For weeks I’ve worked on a list of books to use for book clubs in our junior English classes. I believe that students must have options that challenge, yet engage, and allow them to see themselves and/or others within the pages. It’s that whole windows and mirrors and doors analogy. Jillian Heise describes it well in this post. I’ll just quote a part that struck me:
“Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop originated the idea that many now reference. She talks about windows as “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” And about mirrors, “…we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” But she also talks about sliding glass doors which “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” The thing is, it’s the third part of it, the sliding glass door that seems to often be left out, but is perhaps the most important part – it’s the part that, in my interpretation, allows us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book – and isn’t that the power of reading? Being able to develop empathy, understanding, new perspectives by living in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Especially for books as powerful as the ones being written about these real issues that are affecting kids in their lives today, this mirror, window, sliding door access becomes even more important for them to see they have a place in our society, no matter what perspective they may bring.”
I’d like to offer an addition, not just sliding glass doors that “allow us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book,” although that interpretation is certainly vital to developing readers who love books and to gaining empathy.
What about other doors — like the kinds we have to push or pull to get through — the doors that make us work: cathedral doors, fortress doors, iron doors, or doors with scary knockers? These doors require effort. These doors may make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they require courage.
Some books can change us if we view them this way. They can change our students. And I’m not just talking about lexile levels, or complexity of ideas. I am talking about content. The content that exposes our flaws and weaknesses, the content that pushes our thinking, moves us out of our comfort zones, and makes us face, as Dr. Kim Parker puts it, “the lived experience of so many folks of color in this country.”
I am a white woman who teaches students of color. I grew up in a middle class family with conservative ideals. I go to church regularly, and I practice my religion. I had parents who were married for 55 years and taught me the value of hard work, education, and persistence. I am different from most of the students in my classroom. I enjoy a privilege in this country most of them have never experienced.
So what does this have to do with doors?
I choose the big ones.
Awhile ago I conducted a PD session with a group of teachers, mostly white women who like me teach mostly students of color. I showed some of the spoken word videos I use with my students: “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones and “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. I shared articles about undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees. I read an except from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi where a character’s wife is kidnapped and he desperately tries to find her, showing her picture around the streets, and finally being accosted by a policeman after he accidentally brushes into a white woman. The policeman rips up the man’s only picture of his 8-months-pregnant wife. The year: pre-Civil War.
We viewed and read texts. We wrote quickwrites and analytical responses. We discussed author’s craft and studied the moves the writers make to create meaning. Everyone read. Everyone wrote. Everyone engaged in the learning.
Later, the conversation turned to engagement, and I asked the questions: “What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?”
I gave them time to talk, and I wandered the room, listening in to table discussions. I heard some valuable exchanges, but I also heard: “Oh, I don’t even go there. I’d lose control.”
How will we ever change as a society if we don’t ever go there? How will our students, no matter their color, ever learn to talk about tender and sizzling issues, ever learn to deal or challenge or change them, if their teachers never go there?
We cannot make excuses. We have to invite the hard topics into our classrooms. We have to provide books that are windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and gigantic wooden ones. Not only for the sake of the students we teach but for our profession.
How will we ever have more teachers of color if our students of color do not have better experiences in their English classes?
At NCTE last November, I met Dr. Kim Parker in person for the first time. She read her credo and she sealed a place in my heart with her sincere desire to do right by the students in her care. I share her credo here because it so closely echoes my own. I don’t think she’ll mind:
Ze’Voun tells me that he never knew that reading books could matter so much, could be so enjoyable. He is a young man who is Black, brilliant, and bored. He is a writer and a reader for whom schools seem to be increasingly less designed. When he disappears from my class without any explanation, I learn, a few weeks later, that he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are–likely–as Black, brilliant, and bored as he.
I believe in rage, and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.
My most essential work is making classrooms spaces where kids like Ze’Voun can read and write in ways that matter to them–from diss tracks; to letters to the local police department reminding them that Black Lives Matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime; to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him; to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant Black boy. Opening up spaces inside classrooms where they can speak a variety of Englishes as they explore the origins of Ebonics, where they can engage and delight with canonical and multicultural texts and write about their understandings, and where they are creators of texts that validate and stretch their identities is some of “the work my soul must have.”
Though Ze’Voun never returned, I continue to hold space in my classroom for other young people who have similar needs and desires, who are hungry for the diverse texts that reach them. I continue to hold on to a belief, and a dream, that the work I do must be as diverse as the students I teach. As escapist, as validating, as powerful as the texts they read. As whole, as free, as happy as we all wish, hope, and need to be.
This what I’ve dubbed Right Now Literacy. We have to give every student the commitment, resources, and opportunities they need to learn the reading and writing skills they need right now, to live and thrive in the world we are in right now.
Dear reader, I ask you the same questions I asked those teachers at that PD: What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?
Please answer in the comments. Let’s share our best practices and best resources for pushing ourselves and our students through the doors that can change us at the core. (And next week I’ll try to remember to share my new book club lists.)
Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.