Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow

Shame

For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

An Invitation to Reconnect to What You Know by Heart

Wednesday, March 7, is World Read Aloud Day. Sponsored by LitWorld, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering literacy worldwide, the day aims to celebrate the power of words and to promote global literacy. As a warm-up to that event, I’d like to offer what I’ll call a Read Along: an opportunity for us to connect with the power of words by reading and sharing our thoughts about a short short story by author Allen Woodman in order to reconnect to ourselves as readers and re-experience the process of meaning making in ways that can inform our practice and our lives.

In addition to wanting to support a great cause, I do this because I deeply believe that every teacher who is a reader has within him or herself what it takes to be a great teacher of reading, without the aid of scripts or programs or packaged Teacher’s Guides—provided we take the time to peer into our minds and hearts to notice and name what it is we do to make meaning as we read. The idea that our experience can be the wellspring of our teaching is precisely what informs Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman‘s now classic book Mosaic of Thought, and it lies at the heart of What Readers Really DoIt’s also the foundation of Katie Wood Ray‘s marvelous book on writing What You Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshopwhose title I’ve borrowed for this week’s post in the hopes that we can transfer and apply her thinking from writing to reading.

To that end, I invite you to read Woodman’s story, which he’s generously allowed me to reprint, paying close attention to the work that you usually do invisibly to comprehend, understand and evaluate. In this way, I believe, this reading experience can become, as Katie Wood Ray says, “something larger than the moment.” It can transcend your experience with this particular text to become something you more deeply understand about the work of reading that you then can carry within you to your classroom, your next book, your life and the world.

Should you need any further instructions or guidance, consider the following questions:

  • Are you aware of anything you had to do to literally or inferentially comprehend the story on a line-by-line basis?
  • What do you make of it as a whole—that is, what do you think it’s really about. And what did you do and/or draw on to arrive at that understanding?
  • What value, if any, does it hold for you? Did it affirm, expand, refute or challenge anything you thought about people or life? Did it delight, perplex, or even annoy you? If so, how and why?
  • And if you used any of the standard reading strategies (infer, connect, predict, etc), when and why did you use them and what did they yield for you?

In the spirit of collaborative learning and community, I’m hoping you’ll share your experience and whatever meaning you made of the text, by either clicking on the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title or on the word ‘reply’ at the bottom of the post, right after the list of tag words. (And email subscribers can use the comment link at the end of the email.)

And now, without further ado, here is Wallet by Allen Woodman:

© Copyright by Allen Woodman. Reprinted with permission of the author. Allen Woodman is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. He has published six books of fiction, including Saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection of humorous stories for adults, and The Cows Are Going to Paris, a children’s picture book with David Kirby. He has also published scores of short stories in magazines and anthologies, including Flash Fiction, Micro Fiction, Sudden Fiction Continued, Mirabella, Washington Post, and Story.

Please click on the reply link to leave some thoughts about your reading experience. And remember to celebrate World Read Aloud Day—and change the world story by story.