The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!

 

On Visiting the MFA and Reflecting on How Tricky/Important/Magnificent Reading Can Be

Today my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in years. They offer free admission on Wednesday nights after 4pm, and I had been let out of school early for snow, so our timing was perfect. For two people who LOVE critiquing and debating the nuances and implications of films, books, plays, music, and articles, we have a borderline embarrassing lack of cool when it comes to 3-D art in physical spaces like museums or exhibit halls. It’s not our comfort zone, and we have essentially no experience with it. But, as a teacher of reading and writing who believes in her core in the value of multimodal composition and who teaches visual rhetoric, this seemed like an untenable position, so off to the MFA we went.

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As we ambled awkwardly into a nearby gallery room (we started with American art from the 1800s which was a questionable choice) and faced the first floor-to-ceiling oil painting looming in its gilded frame, I had a very odd, but also faintly familiar experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. As I squinted at the complicated brush strokes and imposing oil-painting figures, I was at a bit of a loss. What does one do with paintings? Was I supposed to say how it made me feel? Was it supposed to mean something? How could I even tell if I LIKED it or not?

Immediately, and with a faint smile, I recognized the questions running through my mind. They’re the same questions my students ask when I show them something new. They’re the same questions I hear from and see in them when we tackle an unusual composition, an unfamiliar genre, or a whole new mode. When I ask students to rhetorically analyze sound compositions, their faces look like I felt as the larger-than-life oil painting version of George Washington stared down at me imposingly. I had to laugh.

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I had forgotten how disorienting and daunting it can be to attempt to read a composition in a mode outside our comfort zone. As my husband and I slowly moved from impressionist paintings to cubist paintings to sculptures and so on, I recalled how squaring off with an unfamiliar genre or mode can feel a little like getting pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool unexpectedly. But I also inhabited the importance of having flexible, complex reading skills that apply to any mode in any scenario.

And so, under oil painting George Washington’s watchful eye, I went back to what I know, because I DO know how to read. I read the paintings. I read each painting multiple times, like I would a poem. Once to understand, again to notice, again to analyze, and then again to reflect. I paid attention to my own responses, both emotional and intellectual. I carefully read accompanying plaques to construct small rhetorical analyses with which to understand authorial goals and contextual influences. I noticed features: colors, lines, framing, repetition, symbols etc. I compared them to other works they reminded me of. I considered different theoretical lenses. I asked myself questions, and then I discussed my answers with my husband, who was doing the same thing in his own mind. We READ the paintings.

And, guys, reading is TRULY magnificent! Paintings and sculptures that initially intimidated me or struck me as dull became rich, emotional works when I really read them and shared those readings with another person. I poked around in my own heart and mind with depth and dimension, feeling emotional responses and thoughtfully noticing them. As we wandered the museum, reading carefully, we were deeply and profoundly human. We sifted through the truths of existence that hang just below the surface of our conscious days. We felt and observed our differences as individuals, and we soaked ourselves in beauty and creation.

Ultimately, my husband and I spent upwards of 3 hours engrossed in the different galleries, floors, and exhibits. But we wouldn’t have been able to have that experience as individuals or together if we hadn’t leaned into the discomfort of reading in new genres and drawn from our tried and true strategies for reading texts. As an educator, this experience was an important reminder for me. I walked away renewed in my conviction that:

  • For reading to be real, living, and impactful in my students’ lives, it has to be multimodal, flexible, and diverse.
  • Reading, REALLY reading, new things is vulnerable, intimidating, and uncomfortable. But it’s the stuff truth and life are made of, and my students need to have the tools to do it bravely and well.

So, if you find yourself at the MFA on a Wednesday night, look around. There’s a good chance we’ll be there too.

