I have been having small conversations with students. Isn’t that what teaching is in so many ways? Much like we live life in the moments in between the big, we teach in the moments in between the big as well, the big assignment, the best draft, the presentation. We go throughout our day using our voice to connect, our bodies to show our listening, our eyes to show we care. We seek out those moments in between hello’s and goodbye’s to make sure that with us, these kids, our kids, feel seen, challenged, and cared for.
So in thinking about how I could structure more conversation to build trust, I have been starting each reading conference with a simple yet meaningful question. Inspired by Sara Ahmed’s work in Being the Change, after I have asked them how their night was, how their day is going, I then ask, “What is important to you in your world right now?” It took some finessing with the question, in some conversations it flows seamlessly and the students latch onto it and take it in the direction they need it to go. Others ask for clarification which I typically bumble through, but what it shows me each time, is that continued need to connect that drives everything we do in room 203.
That there is still much to be done.
That all of the community we think we have built is still not enough. That each child is still carrying so much within them that ties in with their day, their mood, their thoughts, their actions, their dreams. From the worries about homework as the end of the quarter nears, to friendship issues they are navigating. From coming to terms with sports ending and figuring out what else to use their time on, to not quite knowing what to do with something they know, these kids take that question and allow us one more glimpse into their lives. One more way to build a way for them to trust us with the emotions that are tied into the work we are doing.
Because I can start a conversation asking just about their book.
Because I can start a conversation getting right to the skill.
Because I can start the conversation by asking what they are working on as a reader.
Because I can start the conversations moving into the work as quickly as possible.
But what that will never do is build the kind of trust we need to have with each other when kids tell me how they really want to grow. Why they worry about reading. Why they worry about writing. Why they worry about being in a community where some seemingly don’t understand them. Why they worry about grades, about the future, about the news.
So for now our conferences are taking a little bit longer. So for now, I am not quite sure how the conversation will go. I am not sure when we will get to the work they are doing as readers. But we will and we do.
But before then. Before that.
I get a tiny glimpse into their world and isn’t that what teaching is also about in so many ways? A tiny glimpse so we can help them capture the world the way they want to.
For a long time, I felt like an oddity within my reading beliefs: provide students with independent reading time every single day, provide a fully-stocked culturally relevant collection of books, remove all of the reading projects that stood in the way of reading joy, focus on reading identity at all turns. But then I discovered others who shared those same beliefs, who had held those beliefs long before I had reached them, who had pioneered the work spreading the word around the globe. The relief and power that finding others provided is one that cannot be underestimated. The strength that comes with working for a district that shares these beliefs is a blessing.
And yet, I know there are many others that have felt and do feel like the oddities in their school. Who constantly have to defend why self-selected independent reading is a cornerstone of their work. Who have to explain why they continue to spend their own money, ask for money, write grants and do anything they can to purchase more books. Who spend so much time trying to keep up with new books, who weed and discard books that do not have a place in their collection. Who feel alone but might not be.
An incredible honor for me is when I am asked to work with a district or school who is on a journey of trying to reach their readers in a more significant way. Who knows they have work to do and who are ready to take the next step. Who are not afraid to reflect and change even when change is hard. When I am asked to do this work, I always have many questions; what does reading look like now? Which experiences are each reader guaranteed as they go through their journey? What are the rights of your readers when it comes to book choice, independent reading, and reading identity? These questions lead to many discussions, many aha moments, and provide a road map for change. Much like we need to give students the space to create their rights a readers within our community, we need to also create our expectations and rights as a district. What are the experiences that each reader is guaranteed at each level of their schooling beyond the curriculum we use? How can we then make curricular and business (because let’s face it part of schools’ direction is determined by the business aspect) decisions that protect and further these rights? How can we offer training and funding to support these rights? Hw can we invite the community into this conversation? How can we embrace antiracist principles and establish an emphasis on the individual’s rights and needs?
In the spirit of this pursuit, I offer up several questions that should be asked at a district level or at the very least, school level, in order for student reading rights to be protected. After all, if our goal is for students to leave our care not only being able to read well but also find an inherent human value within reading then we need to create experiences that safeguard that.
