Now is the Time to Read, Write, and Talk about Books; Not Ban Them

By Brian Kissel

This week, I have been invited to speak to Colorado teachers at CCIRA about the comprehension connections that occur when students read texts, write responses to them, and engage in rich discussions about their meanings.  Reading, writing, and talking about texts in our classrooms comes at a precarious time in our country.  More and more states, including my home state of Tennessee, are in the process of passing “prohibited concepts” laws which forbid the teaching of accurate, authentic history that is not whitewashed or sanitized. According to EdWeek, as of January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills to restrict “critical race theory” or limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms.  Increasingly, legislators, school boards, and activist parent groups are dictating what books are appropriate and inappropriate.  And, too often, the books most often banned are those focused on identity, race, and historical accounts of racism in our country.  

Here in Tennessee, examples of book banning abound.  Recently, in McMinn County, about 180 miles east from my house, the school board voted 10-0 to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman from the 8th grade curriculum.  The book, an autobiographical retelling of the Holocaust told from the perspective of Spiegelman’s father, depicts the horrors of the Holocaust using different animal species as representations for various groups. Their objection to the book: the occasional inclusion of the word “god damn” and “naked pictures” which are illustrations of various Holocaust victims (represented as mice) stripped of their clothes as they experience the inhumanity of the concentration camps.

Before voting to ban the book, School Board member Troy Allman justified his vote through the following declaration (school board minutes): “I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel. It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it. I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

I wonder: How are adolescents supposed to understand the “horrible, brutal, and cruel” experiences of the Jews during the Holocaust if they are denied access to reading and discussing books that authentically describe such inhumanity?   

Meanwhile, in Williamson County, Tennessee, the county where I currently live and where my children attend school, a local chapter of Moms for Liberty has advocated against Wit and Wisdom, a literacy curriculum recently adopted by the county in consultation with teachers and community members who voted on its inclusion into county schools.  They objected to several books contained within the curriculum—specifically, books that focus on Black historical icons and racial events from history.

One book that faced such objections was Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story.  In this autobiographical account, Bridges talks about her historical integration into New Orleans Public Schools and includes photographs of the events that unfolded during that time period from her life.  Parents within the Moms for Liberty group objected to the book for the following reasons:


Those objecting to the book claim that it, “causes shame for young impressionable white children”.  It makes one wonder: If a six-year-old is old enough to experience racism, aren’t second graders old enough to read, write, and talk about racism in their classrooms? 

In her foundational essay, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, the brilliant Rudine Sims Bishop (1990), implored teachers to populate their classroom libraries with books that reflect the students learning within the classroom (mirrors) alongside books that describe the lived experiences of others (windows). We hear quite a bit about her mirrors and windows symbolism, but not enough about her third symbol: the sliding glass door.  For me, the sliding glass door represents what we, as teachers, should be doing with books to instructionally navigate children through the meanings contained within the pages and their implications for what’s happening in their lives outside those pages.  In essence, it’s not enough to bring books into the classroom; we must engage with these texts so children are provided an accurate account of the country from which they live.  How can we expect them to help guide our future if they are denied the truth of our past?

Reading, writing, and talking about books is the work we must do despite legislators attempting to scare us into silence.  I’m not saying this work will be easy.  Teachers feel more surveilled and face more scrutiny than any time before.  But if we are to ever eradicate the scourge of racism within our country, it won’t be through silence.  And it certainly won’t happen by banning books from our classrooms. 

Brian Kissel has been an educator for 20+ years as a literacy professor, former elementary school teacher, and former elementary and early literacy coach.  He graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia where he focused early childhood development—particularly in the area of young children’s writing development. Currently he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy and serve the Department of Teaching and Learning as the Director of Elementary Education and ECE Programs at Vanderbilt University.