 

I Believe 3 Things About Reading for Fun

Summer is here. My manic school year days are slowly decelerating into a warm, easy rhythm. Although my time still feels full with a myriad of small tasks required to get our somewhat derailed lives back on track, I am finally able to set aside the time to reach into my pile of “for fun” reading books. The stack has been accumulating since the end of last summer, which was the last time I could plausibly read for pleasure. But summer is back again in all its humid goodness, and I couldn’t be more ready to sink into the pages of a book that I chose simply because I thought it sounded good.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly good at reading for a variety of purposes OTHER than for fun. I am pretty good at reading to understand, to memorize, to meet a time crunch, to search for specific information, to check facts etc. I mean, I’m an English teacher now, so these tasks are kind of inherent in my daily life. I have even learned to enjoy reading for some of these end goals. But returning to my pleasure reading pile this summer has reminded me of 3 very important personal beliefs.

  1. There is no kind of reading like pleasure reading. I can sometimes forget the immersive sensation of losing touch with the world around me as my mind and emotions detach from reality and latch organically and enthusiastically to some novel or short story or poem that has captured my attention. It is a welcome and familiar thrill to find myself elaborately constructing my own, unique visions and interpretations of places, people, and situations in my mind, creating my own reading experience and building something that draws in both my own life story, imagination, and personality as well as the author’s carefully crafted composition. There is simply nothing quite like it.
  2. Teachers of reading and writing need to make time to read for pleasure. So does everyone, but especially teachers of reading and writing. If we want our students to be fascinated, intrigued, or consumed by the compositions they interact with, we need to model that. We need to have an intimate familiarity with the feeling of that magnetic connection to and investment in a story, idea, or image so we can explain it, recognize it, and work towards creating it in our students. I see in myself how easy it is to forget the joy and simple sense of play in reading just for the fun of it; as an educator, it is essential that I not forget.
  3. Teachers of reading and writing need to create time and opportunities to allow their students to read for pleasure. This is difficult; as with most things in life, you have to give something up to achieve this. In my classes last year, I sacrificed a few assignments I had planned in order to keep the pace at a place where students could enjoy what we were reading. I also did the extra leg work required to give students some choices in their reading, allowing them time and opportunity to recognize and choose what they gravitated towards. Student life hurtles by at a breakneck pace; even students who love to read won’t have time to read for fun unless their teachers give it to them. And if we don’t give it to them, how many kids will forget entirely what it feels like? Or never even get a chance to feel it? It’s our job to make the time for them.

I won’t make the claim that these are particularly complex or scholarly beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself consistently forgetting them, sliding them into the back of my mind and letting them gather dust while I crash through my days in a frenzy of productivity.

Thankfully, there is quiet, warm summer to remind me of my dusty beliefs. Thankfully there are porch swings and glasses of lemonade and happy dogs all just waiting for me to pull up a good book and dive in. Thank goodness.

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Presenting at New England CCCCs 2017: Continuing my Career as a Teacher-Scholar

As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, I have an enthusiastic love for academic conferences within my discipline. Even when the conference or the keynote speaker isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, I always walk away from my conference experiences feeling enriched, motivated, and challenged. Now that I have completed my graduate degrees and am working full time in a high school classroom, conference participation and attendance don’t fall quite as readily into my work life routine as they have in the past; however, I find it more important now than ever that I continue pushing myself to remain actively engaged in current, ongoing scholarship within my field. It matters deeply to me both as a scholar and as an educator. To my pleasant surprise my supervisors, administrators, and colleagues at LCA support me in this wholeheartedly.

As a result of all these factors, this past May, I had the genuine pleasure of continuing my research and scholarship in teaching composition by working alongside my longtime research colleagues, Anne Mooney and Kate Artz, to organize a 60-minute panel at NCTE’s New England Summer Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCCs): Sharing Best Practices at Boston University. And let me just say, my passion for academic conferences has not waned in the slightest.

Our session, entitled “Making Audio Accessible: Teaching Transcription as Composition” examined how teaching transcription of audio files as a rhetorical process empowers students to create purposeful and accessible texts of their own. Attendees of the session participated in an activity designed to help them better understand the experiences transcripts create for their readers. We also provided assignment materials for attendees to use in their own classrooms. It was a great turnout with truly fantastic and engaged participation from our attendees.

