Creating a Culture of Literacy (with LOVE)

At the end of last week, I was fortunate to attend the International Literacy Association Conference. I have been before and thought I knew what to expect: expertise on the teaching of reading, writing, assessment, and the importance of oral language. And then I heard this: love. I did not expect to hear this word time and again during a literacy conference. Literacy, yes. Love, no. And yet I did.

One of the keynote speakers – Hamish Brewer, a principal – challenged us to love ’em. Love all of them. Tell them we love ’em. Recognize that each one of our students deserves our love. See every child as an opportunity and not an obligation. Leave no one behind.

This love, these relationships, become the foundation for our literacy classrooms. When students know we love them, they are much more willing to work hard for us, to respect us. When students know we love them, they understand that we engage them in literacy pursuits because these pursuits can change their lives. When students know we love them, they feel our confidence in their abilities and learn to believe in themselves.

Author Renee Watson, another one of the keynote speakers, spoke of the role of story. Our choice of literature, the books in our classrooms, can say: “I see you. Your story matters. Where you’re from is important.” Again, love.

This week, consider the culture of literacy in your school. Consider the importance of relationships within this culture. Is a passion for literacy evident when you walk into the building or your classroom? Is this question the norm within your school: What are you reading? Do you value and empower your student voices? Do you show your students that you love them – daily? Do you ever tell them?

Hamish Brewer. I can’t convey his energy and passion through words. If you want to rekindle your passion for teaching and have twelve minutes, watch this video. If you don’t have twelve minutes, just watch the first few.

Set out to create a culture of literacy in your classroom. Do so with love.

A Writing Teacher

When freewriting, I encourage teachers to write with their students. The tone and atmosphere in the classroom changes when we do: both during writing and after.

Together we can explore the emotions when we write: apprehension, joy, frustration, delight. Together we can examine mentor texts and experiment with techniques within our writing. Together we can work to enhance the artistry and clarity of our work.

If I’ve ever been in your classroom, you’ll know that I refer to students as writers. They aren’t trying to become writers, they are writers. This is true for us as teachers, too.

Are we writers by profession? Most of us, no. But do we write? Yes! We write on most days, in fact, in one context or another. Writing is a skill we continue to use day after day. But if we as teachers don’t see ourselves as writers, how can we expect our students to see themselves in this way?

I don’t expect masterpieces from teacher or students. But I do expect regular writing practice and subsequent literary conversations. These conversations are most effective and more meaningful when we write with our students.

Are you a writing teacher?

The Courage of One

We recently watched 42: a movie about Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the modern era of Major League Baseball.

The movie portrays his courage and strength in the face of hatred and discrimination: from other teams, from fans, from his own teammates, even. But I was moved to see how one person’s courage led others to stand up, to step up, and display courage as well.

In fact, it was the courage of the Brooklyn Dodger’s club president and general manager Branch Rickey that put Robinson on the roster to begin with: a move many thought was preposterous in 1945.

The courage of one creates a ripple – two or three others join the cause… a dozen more… hundreds… thousands – a tidal wave leading to eventual change.

A recent example immediately comes to mind: Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist. Oh, what a difference a year makes as evident from this tweet.

“Stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.” Perhaps you will create a ripple…

The next time you see me…

The next time you see me, my hair will not be perfect. But, it will be my own.

Over the last few years, I have been dealing with Alopecia Areata. It started with thinning hair, but eventually the hair loss became significant and I couldn’t hide the bald patches any longer.

My hair loss was emotional: much more than I expected it to be. I faced insecurities, a loss of confidence, and shame. One day a few years ago – quite suddenly actually – I decided it was time for a wig. That too, was emotional: also much more so than I expected.

I shared my reality with some, but for the most part, I have tried to hide the truth. In time, I became more accepting. I adjusted. I started to share my story with a few more people. I have also met others with Alopecia: some children. Talking to others dealing with this condition has helped me to feel more normal and accept my reality.

Fortunately, over the last few months, my own hair has been growing back. What’s more, I have had no hair loss since. Now that the length has evened up, I have decided to lose the wig. I have also decided it’s worth sharing the truth and raising awareness.

I know my hair loss could begin again at any time. I know, too, that many others deal with hair loss much more significant than mine.

This blog is usually about education. Today it is about education of a different sort: September is Alopecia Awareness Month. If you want to learn more, please visit The Canadian Alopecia Areata Foundation. Today, I made a donation to this foundation; if you are interested and able, I invite you to donate to a cause close to your heart.

Lasting Habits

Each day, I find myself calling to and talking to our dog. You may think there’s nothing strange in that. After all, many dog owners do the same. Here’s the thing: he doesn’t hear me. He is now completely deaf.

So why do I still talk to him? Quite simply: habit.

A habit is defined as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

I am not sure that I’ll be able to break the habit of talking to Jak. It’s just the way I’ve communicated with him for so many years.

But what about habits within our classrooms? If we begin to develop habits now – in September – these behaviours will become routine, something our students know to do.

As teachers, most of us are concerned about time. How do we find the time for all we need to do? How do we make the most of the time we have? For me, the answer lies largely in developing strong routines and efficient habits – especially during transition time.

Consider this: What habits do you want your students to develop? What can you do to support them?

Know Thy Impact

We don’t always know the impact we have on our students.