Storytelling and Beyond

By Katie Keier

Me and Marcelo were walking on the street and a car came. It was Marcelo’s dad and my mom. But just then a rainbow dinosaur came and then a rainbow cheetah! They were fighting and I said, “STOP!” and they stopped fighting. They hugged each other. We all clapped. The end.  -Story told by Angel

Human beings love stories. Especially the ones created by them, capturing what is important to them and what is happening in their lives and the world around them.  Storytelling, story-acting, storymaking and story writing are daily, joyful and playful community experiences in our classroom and on the land we play upon. 

This year, the idea of story has been the foundation in our classroom.  I’ve focused on the magic of story with my kindergarteners building upon storytelling workshops inspired by Vivian Gussin Paley’s work, a Decolonizing Storytelling workshop by Emi Aguilar, the book Story Workshop by Susan Harris MacKay and many hours of conversation and stories with my early childhood educator thought partners – Jodi Simpson (@jodicara9), Nick Radia (@KindyNick), Loralee Druart (@LDruart) and Carrie Marshall (@CarrieMarshall1). As Kate DiCamillo says, “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” I’ve needed more light this year, and stories have been my shining and guiding star for me and for my students. 

In our classroom, we go through our days together with a continual wondering of, “what stories live here?”  Questions such as, “What stories are in your minds and hearts that you want us to know?” “How might you make or tell that story?” “What story do you need for us to know?” and “Who do you want to share that story with and how?”  position students as storytellers with important stories to tell. This language encourages and supports thinking about stories and various modes of expression. Whether we are outside playing in our forest, eating lunch, building with blocks, painting, dancing, playing our drums, making books or simply being together – these questions guide our time together. Children see themselves as story makers and they live into this identity. They have a desire and a need to tell their stories and to listen to each other’s stories. They know they have important stories to tell and they are confident in sharing these stories. Storytelling is a way of being in our classroom community. We are storytellers.

Stories Throughout the Day – From the Land and Beyond

The feather fell from Eagle. It came down over the kids and the trees and landed by Squirrel. “This feather will make a warm bed in my drey!” Squirrel said. But then Rabbit hopped by. “This feather will cover my babies.” Rabbit said. The feather said, “I will help you,  but you have to be friends.” Rabbit and Squirrel made a nest together and the feather kept all the  babies warm. Eagle made more feathers come down to keep all the animals warm because Eagle had a lot. And one feather was on  the  grass to make kids happy to find Eagle’s feather. -Story told by Mariella

In our forest one day, we found a feather. An excited child ran to show me. When we gathered together for our outdoor learning time,  I asked the class,  “What story might that feather tell?” The kids eagerly built story after story about the feather and the stories that might live in that gift from nature. The storytelling continued in the classroom, with children using blocks, stuffed animals and other objects in our classroom to tell and retell the story of the feather. Some children chose to make books to capture their story, some chose to act it out. The story above was told by the Storyteller of the day and acted out by the class. 

Every day we have a Storyteller of the Day and a daily ritual of storytelling and story-acting. The storyteller thinks of a story – it can be a real story that happened to them, or a made up story. There are no rules about what kind of story they tell. The storyteller tells their story to me, as the class listens. I type it as they are talking – projecting it for the class to see the spoken words put into text on the screen. After the story is finished, I read it back to the storyteller slowly, giving them the chance to make any revisions they want. The class listens and has an opportunity to ask questions or give suggestions. I revise the story in the moment, following the storyteller’s lead, always making sure the end story is exactly how the storyteller wants it to be. The story is their words. It ultimately belongs to them.

Next, we talk about who the characters are, and make a list of those. We decide where the setting is and talk about how that might look in our imagination. I encourage the audience to get a picture in their head about where this story is happening and what the characters might look like. The storyteller then chooses actors and actresses for the characters and for other pieces of the story like trees or a car. The storyteller directs the actors and actresses into their places on the rug we call the stage, while the audience gets ready to watch. They take a minute to plan their story as I read it out loud a few more times and then we begin to act out the story. The audience listens as I read the story with great expression and the actors and actresses act out the story. There is clapping at the end and the people acting take a bow. We often have time to act out the story twice, with different kids playing different roles, in our daily 15 minute storytelling and story-acting time.