We were also fortuitously paired with Dartmouth College’s Mark Koch, who approached similar questions to the ones we explored in our panel, but through the rhetorical activity of composing maps. While his was a very visual mode and ours relied on the relationship between audio and text, both projects explored exciting and interesting ways to prompt students to grapple with complicated and difficult questions when composing. What information is included? What information is left out? What are my rhetorical goals, and how can I best achieve them? We felt very honored and lucky to have been so aptly paired with Dr. Koch.

As this was my first conference as an active teacher instead of a graduate student, I was definitely aware that my daily activities existed much father outside the realm of traditional research and scholarship than they have in the past; however, I became acutely conscious of the difference my role in the classroom made in the way I was able to process and engage with some of the theoretical ideas we were batting around. The immediacy with which I was able to envision the practical implementation of some of the principles and concepts we were exploring was pointed and fascinating to say the least. More than ever before I felt the importance of the balance between my identity as an educator and my identity as a scholar, and the energy and excitement of that recognition has not left me as I transition into my summer.

Ultimately, I was able to gather with motivated and experienced educators from across New England to share our research, discuss developments in our discipline, and provoke deeper, more complex thought on the issues shaping our field today. But I was able to do so while inhabiting the role of a teacher-scholar more fully than I ever have before. And I have a sense that the gravity of that has yet to entirely hit me, which excites me greatly.

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Using Words for Good

Something I love deeply and profoundly about teaching writing and reading is the ability to delve into what words can do and how they do those things. Words are amazing. They can literally create realities. J.L. Austin’s description of a “performative utterance” has forever shifted my understanding of the power of language. Austin explores the ability of words to perform and accomplish things, noting that sometimes,

“the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action – it is not …. just saying something” (7).

Composition and communication affect change. The prospect of this is so beautiful and so terrifying that it sometimes makes me weep.

As an English teacher, this prospect is one of my driving motivators. If we are dealing in creating and consuming words and texts, we are necessarily wrestling with what those words and texts do. The power and influence we are toying with is not something to be taken lightly. The ways this truth impacts my lessons, assignments, and demeanor in the classroom are diverse, shifting, and complex. I can’t say I entirely understand them myself. However, just the other day, my wonderful school, Lexington Christian Academy, hosted a small event that I thought truly encapsulated the importance of teaching and then allowing students to deal wisely with their meaning making and composition.

As most truly great ideas are, this one was cooked up by the students involved in the student-led Peer Issues Group (PIG). The idea was simple: to anonymously post encouraging phrases written by students in the student bathroom, and to allow other students to anonymously share some of their struggles and encouragement. This was a bathroom graffiti-style activity and, since I often use the student bathroom in order to avoid an infinitesimally longer walk to the faculty bathroom, I was able to bask in its glory.

Students blew me away with the vulnerability, tenderness, and strength of their anonymous words. With their simple, brief compositions, they managed to support, build community with, and listen to one another. Their words DID something. What they wrote mattered, and you could feel it as you stood there and read what they had to say. The activity was simple, but, in my opinion, powerfully demonstrated the ability of words to create real change and exert real influence in individuals and communities.

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For what I have learned will never be the last time, I sat there learning from my students, letting my students’ words teach me about the power of allowing them and helping them to use their words for good. I’m still working to learn the lesson.

 

Telling Time with Bookshelves: A Shelfie Update

I am someone who references different chapters of my life using my bookshelves. Each phase of my life has had its own bookshelf and, for someone whose books have been and remain a somewhat central feature, those different bookshelves stand out in my memory as kinds of landmarks in my personal history.

