I still haven’t mentally returned from my time at Tyrolia, Kylene Beers’ ranch, in Waco, TX. My mind still thinks I am sitting at her dining room table, painting a watercolor picture while overlooking a pond banked with Cypress trees. Or nestled on one of her incredibly-comfortable couches talking about a podcast with a newfound friend. Or riding a Mule (the all-terrain vehicle, not the animal) with Penny Kittle and five other people who were just as giddy as I was. Or sitting around her living room chatting and laughing with Bob Probst and Linda Rief while the aroma of the evening’s dinner tempted our senses.
It’s amazing that a place of scenic tranquility and beauty could rouse such feelings of rebellion and determination.
But you can’t talk about rebellion without first talking about power, so let’s start with the power of literacy.
For the first time in history, power is no longer based solely on wealth. Power is a Tweet. A YouTube video. A social media post. Kylene gave a fascinating talk about the “ugly roots of literacy in America.” In Colonial America, “literacy” primarily meant one’s ability to sign a document or contract. Who held the power there? Those who could sign the document, or those who could write the document? During the Revolutionary and Civil War times, penmanship was valued as literacy. But who had the leisure to practice their penmanship? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. From the Civil War to World War I, literacy meant one’s ability to recite poems, monologues, and stories. But who had the leisure to practice memorization? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. Then we get to the Industrial Revolution, where the assembly line was born. And then our schools began modeling the assembly line design (can’t you just picture kids on a conveyor belt being carried from class to class?). From the 1950s to 1980s (and even in the present), literacy meant analyzing the meaning of what we are reading. But still, someone else held the power (it was the teacher — or CliffsNotes — who determined if a student’s analysis was correct or not).
The point is, the definition of literacy shifts to reflect what is happening in the country and world. Presently, businesses see the value in synthesizing information and identifying potential problems rather than just solving existing problems. So what does this mean for our classrooms?
It means we abdicate the power we as teachers have held on to for decades and give it to our students. If we are only teaching them analytical literacy, we are preparing them for 1980. For this century, students need the same literacy skills they’ve always needed: to summarize, to retell, to articulate, to evaluate. But more importantly, they also need a willingness to see another perspective, the chance to take a risk, the ability to sustain their focus, an acceptance of ambiguity, and the self-confidence that allows them to identify as readers and writers. Because that’s power, right?
But the chances are, if you’re reading this, you already believe this. Chances are, if you’re visiting Three Teachers Talk, you are already subscribed to the belief that education has not caught up to the 21st century. And chances are, you sometimes feel alone in this belief. Or isolated. Like you are fighting a losing battle. Like you have found a great discovery, only to feel that no one else believes you.
That’s where Penny Kittle’s words ring true — that courage is more important than caution. I understand not wanting to “rock the boat” or damage friendships with your colleagues, but at what cost? The risk of sending our students into the world illiterate by 21st century standards and powerless?
Kylene told us that to start [educational, metaphorical] fires, we must start with our best kindling. So find your tribe. Find your people. Those who value courage over caution. They may not be in your hallway. Perhaps they’re across campuses, across districts, across states, across international borders. That’s who I found at Tyrolia. I found my tribe.
And persist. Penny said that it is often the changemakers who take the lumps. And I don’t know about you, but I have definitely felt it. But our kids are worth it. Linda echoed this sentiment when she said that even if you just change one teacher, that is one group of kids who are benefitting. To add to the conversation, Bob suggested we focus on the 5%: the 5% of teachers who are ready and willing to make a change, or the 5% of our teaching that we are dedicated to improving. So ask: “What’s one thing we can change this year?”
For me, I am vowing to write more. Penny encouraged us to start the habit of writing for fifteen minutes a day. You know what I said to her? I’ve tried to keep notebooks and journals, but I always lose interest because I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t matter.
Dwell on that sentiment: My words don’t matter.
You know many of our students feel the same way. How can I show my kids that their words and voices matter when I don’t even feel that my own do?
But she told me that my words did matter. And then four days later, she retweeted this, and I can’t help but think it was for me:
The truth is, words matter. Everyone’s: mine, yours, our students’. The words we read shape our thoughts. So immerse yourself in the words of Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief. Their words are life-changing.
Immerse your students in words of both the past and the present, so that they understand how we got to now, and how we can change the future. And the words we write matter. They help us reflect, learn, process, and discover.
I’m slowly wakening from the dream that was Tyrolia, but I hope that we all remain:
Determined to write.
Unafraid to rebel.
Revolutionaries for 21st century literacy.
On a mission to find our tribes.
As of today’s publication, Karry Dornak has continued to write, rebel, revolutionize, and seek out her fellow 5%. She is balancing life in Spring, TX, as an instructional specialist, teacher, wife, mom, and Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiast. Follow Karry on Twitter @karrydornak