So please start asking…
How much time is each child guaranteed for self-selected independent reading time each day?
Too often we see independent reading get cut due to fewer instructional minutes, particularly as students get older and we bring in more whole class novels or book clubs. We also see it limited for students who are in intervention or have other needs. Yet, if students are not offered up time to independently ready every single day, how can we then support them in their reading?
What are students “allowed” to read?
While the answer should be “anything they want” this is often not the case as choice is often limited due to well-meaning intentions. Students who read below grade level are often given the least amount of choices, in order to help them have more successful reading experiences, yet within the helpful intent of that we can end up doing real damage. Can you imagine always being told what to read and never being able to work through a book of your choosing? What we should be focusing our energy on is how to help students navigate the choices they make as well as develop better book selection habits.
Where and how can students access books?
A well-developed school library with a librarian should be a right for every child, as should a well-stocked culturally relevant classroom collection curated by a teacher who reads. We need books to entice every reader at all turns, so asking this question can open up discussions of inequitable access, culturally insensitive books, gaps in collections, as well as the need for teachers who teach reading to be readers themselves. How is funding appropriated for books? How are collections developed? How are books placed in the hands of kids?
What are students expected to do once they finish a book?
So often, and in my own experiences, we have a lot of work lined up for kids once they finish a book all in the name of accountability. Whether it be forced book talks, book reports, summaries or readers’ responses, reading logs or other tools that involve counting minutes and needing signatures, or having to take a quiz on a computer, we are so busy policing the experience of reading that we forget to look at what we, as adults, want to do when we read a book. These accountability practices can do a lot of damage, particularly if students are exposed and expected to do them year after year. By asking this question, we can start to look at long-term experiences and how that may be impacting reading identity throughout our years together.
What does reading “homework” look like?
While currently in my own classroom, students are expected to try to read at least 2 hours outside of English class every week, this is not how it used to be. I had packets and worksheets lined up for their reading, as well as small summaries, and book talks with friendly adults who had not read the book. This question goes hand in hand with the previous one as it looks at the components we attach to reading, as well as potential inequities within our practices. What are we tying in with the homework being completed or not? Not all kids are in a position to read outside of school, not all kids have access to what they need or are in a place in their journey where they see enough value to dedicate outside class time to reading.
Who are kids expected to read?
While this is a question that speaks to a much larger issue surrounding the canon and who we, as educators, constantly expose students to as literary masterminds, it is also important that we locally audit across grade levels to see who is being shared and more importantly who isn’t. Often we base our read alouds, book clubs, and text selections on our own favorites with little thought to what has come before and what will come after for our students, but since publishing skews heavily white, cisgendered, and heteronormative, this tends to become the reading experience for many students as well, particularly those within white majority districts or taught by mostly white educators. Diving into this questions can and should fundamentally change the canon we present to students year after year.
While there are many other questions to ask, the few shared here will offer up a path way to further investigation into the reading practices embedded within a district. It is definitely a conversation that is needed and should be pursued on an ongoing basis. After all, if we don’t ask the questions and reflect on the journey we place students on, how will we ever change?
I get asked for a lot of book recommendations, it is part of the life of someone who reads voraciously and publicly. I share a lot of book recommendations in real life every day with my students as I do a 1-minute booktalk, with colleagues as we swap books, on this blog where I compile the books I use for various units, on Instagram where I share the ones I have loved, in my Facebook group for my book, Passionate Readers. I don’t mind handing over recommendations, after all, I am so grateful for those who recommend books to me and have throughout the years.
And yet, I am also reminded of why I can recommend so many books. I read a lot. Sometimes more than at other times. I try to read widely. Broadly. I try to keep up with new books and those that I missed the first time. I try to follow the recommendations of others who discover books that I have not yet come across. Whose passion in reading is a gap of mine. I try to fill my gaps and find more knowledge when it comes to the books that I can potentially place in the hands of the readers I am entrusted with because being asked for recommendations by the very students I teach fuels me to read more. Fuels me to think of the kid that is in front of me and potential books that may help them re-connect or stay connected with reading. I have seen what being able to recommend the right book can do. I have seen certain books help them out of slumps. But I also know that recommending books can be a slippery slope. That if I continue to be the only one recommending then the voices of my students are not heard and the identities of them as readers, and, indeed, as human beings, will never be fully independent. Yes, I can recommend, but it is so much more powerful when a child is able to recommend to their peers or when they can successfully find books to their liking by themselves. And so it is a fine line between recommendation and discovery. Between asking students to study their own patterns and discovering their own gaps in order to help them read more broadly and see other people’s experiences that perhaps do not mirror their own.