Today I attended a Celebration of Life for one of my former teachers. The number of people in attendance – family and friends of course, but also former students and colleagues – is testament to the impact she had on so many.

The stories told highlighted her generosity, her eccentricities, her passion, her love of life. What came through most however, her love of books. She was described as “a goddess of literature” and a teacher who inspired a sense of wonder.

In his work with teachers, John Hattie says, “Know thy impact.” And yet today I was reminded that we can’t always know the exact nature of our impact. We can’t necessarily predict the words that may resonate with our students. We might not even realize a moment that may become significant in a student’s life: we may provide inspiration, much needed discipline, or even a sense of fun, at precisely the right time.

When I was a student in her classroom, Lynn Weinlos could not have known that to see her weep as she read aloud King Lear, sitting atop a student desk, would affect me to this day. Her unabashed love of literature, her unique style of teaching, her fundamental belief in the power of words, influenced me as a teacher, as a writer, and as a person to my very core.

We might not know our precise impact, but we should remember that our students listen and observe us each and every day, sometimes in unexpected ways.

“Know thy impact.”

Live Through a Lens of Celebration

Dewitt Jones, former National Geographic photographer, changed my thinking with his 18 minute Ted Talk.

This video has given me a new perspective, a new mantra even: live through a lens of celebration.

Meaning what? Meaning… we can choose the lens through which we view the world. Meaning… we can shift our thinking. Reframe obstacles. Stay engaged. We can stop griping and start celebrating. We can change our lens and change our life. We can discover a world of light and possibility. A world of beauty and compassion. We can celebrate what’s right with the world.

I urge you to take the time today to watch this Ted Talk full of insightful nuggets and stunning photographs. It will be 18 minutes well spent.

As a side note, it was a grade six teacher who shared this Ted Talk with me. This year, she is using the video to spark a unit of discovery with her students. They will be reading books within this theme: exploring how they can find their own voices and celebrate what’s right with the world. I wish I were a student in her class…

“An Axe for the Frozen Sea”

As we stand before our new classes of students, we look around to see faces that we will get to know well over the next ten months. We will learn the strengths of our students, their quirks, their interests, their diverse family situations, their hopes and dreams, and if we’re lucky, they’ll give us insight into their vulnerabilities, too.

When I choose a class read-aloud, I consider the composition of the students in my classroom. Sure, I have my favourite read-alouds depending on the grade I’m teaching, but with so much wonderful literature continually being published, I like to consider new releases and especially the needs of the kids in the room.

Have you read Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, or Wonder to your students? Yes? Then you know the literate conversations and life-giving discussions that follow.

The books we choose are important. After all, shared story experiences provide us with opportunities to discuss, make connections, express opinions, and open our eyes to situations other than our own. Books help us experience a range of perspectives, learn empathy, and explore emotions within the safety of their pages.

If you’re looking for something different this year, consider Chester and Gus by Cammie McGovern (told from a dog’s perspective as he lives and works with a boy with Autism), Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (about a boy who’s imaginary friend – who happens to be a cat – helps him through some family struggles), or Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (about unlikely friendships and dealing with bullies).

Franz Kafka once said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” As a teacher, shared story experiences can assist us in breaking through the ice, supporting our students through the challenges they face in this world.

What will you read to your class this year?

“I am John.”

One of the things on my summer to-do list was to go through the countless boxes of paper and files that I had accumulated over the years: from university courses, various classrooms, and three separate offices. I ended up with five blue bags full of shredding and many other boxes to give away or recycle.

During this process, I came upon a piece of writing from a student that I mention in my first book. ‘John’ was the self-proclaimed outcast in our classroom. It was a complicated situation rooted in years of interactions with his peers. In the book I explain how one October day freewriting enabled John to find a tentative entry point into our classroom community.

The piece of writing I came across recently echoed the same sentiments – a need for belonging and acceptance – as the freewriting I referred to in my book. This time the prompt was “I am…”

“I am ‘John’, the one who always gets bugged in our class…”

“People bug me and they never stop… if they can, that would make me surprised. But they can never do that. Don’t try to ask.”

I am not sure if I noticed it at the time, but reading it now, I notice that he begins with his name. “I am John.” Perhaps he was trying to reclaim his identity and redefine himself through his writing.

Before freewriting, John did not voice his frustration or sadness in appropriate ways but instead in ways that simply reinforced the stereotypes around him. Yelling. Teasing. Crying. Flailing his arms. Acting out. Insulting others.

As we begin the school year, I am thinking about how important it is to set the tone for the year… to help kids like John find their place… to create a safe space for students to take risks and explore their identities… to create a genuine community of learners.

I am thankful to John for the unexpected reminder.

Summer Writing

I’m writing outside today. My dog lies on the steps a few feet away intently watching the squirrel at the bird feeder. There are at least a dozen sparrows in the same tree as the squirrel. They were at the feeder first when I filled it a few hours ago. Now they sit watching the squirrel devour their lunch. There are butterflies dancing around me, too.

Ah, summer writing. Am I working? Sure am. But how wonderful to be surrounded by nature, taken out of my writing now and then, to watch the antics of the birds, the squirrel, or my pooch.

Not all of my work can take place on my deck. But today, I am thankful that this work – the work on my novel – can. I will savour this feeling and revisit it a few months from now when the cold and snow return…