This is a favorite time of the day, and children often come back to revisit favorite stories and act them out again and again during our Writers’ Playshop and outside during our outdoor play time. We love looking back on the stories that have been told throughout the year and noticing how they have grown and changed  in so many ways. 

Besides joy and laughter with our storytelling – both essential in a classroom – I’ve also seen huge connections with and growth in:

  • Oral language and communication skills
  • Understanding characters and setting in books we read, stories we make and in books kids write
  • Community – listening and feeling comfortable sharing what matters most to us
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Imagination and challenging each other to visualize details 
  • A variety of story elements and structures going beyond school-based, Eurocentric story structure and guidelines
  • Listening and enjoying a performance – seeing themselves as audience members 
  • How to use movement, facial expressions, and  imagination to communicate and idea or feelings and to express a story
  • Imaginative play outside while respecting the land we are on, taking care of the land and thinking deeply about the stories the land might tell us

I’ve challenged myself to look closely at how stories and storytelling look in my classroom this year. After reading a very thought-provoking post on Instagram by @indigenizingartsed on story guidelines and how stories are shaped, and attending her Decolonizing Storytelling workshop, I’ve been looking very critically at how stories are told and noticing when I try to change or force them into a Eurocentric model. Some stories are told with a beginning, middle, end and a main character – but not all stories are told this way. Emi taught me about other story structures and it’s been a powerful way to view stories, to teach and to help children see the many ways their stories can look. I’ve attached her visuals below with her permission. I highly recommend the resources on her Instagram site as well as her Patreon

“Show gratitude by accepting the story as it comes to you, and allow learners to do the same.” 

Emi Aguilar @EagleEmii (Twitter) @indigenizingartsed (Instagram)

Storytelling is a tremendous way to engage in meaningful literacy learning and play in your classroom – no matter the age of your learners. I encourage you to welcome the stories your students bring into the classroom, to encourage the wonderings and noticings of the stories that live in the land we learn and play on, and to make the space for children to explore these stories in multi-modal ways. Children deserve to have stories fill their lives and to have their stories be listened to and celebrated.

Katie Keier has been teaching, learning and playing with children, as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist, in grades K-8, for thirty years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher in an urban, Title I school. She is the co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson, from Stenhouse Publishers. Katie is an adjunct faculty member for American University, a national presenter and conducts staff development workshops and interactive webinars. You can follow her @bluskyz on Instagram and Twitter, and her kindergarten class @KinderUnicorns. Photos courtesy of the author.

The Top 5 Blog Posts of 2021

By Hollyanna Bates

As CCIRA has faced many of the same challenges schools have faced in 2021, one theme has emerged: innovate. Our organization has had to reinvent itself numerous times over the 50 plus years since we began. As we continue to look for ways to add value to the lives of literacy educators, we are grateful for our community. The audience who reads this blog does so with a passion for learning and teaching. Our blog is shared widely on social media and between colleagues so that we can all benefit from each blogger’s expertise. Each guest blogger brings a different lens with which to view literacy teaching and learning. We are indebted to each of our bloggers of 2021, who squeezed in writing time amid many other tasks. These literacy experts gave a gift that will continue giving as the posts are reread in the months and years that follow. Each year our audience grows, expanding the reach of CCIRA. Below you will find the Top 5 Blog Posts of 2021, listed by order of popularity.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Johns via Unsplash.
  1. The Ted Lasso Effect:  How to Build Capacity with Warmth, Wisdom, and Walk-Throughs by Julie Wright
  2. Using Inquiry-Rich Invitations to Ignite Word Learning Across ALL Grades by Pam Koutrakos
  3. Share Small Moments: Priming Students to Tell Their Stories by By Nawal Qarooni Casiano
  4. Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Reading Identity in Independent Reading by Dr. Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind
  5. Using Robust Practices to Nurture Successful, Engaged Readers by Judy Wallis

Accessing Your Authentic Self to Foster Classroom Community 

by Kitty Donahoe

Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

Here is what I believe: being your true and genuine self is a freeing experience which leads to joyful teaching and deeper connection with students. 