I see this play out too when we, educators, turn to each other for specific book recommendations for that child we cannot seem to find a great book for. That often we educators, who teach future readers, are not keeping up ourselves with reading. Are not aware of what is out there now in these years when it comes to the incredible books that beckon our readers, and that is a problem. Because too often I see the same authors recommended, a new canon of books exclusively by white authors touted as the must reads. I see the same books recommended time and time again, I see the same titles used as read alouds, as novel studies, as book clubs. I see books that certainly have been worth our time never be replaced because we, the adults, deciding the books, haven’t kept up with our own reading. And I am not sure what to do about it other than discuss this pattern and recommend more books.
This is not to say that we cannot turn to each other for recommendations, but it is to say that we, as a profession, need to read more broadly and more overall in order to serve the kids we teach. In order to change our own understanding of what quality literature is and also what the gaps are in our curriculum. In order to see that the canon, whether traditionally established or not, needs to be questioned, disrupted, and that we also produce our own canon year after year. That when we are asked for book recommendations we audit ourselves and think of whose work we highlight. Whose books we hold up as the best. Whose voices we give more power to when we pass the recommendation on.
I try to see the children who come to me for recommendations as the invitations into reading that they are; see it as an invitation to read more. To pick up another book in the hopes that I can pass it on. To study my own gaps; what am I not reading and why not? Why is it hard for me to think of a title for this kid? For this particular reader? I treat my book gaps and lack of recommendations as a research project; which are the books that should be read? Which are the books I can use in class? Pass on? Recommend? I dedicate my limited time to reading as many books as I can in order to better my practice and become more than I was.
And so while I will continue to recommend books, I will also remind myself that I have much more work to do. That recommending a book isn’t the only step in the journey. That I should track what I recommend so I can see what I don’t. That I should continue to listen to the voices of those who spend so much time helping me see my own book gaps. That I have so many more ways to grow. That before I ask others, I will look at my own reading habits and make a plan so I can continue to grow myself. After all, my students are not the only ones who are still figuring out who they are.
She told me that her goal was to find more time to read. That life had been busy and so reading had gotten lost. That while she liked it, sometimes, there just wasn’t enough time in the day. That while she liked that book, sometimes, she didn’t bring it home because there wouldn’t be time. That while she knew she should read outside of class, sometimes she just didn’t have the time, after all, there was so much else to do. And she wondered how I read so many books, how I found the time, despite it all. And I only had one answer to give…
I don’t find the time. I make the time. I make the time to read the books so I can speak books with the people in my care. I make the time to read outside of my known, outside of the known of my students so I can bring the stories in that we maybe didn’t even know we needed. I make the time because I see the value, I live the value so that perhaps through our shared dedication, through our conviction, our students who have not (yet) found the value will.
We make the time to find the stories that will light up a new understanding. That will entrance. That will captivate. That will spark, even if only for a moment. That have just entered the world and now need to enter ours.
We make the time because if we don’t then we can tell students to read until we are blue in the face and they will know that we don’t really mean it. After all, how can we say we value it if we don’t give the gift to ourselves?
We make the time so we can speak books, develop a shared language wrapped up in our shared experiences, colored by the rollercoaster tracks of the stories we surround ourselves with.
And we question the books we love to make sure that our love is warranted. And we question the books we dislike to question whether our dislike is misplaced. And we keep an open mind so that all stories, because our kids are our stories, feel safe and valued and accepted no matter the differences we all bring into our community. No matter the sameness we bring into our community.
Because as we all know, or at least we should, the days we have lived will never come back. The moments we have spent will never trigger more. No person in human history has ever found more time. We all live by the same 24 hours, the same 86,400 seconds. We all live by the busy, the to-do and the get-done’s. By the push and pull of a life we say we control and yet at times feel such little control over.
