Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.
I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher: We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students: What does it mean to be human?
Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.
For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
Let’s think about this line: “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.
Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.
“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity: Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.
So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?
What does it mean for you?
Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.
Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.
In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:
Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.
We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:
Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life: deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.
Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.
But so does talk.
I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.
So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor: Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.
Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms.