A few weeks ago I read this post by Shanna Peebles, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, “Building Bridges with Visual Literacy.” She writes about her lesson in the book The Best Lesson Series, a book in which I also contributed a favorite lesson. Shana includes the background of her lesson, an experience and a realization she had when she began working with refugee students many years ago.
Reading Shana’s blog, I reflected on my own refugee students. Mine come from Myanmar, most having walked through Thailand at night holding the hands of younger siblings while moving toward their fathers who left their villages months before to secure passage for their families. These children grew up fast and they hope for much. They study hard because they know the value of education.
They represent the reason that I teach literacy: It is through literacy that we gain power.
The way to grow as literate individuals is to read. I’ve heard my mentors say it again and again: “The only way to develop readers is to get them reading” and “The only way to learn to read is to, well, read.”
Of course, the same holds true for writing.
The lesson I contributed to The Best Lesson Series pertains to both. Here’s the background of my lesson:
I am not one of those readers who jumps to the last few pages to read how a book ends before I have ever started it. I do not understand those people. At all. I like to savor a good book, take it slow — sip the beauty as I breathe in the language, sigh with pleasure as I see how the words work to shape meaning. Or, I like to devour a book in one sitting, curled up on the couch, holding my breath and gasping for more. So, it’s a little surprising that I pulled the last paragraph of a book to use as a craft study.
I promise it gives nothing away. I also promise: You may just shudder at the loveliness of the language like I do. Or not. Seems some critics panned The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt while others raved about its uniqueness and style (See the Vanity Fair article “It’s Tartt, But Is It Art?”. Of course, critics cannot seem to agree on what makes a text literature either. (See the Harper’s Magazine article “What Is Literature? In Defense of the Canon”.)
The author of the article about Tartt’s work poses the same question I ask my students to ponder each year: What makes a work of literature, and who gets to decide?
Since mine is a workshop classroom where our primary focus is writing, students choose the books they read. That is not to say we do not read high-quality complex literature or read literature as a whole class. We read many passages together and learn skills that students then apply to their independent reading and the novels they discuss in book clubs four times a year.
My goal with books is to develop readers, and too many of my students did not read when I made all the decisions about their reading. However, many of my students do not know how to choose books they might enjoy or books with enough complexity to challenge their thinking. The drive to fulfill my goal to develop readers becomes multifaceted. Allowing choice means I must constantly be on the lookout for richly written passages that we can study, and I must read volumes of high-quality literature, YA and adult alike, so that I may match my adolescent readers with good books.
I love the last paragraph of The Goldfinch because I can use it for several learning opportunities. This short passage can teach us much about what makes a work of literature. I agree with researcher and reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt: “Students need to be helped to have personally satisfying and personally meaningful transactions with literature. Then they will develop the habit of turning to literature for the pleasures and insights it offers.”
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We help our students love literature so they learn from it as we do.
It’s an honor to be a part of this work. I am surrounded by inspiring educators with intriguing and thought-provoking ideas, and I hope you will consider adding this title to your professional library so you will be surrounded, too.
Teachers sharing with teachers what works. That’s the best pd I know.