But the time we make.
The time we take.
That’s what matters when we share this community with our students. When we wind ourselves up in stories. When we hand a child a book we loved too. When we hand a child a book we cannot wait to read. When we hold up a new story that has somehow become a part of who we are. When we admit that last night, even though I wanted to, I just didn’t read, because last night I chose to give my time to something else, but tonight! Tonight I will read because I want to. Because I choose to.
So we make the time and we urge our students to do the same. Our colleagues to do the same. Our own kids to do the same. So that this life, one that is already rich with story, becomes a life where quiet moments of great imagination are not the exception but instead the reality we choose to live on our own.
So we read so we can grow so we can share so we can learn.
And we tell all of our children, even the ones that do not belong to us, that stories are the threads of humanity and so we must take the time to read them. We must take the time to live broader in the ways that only stories can provide us, because that is the reward we can give ourselves day after day. That is the reward we can give others.
You may have noticed that this blog is slowing down a bit, while life continue to churn, I am slowly starting to work on a new book potentially. This means that there may be less brand-new writing on here and instead a mix of from the archives and new. The wonderful thing with continuing to be a teacher is that our teaching, hopefully, evolves as does our understanding of the work we do. With that I present to you a reworking of an older postfrom 2015.
I met my first book abandoner my very first year of teaching. Yet, he was not your average run of the mill book abandoner. No, he was the “look you straight in the eye and ask you what you are going to do about it” kind of abandoner. So I did what I knew best; forced him to read the book and not allow him to abandon it. And he did what he knew best; fake read for a good amount of time, skimmed a few pages, and failed the book report as well as the presentation. Repeat with every book. I don’t think he ever read anything beside “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” that year, and that was to spite me more than anything as I forced him into my choice of book time and time again. because I figured that when he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to do it. When he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to create accountability.
Everyone has these types of readers. The ones that abandon book after book because they hate to read, always have, always will. The ones that abandon book after book because they cannot find a great book, or perhaps they found one once, or perhaps they never have. The ones that abandon book after book because they get bored easily and while a book may have started great, now it is just meh. Some years we have a lot, others not so many.
Often for every child that abandons a book, there is a conversation missing, one that we need to engage them in in order to break the cycle. One that centers on one of the true goals of reading which is that the children we teach should be able to leave us being able to find a book that they are wanting to try on their own, without relying on artificial supports such as their level, their Lexile, or their teacher because they inherently know themselves better as readers.
This conversation takes time, it takes patience, and it takes diving into all of the many components that centers around the giving up a book. While often it may be seen as a rash decision made from an overall disinterest in reading, one that we dismiss when we hand a child another book to try, it is important that we dive into the nuances surrounding book abandonment in order for a child to know themselves more every time they abandon one. Make the act of abandonment one of internal reflection so that it no longer becomes automatic but instead becomes a choice that they can use to further investigate who they are as a reader.
This, therefore, means that there are questions we should be asking of our programming as well as the children that choose to leave yet another failed read in their wake. These questions shape the future decisions they make as well as their overall journey into their own reading identity.
Do they have choice? Because if they don’t, then that is the very first place we start. And not limited choice based on levels, Lexiles, or AR scores, but real honest-to-goodness choice where they get to pick their reading materials out of all the reading materials we have. This includes choosing the format and how to access it. Even as they abandon book after book, that choice needs to be protected at all costs, because while we may think that limiting choice will help them in the short-term, that’s exactly the problem with this approach, it helps in the short-term but does not push them further in their own understanding of book selection that works. So even when it seems like the list of abandoned books is too long to bear, let them continue to choose as there are other perimeters to consider.
Do they have time to actually book shop? Often we ask kids to quickly select a book and then wonder why they seem to not be invested in the choice they make, yet, if we study our own adult reading habits we know that leisurely browsing through selections is a pillar of how we choose books. So what are the time constraint placed on students? Do they have time to look through books, try a few pages, sit with a book for a while before they fully commit? Do they have time to speak to their peers about potential titles? Book shopping should be a social endeavor not one done in solitude if they don’t want to, so what are the conversations that need to happen as they browse?