But can you achieve this? And why would you even try? Educators have enough to deal with in the midst of a pandemic. Trying to incorporate something new might just be the proverbial straw on one’s back.

Here are some simple ideas that help me. I am hoping, in turn, that they can help other educators without adding pressure to a teaching day.

1. Share childhood stories and photos with students. 

Growing up I was my big sisters’ live dress up doll. You may ask, did I like it? The answer is…it depended. Once when I was four, they decided it would be grand to dress me as The Highwayman, based on the poem by Alfred Noyes. I was NOT impressed. When they recited the poem, I was to act out this part of The Highwayman’s fate as written here:

“…When they shot him down on the highway,

Down like a dog on the highway.

And he lay in his blood on the highway with the bunch of

lace at his throat.”

Even the sprout I was then realized my experiences were too minimal to use the method acting technique! Performing as a dying man, sporting a blood soaked lace cravat was out of my repertoire! Some protestations in the form of screaming ensued – most likely stopped only by a bribe. 

Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the reasons I recall this episode so well is because I have a photo of myself in the make shift costume my sisters created: a coat set at a rakish angle to emulate a cape, an artfully tied scarf around my neck, all topped off with my father’s cap. The marked disdainful expression on my face was captured for eternity.

Kids love that photo of me and hearing about the exploits my big sisters enjoyed at my expense.  It opens them up to their own experiences as younger or older siblings. It is a great strategy for facilitating talk during social emotional learning or for exemplifying personal narrative in writing.

2. Go off the script.

We all have curriculum to follow. I say, go off the script and make it your own. It is all too easy

in times of stress to be robotic and follow the formula piece by piece. Your students love YOU.  Bring YOU into the pedagogy. During reading, pull in books that you think resonate more than the suggested curricular ones. Students will sense if you are reading or referencing a book that leaves you cold. It’s highly likely that the book is not lighting a fire under them either. There are so many resources to find new and vibrant books which exemplify diversity and good writing. Teachers College, Columbia University is an amazing resource for great books. If you haven’t joined Twitter, do it! There are so many wonderful educational resources on Twitter. You can follow authors, and publishing houses. In fact, no matter what disciplines you teach, you can find resources for those disciplines on Twitter!

3. Bring your own unique teacher gifts to the classroom as a catalyst for kids to share their talents.  

Maybe you are a gardener and can start a garden with your class. (True confession…I love gardens but lack a green thumb. However, we have a classroom garden and parents and kids are the ones who keep it alive.) Maybe you are a music expert and can share this with students.  I play guitar very badly. But guitars come in handy for class sing-alongs. Heck, all you need is a few chords, and you are Eric Clapton as far as young kids are concerned.

Some of my favorite memories consist of me and my class serenading the school office with Irish ballads on St. Patrick’s Day. My students are all too willing to join in when I tell them that my dad ran an Irish pub/restaurant for years and he insisted I sing in it. (Much to my horror!) And my great grandmother used to dance the jig in old San Francisco with Gracie Allen. So I tell students about this and demonstrate it myself on St. Patrick’s Day.

Years later former students ask me if I still dance on the table….  

Please note, when I say I play guitar badly, that I’m not exaggerating. But it just reinforces that nothing has to be perfect to inspire community. Everyone has talents, whether you are a true musician or someone who plunks three chords like me. Use your talents!

Recently, I had a budding magician in my class share a magic trick with me. (Remember, I teach really young children.) He was squealing with excitement about a magic trick he needed to show me.

Student: Ms. Donohoe, I can make this key disappear.

Me: Please show me!

So his enthusiasm was palpable, even with a face mask.  This young fellow held up the key and

VERY OBVIOUSLY, slipped the key behind the mask. Then, held up his hands to show the key had disappeared.

Student: Ms. Donohoe, I stuffed the key behind my mask.

Me (trying to keep a straight face): Magicians never reveal their secrets.  Remember that!

