On Our Interactive White Board

Children hand copied our weekly poem into their Poetry Notebooks. I could have given them printouts, but the hand copying helped the poems sink into our hearts. When we read aloud together, some students looked up at the charts and slides, and some chose to read their own handwritten versions of the poems.

From Olivia’s Notebook

We experienced grand surprises. When we read Rachel Field’s “Something Told the Wild Geese” and I played a song version, one boy asked to sing it to us on his own, and we all sat in wonder-filled silence afterward. Students noticed craft moves in poems that I had not noticed. Later in the year, students would request that old poems come back “for a visit.” Some children chose to read our poems aloud and alone with their eyes closed, to self-check if they had a poem memorized, knowing they could open their eyes at any time. Some brought poems to submit as possible class poems. Reading poetry aloud and together became part of who we were as a family. We carried the same 36 poems written on our hearts.

As June approached, my almost-fifth-graders asked, “On the last day of school, can we read all of our poems during ELA class?” And we did. Together, on our last day, all of us read 36 poems in unison, remembering our year by walking through those familiar and well-loved lines and stanzas.

My parting gift to these young readers was a gift of pencils. I purchased a  foil stamping machine and stamped each student a set of four colorful pencils, each with a line from one of our shared poems. When giving the gift, I read each of four lines out loud, and together, they named the poems. Months later, they remembered.

Poem Pencils from 2020 – 2021

Photos by Amy LV

Poem Pencil Lines:

AS LONG AS EVER YOU CAN from “Rules of Conduct” by John Wesley

WORDS ARE MAGIC from “Treasure Words” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

HOLD FAST TO DREAMS from “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

COME TO THE EDGE from “Come to the Edge” by Christopher Logue

The 2020-2021 school year was a challenging whirlwind for many, including this new-again teacher. I am grateful to poetry for holding my class and me steady, for slowing us down and teaching us about ourselves and each other. I am grateful to poetry for reminding me that one ritual, repeated with love, matters. In difficult times, a simple ritual can provide comfort and peace.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is author of several poetry and picture books for children including Forest Has a Song, Write! Write! Write!, and her latest If This Bird Had Pockets: A Poem in Your Pocket Day Celebration. A former elementary school teacher (ages ago and for one year during COVID), Amy is also author of the professional book Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres. She keeps two popular classroom blogs – The Poem Farm and Sharing Our Notebooks – and looks forward to sharing poetry at the CCIRA 2023 conference in Denver. Find Amy online HERE.

Sharing the Stories of Refugees

By Don Vu

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have books about refugees because no one ever needed to escape their homeland in search of safety and freedom? Unfortunately, refugees will always exist in a climate of greed and lust for power. And, books can help us share their stories, foster connection and build empathy in this ever-divisive world. 

In 1975, as the American War in Vietnam ended, my family and I narrowly escaped Saigon in search of safety and hope. We were some of the fortunate first 120,000 Vietnamese refugees to have landed in America during that time.

Almost 50 years later, I was with my father when a similar situation unfolded halfway across the world in Afghanistan. I turned to my father as the evening news flashed chaotic scenes of people rushing onto airport tarmacs to escape certain persecution as the country fell into the hands of the Taliban. With misty eyes, he quietly got up and said, “The exact same thing is happening again. We never learn our lessons.” 

It’s been several weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that created over 10 million new refugees in the world. One day, people were living normal lives– shopping for groceries, watching their favorite television shows, taking their children to school, making dinner for their families. The next day, they are waking up in a tent or subway station, wondering what the future will bring. If and when they do come back home, it will never be the same.

Image courtesy of Zac Ong at Unsplash

You don’t have to be a former refugee to have sympathy for the refugees in the world. But you need to know their stories. And this is where books come in. 

Books can be the windows (and for many of our students, mirrors) that allow refugees to share with us their loss, their fears, their hopes and dreams. Books give a voice to those displaced and marginalized. And they allow readers to connect beyond the 30 second soundbites on the nightly news. When we are able to see that their hopes and dreams are not much different from ours, we will realize that there is not much difference between any of us. Refugee status can be applied to anyone– regardless of nationality, skin color, or ethnicity. Here are a few noteworthy children’s books about refugees that can be shared with students:

Wishes by Muon Thi Van. With only 75 words, this picture book is poetic in describing the emotions of leaving a home in search of a new one. Each page offers educators an opportunity to explore the loss, fears, hopes, and dreams of those seeking refuge away from home. Because it does not specify where the setting is, readers can apply the discussion to any refugee scenario. 

Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egneus. Set in a refugee camp, Lubna creates a new friend from a stone she finds on the beach to help her adjust to her new life. When she meets another child who just arrived to camp, they become friends until it is time for her to move on. This picture book allows us to get a glimpse of life in a refugee camp and how friendships can make all the difference.

Refugee by Alan Gratz. For older kids, this fictional work tells the stories of 3 young people, from different countries and different eras in history, as they face unimaginable danger as refugees. Students will be able to not only find the common threads of humanity across the stories but they will have an opportunity to reflect on how they would feel in similar circumstances. 

These are but a few of the many books that are being published every day that share the stories of refugees. As educators, we have the responsibility to share these stories. We hope that our students will never have to endure the pain of losing their homes (although many are in our schools for that exact reason). However, when students read about the refugee experience, we can help the next generation develop understanding and sympathy in hopes that one day we will all recognize the humanity in one another. 

Don Vu is the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children through the Power of Reading. He has worked in schools for 24 years as a teacher and principal. He is looking forward to sharing the stories of immigrants and refugees at the 2023 CCIRA conference in Denver. You can find out more about Don at www.drdonvu.com.