Do they have time to read? If little time is given to reading then we are expecting them to do something they may not like only outside of school. That is foolish and also malpractice when it comes to the use of our time. Every child, every day, should be engaged in supported independent reading. So when can they read in class and try on the book? When can they be under the guidance of a trained adult that can help them navigate difficult concepts or words?
Do they have access? We know that students need great books in their hands. We know students need great libraries coupled with a librarian, but they also need books in our classrooms. And not old, worn out books, but new, enticing, high-interest books that they can check out easily. So when are they surrounded by books to choose from, what are those choices? Can they check the books out and bring them home or do they have to be kept in class? Yes, I lose books every year, but it is worth it to me if it helps a child read.
Are they overwhelmed? One student I taught told me 6 months into the year that our classroom library was simply overwhelming to browse in. That he didn’t know where to start despite my labels and bins. It took that long for him to tell me because he didn’t trust me with the information, afraid that I would think it silly or stupid, and yet, I didn’t think anything like that. What a way to know oneself! Once he had told me, we were able to create a way for him to browse specific sections of the library that he liked and able to pull out books from large stacks that I would pull for him. As he gradually got more comfortable, I was able to pull back my support.
Do they see themselves in the books? We discuss students needing windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in their reading lives as crafted by Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, but do we also evaluate the stories we have? Are we making sure that we are not just crafting a new cannon of sorts that continues to misrepresent marginalized populations or only share one aspect of someone’s journey? What reading choices are the students surrounded by? Is it culturally responsive such as how Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses? Will it further a perhaps damaging narrative that they already have about others, or will it break down misconceptions, stereotypes, and harmful thinking?
Do they have people? Is it cool to not be a reader in their friend group? Who do they have to talk books to? Do they have reading role models that extend beyond the teacher? Who are the people that have similar tastes as them, that they can speak books with? Many of my students tell me that they don’t have many others to get recommendations from despite being in book-rich environments for years and teachers working specifically on this. So how else can we increase the natural book conversations, students are having in order for them to make connections with the reading tastes of others? I often invite kids to book shop together so that they can find books together, we also use book talks for this as students discover others with similar tastes as them. Also, who are the adults that can speak books to them? It should never be just the classroom teacher, invite your librarian in, create a rich reading community so that students can see many readers int heir day, and many opportunities to speak books.
Do they have reason to read? And by that, I don’t mean because of a prize or a reward. Do they see any kind of gain from reading? Is anything positive connected to the art of reading? Will it actually make their lives better or is it just one more thing to do? Many of my students who abandon books repeatedly do it because they see no point and until we start to help them see a point of reading that goes beyond “the adults make me do it” then it is going to be hard to break any kind of habits. So how can we stress the importance of reading, what is it they want to accomplish in their lives where reading plays a central role? Is is that they want to understand others? Understand the world? Or is it much smaller than that?
Do they have different ways to read? Reading is not just done with our eyes but also with our ears, so if a child is constantly abandoning books get them hooked on an incredible audio book. This has changed the reading path of several of my students in a profound way. Sometimes getting them into text is what makes a difference, especially if they would like to read a book that may be difficult for them to decode independently, why not use audio books as a way to help them become invested in a text? Then we can work on the decoding separately.
Are they hiding gaps? I have taught several students that could ace their reading assessment, mostly because it had been given to them so many times, and yet had a large gap in their skills. So is their book abandonment masking a larger problem such as not actually understanding what they are reading or not having developed the stamina to stay with the story? Is reading seen as something emotionally draining because it is incredibly difficult? We cannot dismiss the emotions that are attached with reading for many kids, especially our vulnerable readers, and so we must work on developing their understanding of themselves as readers along with the skills of reading. This requires trust.
Are we making them do things that kill their love of reading? When students abandon books a lot, it is a sure sign that we need to reflect on our own practices. And not just skim over that reflection and pretend that everything must be ok. Are reading logs killing their love of reading? Are programs liked Accelerated Reader or LLI? Are we constantly asking them to do things with their reading rather than “just” read? What else is attached to our reading that may make a child abandon rather than finish a book?