I hope that some of these ideas may be of service to you as an educator. Right now I am recalling my older sister telling me about Peter Pan and company flying to visit her at night.  But, I was to keep the secret and not tell anyone else. At six, I of course believed her even though I never witnessed this miracle personally. We, as educators, have it in us to remind kids that they can soar, over covid, over anything, and fly! And all we need to do is help them believe. I believed Peter Pan visited my sister, your students will believe in the potential you see in them. 

Kitty Donohoe has taught primary grades at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica, CA for over thirty years. She received her B.A., Master’s in Education, and Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from UCLA. She and her husband Homi live in Los Angeles, near UCLA. Kitty’s first book, HOW TO RIDE A DRAGONFLY comes out in May 2023. The publisher is Anne Schwartz Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. You can follow Kitty on Twitter: @donohoe_kitty. She has just launched her children’s author website:

The Ted Lasso Effect:  How to Build Capacity with Warmth, Wisdom, and Walk-Throughs

by Julie Wright

By now you’ve heard of Ted Lasso, I’m sure.  And,  if you are like me, at the end of a tough week you just need a little Lasso in your life to rejuvenate.  There’s something kind of special, something timely, about Ted Lasso’s one-liners: “With every choice, there’s a chance.”  Even though this guy is a fictional character, he sort of feels like a friend, a cheerleader, a coach.  I think it’s because his words of wisdom apply to so many educational circumstances.   Ted, like many of us, works really hard to be capacity-builders.  

Capacity-building occurs when the talents and needs of everyone across the learning community converge to move a school or district in a unified direction. These aren’t one-and-done triumphs–when we build capacity, we create a longer lasting momentum of human potential. . These are enriching experiences that are  repeated over and over again.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, educators know how to share their knowledge and experiences with others to create a culture of getting better all of the time…together!  

Building capacity doesn’t happen overnight, but can be a bucket-filling process when we work off of the good versus harp on the negative.  There are many ways to initiate asset-based, capacity building opportunities.  Here, I’ll share two do-it-tomorrow ways that I’ve found pretty foolproof. 

  1. Get people reading and talking.
  2. Get people walking and observing.

Get People Reading and Talking

There’s a reason that pediatricians read medical journals.  They need to be informed of the latest research and findings so that they can provide the best care for their patients.  Teachers need the same updates.  Whether it’s reading and discussing an excerpt, infographic, article, or a chapter of a book, teachers re-fuel their thinking and reboot their practices when they stay current with theory and research.

Try It

Invite a small group of teachers to join you during lunch time to talk about a short article or piece of text from a professional book.  You can give them the text to read ahead of time or build in reading while eating lunch.  Then, discuss the text together.  Consider using the this version of the 4 A’s Protocol, adapted from, to get discussion moving:

Here is a template for an invitation.  Adopt or adapt it to fit your needs and purpose.  

Join me for a “Lunch & Learn” on ____________ [insert date and time].  During that time, we’ll be talking about _____________ [insert topic or link to article].  Bring your lunch and I’ll bring a dessert to share.  Let me know if you can make it.  Hope to see you there!_____________ [insert name]

Not sure if lunch time is the best time?  Well, consider one of these during a different time:  Dine & Discuss,  Popcorn & Ponderings, or Snacks & Study.

Get People Walking and Observing 

Gather a group of curious educators to participate in an asset-based learning walk.  Picture this.  Administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers on a quest to “sniff out the good” across the learning community.  The goal is to capture all of the choices and instructional decisions that were being made and envision all of the chances, or opportunities, that those choices afforded for future student learning.  

Try It

As you walk from classroom to classroom, have each educator use a note catcher (try one of these!) to capture all of the good happening across classrooms.  Instead of collecting and analyzing quantitative data, consider a learning walk focused on data collected by observing students, or kidwatching, in the round.  Write down what you see and hear and name how those noticings make a difference to student learning.  