Have we asked them? This is the biggest component needed because too often we try to figure out why a child is abandoning books and we never ask them why. Not beyond the “What didn’t you like about it?” So instead we must give the students a chance to discuss or reflect and really start to study their own habits. What patterns do they see? What types of books might they like to read? What can they do to change their habits? Students need to feel empowered in their self-reflection because otherwise, their pattern won’t change. They also need to set goals and then be able to honestly assess their own progress. This is part of the much larger work that must be centered in who they are as readers and how they want to take control of their reading identity.
Do they trust you? Trust is often something that is taken for granted in our classrooms, as if by simply being together, we build trust, and yet that is not true. Often we have to work hard to earn the trust of students, particularly those whose school experiences have not been safe or those whose lives are different than the ones we lead. Trust takes many things; choosing to be vulnerable, creating a calm and safe space, acknowledging our own limitations as a teacher and adult, recognizing our own limited experience of the world, and also being genuinely invested in the success of every child no matter where they are in their journey. We earn trust, plain and simple, and we do it by showing up, asking questions, actively listening, and passing no judgment. By investing into the lives of each child, by partnering with those at home, and by removing shame as a tool in our learning environments. By expanding our tools as a teacher, and more importantly our knowledge so that we can do better. Often students tell me much later in the year why they really hate reading or why they abandon book after book but it takes time for them to feel that I deserve the truth. Sometimes they are not sure why until much later. Until they do, I engage them in conversation both planned in our reading conferences and casual, I congratulate them on the accomplishments they do have, and I continue to provide them with the tools I can think of to help them be successful. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes trusting your students even if they don’t trust you.
Abandoning books is often seen as an irritating habit that we must break quickly at all costs when it comes to students, but what if it instead is viewed as a starting point for a deep and nuanced exploration into the reading journey that a child is on? Think of the conversations we can have.
Three years ago, I wrote a blog post detailing my journey with the book When We Was Fierce and in particular the journey with realizing that a book I had marveled at and called a must read was being critically reviewed by others. While at first I was embarrassed by my enthusiasm and not knowing better, in the blog post I wrote about the growth I had when I put away my own embarrassment and instead approached the moment as a learning opportunity, simply put; when I knew better, I could do better. It is a journey I have tried to continue on ever since.
Since that post, I have tried to be more in tune with critical reviews. I have tried to read new or old books that come my way with a broader lens trying to step out of my own lived experience to discover how others may view a book. How others may be potentially harmed by a book. How others may have world view shaped in a an inaccurate manner because of a book. While the voice in my head has gotten better at alerting me to potentially problematic texts, it is far from perfect and it is a journey I continue to be on.
I share this because this week I published my best books of the year so far list, a list I try to carefully put together in order to help others find books that may heighten their reading experiences. It is also a list for myself to look back upon as I celebrate the incredible works put out in the world that have deepened my own children’s’ reading lives as well as my teaching experience. This morning, I woke to a tweet sent to me by a colleague highlighting a potentially problematic book on the list.
My response: Thank you, I will definitely look into it. Which I did.
Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@BookToss) had written a great post detailing problematic aspects of the book Stonewall: A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph. This book was on my best of the year so far list and a book I had really enjoyed, even contemplating how I could use it as part of our upcoming historical research unit where we will write from the perspective of an object. While I had read the book and the voice inside my head had noticed how there didn’t seem to be a broad acknowledgement of the trans community, I had put aside my concern rather than followed up on it, despite having also read the book The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman that had explicitly discussed the broad community anger and how this went past the mostly gay men present in the inn on the first night of the riots. Dr. Jimenez discussed those concerns and then some in her blog post, and also received a reply from the author, Rob Sanders, which I really think you should read.
After reading the blog post, the concerns with the book were crystal clear so I pondered why I had I put aside my concerns? The answer? Because I really liked the book AND also because of my lack of knowledge. While I had a minor concern, I didn’t follow up on it and instead chose to highlight the book because I thought that it would be great for others to read. End of story.
And this is what I want to write a little bit about, because those two things, dismissing our concerns and not knowing better, are exactly why I think many, especially white, educators keep problematic books in classrooms and home collections year after year. I know the emotional attachment is what makes me sometimes try to mentally finagle a way to be okay with a book in our collection that may do potential harm. Even though I know better. Even though I end up not placing it in our library because I know better. But how often do we, and especially us white educators who live within the dominant lens, simply not know better? Or how often do we dismiss the criticisms because we somehow think that having the book will surely alert students to their own concerns and then be able to navigate potential problems within it?
But here’s the thing, if I, as a 39 -year old educator who has taught for nearly 12 years and reads hundreds of books, as well as reviews of books, and critical discussions of books every year cannot figure out on my own that a book is problematic, then how can I expect my students to do so?
Because they won’t, not unless we teach it, not unless we discuss our own mistakes when it comes to reading and highlighting problematic texts. This is why I use the book The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winters in my classroom. While I had the book at first because I loved it and had already read it aloud to my classroom, after I read Dr. Deb Reese’s post on the problems with it, I re-visited the book with students and we discussed why we had not ourselves caught these problems with the text and instead taken it at face-value. It led to a larger discussion on what else we miss when we don’t know more, or the blind spots we all walk around with and how to shrink them.
This is why we must do better when it comes to vetting our own collections and also being okay with admitting it out loud. I know that there are a lot of emotions attached to books and their creators. I know I don’t want to hurt other people when I distance myself from their work. I know that many educators, me included, like to think that I know enough to carefully select books that will not present problematic, inaccurate, or full on harmful stories to my students, but that is simply not right. Even though I have grown and gotten better, I have so much to learn still. I will, probably despite my best intentions, continue to embrace books that because of my own lens, my limited perspective, I cannot see the problems in until others point it out.
So what can we do when we realize either through our own investigation that a book is problematic or when someone else points out harmful representation or stories?
Say thank you when someone points it out. We cannot grow if we don’t know what we need to do better on. That is why recognizing when someone offers you an opportunity to grow and acknowledging it as an opportunity to grow rather than getting defensive is always the best way.
Get over our own feelings. Is it embarrassing to screw up? Absolutely. Would I rather do well? Sure. Do I learn from these interactions? Every time. However, when our response is one of incredulity or dismissal we are not really growing, we are certainly not focusing our energy on what we should be focusing on, which is the conversation surrounding the text or illustrations rather than our own feelings. (I am listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and this is part of what she discusses).
Read the criticism, seek to understand it, and ask questions. I always read or listen to what is being said and then try to find other voices who are discussing it as well. If I am not sure why something is being discussed the way it is, then I ask questions. That is why I love being connected to others because social media gives me a quick way to reach out.
Take action outwardly. Whether it is publicly acknowledging your screw up if you have recommended it, or spreading the word by amplifying the discussion happening, do your part. It is often isolating to be someone pointing out critical aspects so knowing that there are others who will back up your words and calls to action is powerful.
Transfer the knowledge. Teach this critical skill to students by also connecting them with book reviews blogs so that they can be adults who have access to information, so that they can notice their blind spots, and also try to see whether a book may be harmful or not. Make it a part of your already embedded curriculum units so that it is not a stand-alone lesson but instead one that is addressed in many different ways. After all, isn’t teaching critical analysis one of our main teaching goals?
Take actions personally. Remove the book altogether or use it to discuss blind spots like I have done with a few books, but do something, rather than just push it aside because “no one will know that you still have the book.” While that may be true, this is also an incredibly twisted way of looking at the process. While it feels very strange to throw books in the garbage, almost sacrilegious, yet sometimes, that is where certain books belong. Don’t just say you will do something, actually do it.
Try to do better in the future. While I definitely catch more problematic books before I recommend them than I have in the past; as evidenced by this post I still have a lot to learn. All of us do. But the good news is that through social media we can easily learn from others as long as we are willing.
So what did I end up doing with Stonewall the book that started this whole blog post? I removed it from my best books of the year so far list and with the encouragement of Dr. Jimenez wrote this blog post to make my thinking visible. While I love the missing parts of history that the book represents, I cannot use it as an actual representation of what happened that night, there is too much missing.
And that is where I start my summer vacation. Knowing that I have so much to still learn about others and from others. Not a bad way to start my summer as I try to grow as a person and as an educator. I now know better, so hopefully I can do better. Can’t we all?