By kidwatching, the focus isn’t evaluation.  Instead, you and your colleagues give yourself permission to trust your gut, to thin-slice.  Thin-slicing refers to the ability to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices”, or narrow windows of experience or data. It’s learned intuition, and it flickers in our minds as we process information to make decisions. Teachers do it all the time in the midst of teaching and watching how students are responding to their instruction.  It’s powerful when we deliberately use it as a lens for a learning walk that focuses on  what seems to be going well. Strengths; what’s harmonious; productive, uplifting, surprising, and so on. To try it, encourage your colleagues to trust their instincts as they take in–and take notes on—the following: 

  • Student talk (what students say, discuss, and share)
  • Student work (what students write, make, create, design, solve, perform, and do)
  • Learning environment (what is on the walls and bookshelves, furniture arrangement, and supplies used for learning)
  • Instructional resources (what students read, listen to, or view)

Here’s an excerpt of an example.

Class: US History

Block: 2

Background:  The teacher jump started learning time by sharing a series of images with students, asking them to write what they thought the image represented or what was happening in the image.  By the end of the class, the students made connections about how each of these images connected to the learning progression question:  How do the powerful hold onto power?

What assets do I see/hear?How do these assets make a difference to student learning?
Student TalkSs shared observations of each image with a partner
Ss tossed around ideas, nudging one another to inspect some images a second time for new or different noticings
As the T nudged ideas, sharing places where Ss could lean in and look closer at certain images, Ss responded verbally and through writing
Ss shared and gained new ideas from others
The classroom was filled with S talk

Ss had more than one way to share their ideas and understandings 
Student WorkSs wrote bullet points, blurbs and sentences about what they thought each image represented or what was happening in the image
After speaking to others, Ss made new observations using the comment feature in their google doc
Looking across past entries, it is evident that this activity is repeated (with different images) across time giving Ss multiple opportunities for deeper learning
Learning EnvironmentAs Ss entered the classroom, there was gentle lighting in each corner of the classroom, creating a calm, productive atmosphere 
Each S had their own learning space with proximity to peers and T
Each S had access to and could easily see the screen with images and the ability to move closer if needed or wanted
This classroom invited a mixture of social with academic

Ss jumped right into the learning at the start of class
Instructional ResourcesEach S had 1:1 access to a laptop, google classroom, and individual digital folders
Ss were invited to view and review images as often as needed
Instructional resources encouraged risk-taking, connection-making, and integration of ideas 
When Ss have access and autonomy, they are in charge of their own learning

When Ss make connections, especially through integration, learning can go from surface to deep

Ss=students T=teacher

So Why Does This Matter?

Capacity-building is one of those terms said so often it becomes a pleasant white noise. It exists as a bullet point in memos and professional learning initiatives. It’s time to make it vivid, real and action-oriented.  Whether you are a district leader, a principal, a coach, or a teacher, you have the power to build capacity in students, and in colleagues. Start small. Get people reading, talking, walking, observing, and talking some more. You might focus on students first, and then do the same sleuthing on what leads to meeting a team, department, or building goals. 

Begin with the assets you see. Name them, together. Negotiate what they mean in your school. Consider their implications for day- to-day practices. Get curious, and use these insights to frame professional learning questions that are most productive–and most pertinent to your learning community– for future growth together.  That’s because with every choice, we uncover new opportunities, or chances, to grow our teaching practices.


Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Penguin Books Ltd., 2005. 

School Reform Initiative – a Community of Learners 

Wright, J. What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners. FIRST Educational Resources, 2021.

Wright, J. Side by Side Coaching: 10 Asset–Based Habits That Spark Collaboration, Risk–Taking, and Growth. Benchmark Education Company, 2022.

JULIE WRIGHT is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings.  She holds National Board Certification as well as a B.S. in Education, M.A. in Language Arts and Reading, a K-12 Reading Endorsement, and extensive school leadership post-graduate work, including a pre-K through grade 9 principal license from The Ohio State University. Julie serves as an Adjunct Faculty Member at Ashland University and is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers–Not the Book (Wright & Hoonan, 2019). Follow Julie on Twitter @juliewright4444 or for more information on how she can support your efforts, visit