When I was homeschooled on a sailboat, I had a tiny bookshelf in the boat’s salon; it only fit about 5 books, so the titles rotated fairly regularly, but it was mine. In the house I lived in during high school, I was able to upgrade to a long, wooden bookshelf that was painted baby blue for some unknown reason. I liked this shelf because it had cubbies that I could use to organize books by genre. Over a decade later, I still remember which genres went in which cubbies, which probably says more about my compulsion to organize than it does about my love of books, but that’s not the point of this post. The first thing I purchased for my college dorm room after gleefully notifying the University of New Hampshire that I would be attending was a set of birch-colored Ikea shelves that were deep enough to fit textbooks as well as novels. Upon graduating, my first apartment featured a heavy wooden shelf that I found for free on Craigslist and that my mother kindly characterized as “hideous.” The list goes on and, despite my fascination with my own bookshelf lineage, I’ve probably already lost you.

This blog originated and has unfolded during my “living in an apartment in Danvers” phase of life, which was also my grad school phase. I have very much loved this phase, which, for me, is marked by the bookshelf I blogged about in this post, built for me by my husband, sister, and sister’s boyfriend for my birthday. This shelf housed my critical theory books, books on pedagogy, fave novels, and even some of my husband’s books, which was a new experience for me. I don’t usually share my shelf space.

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The time has come, however, for a new chapter! I have graduated with my degrees, as evidenced by the enthusiastic picture to the left. I will be leading my own classroom this fall. We have left our tiny apartment and secured ourselves a tiny house in the woods. Accordingly, I have moved myself into a brandy new bookshelf to mark the transition. And so, without much additional fanfare, allow me to share a recent shelfie with you!

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Built for me by the smiley fellow in the photo up top, this is my favorite bookshelf yet!

I hope that this next chapter will be as beautiful and full of colorful stories as its associated bookshelf!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventures with Mum: A Return to the Blue and White Library

This post is both a throwback to the blog archives as well as a continuation of the procrastination surrounding my series on bringing digital activities and tools in the classroom. Neither of these things, however, make this post any less special to me.

Back in the summer of 2015, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my opportunity to revisit a library in which my earliest memories of genuine book love reside. My mum (who I’ve blogged about before) homeschooled me right up through middle school and I attribute much of my passionate love for all things literary to our time spent together in the small, blue and white library in Georgetown on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas. The chance to walk the tiny, paperback filled aisles of that library as an adult prompted some very serious reflection in my own mind on what it means to teach a lifelong love of learning.

In December of 2015, against the odds, my mum and I were able to return to Georgetown and visit the library together!

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Almost 2 decades later, my mum and I strolled hand-in-hand through those aisles again, just like we used to. It was all exactly the same and yet completely different. We sat at the brightly colored round table we use to read at. We visited the small back room full of children’s novels. We pet the lazy, purring cats in the windowsill. And then we shared a funny moment in which we appreciated the fact that adult me was on my way to graduating with two Masters degrees, one in English and one in teaching English. The story that started so simply and sweetly, with a passionate mom who loved books and education so very much that she taught her enthusiastic daughter to love them in the same way, was ongoing.

Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” My mum was an awakener of deep and mighty passions for literacy and education in my life. The foundation for a love of learning that she laid is something that has informed my decisions and my career for decades now. I hope to carry that legacy on as I enter into my first year as a full-time teacher with classes of my own. I hope to also be an awakener. And so I will always keep the blue and white library in my mind as an inspiration and a reminder of what good teaching can and will do for a young and open mind.

 

Disciplinary Literacy: An UnConference

My aforementioned love for conferences grows with every conference I am able to attend.  Fortunately, just yesterday, I had the opportunity to further convince myself of the importance of conferences in my own personal growth as an educator by attending the truly unique Massachusetts Disciplinary Literacy UnConference held at Brookline High School. This unconference was organized by Salem State University’sScreen Shot 2015-06-30 at 9.07.46 AM illustrious Jacy Ippolito and focused, as the title promises, on disciplinary literacy.

As an unconference, yesterday’s events were designed in order to shift the locus of expertise from the keynote speakers and presenters, as with a traditional conference, to the attendees, making this an unconference.  Working with our collective expertise, the unconference attendees made for a fantastic collaborative and generative environment in which educators, administrators, and even MA state officials were able to share their knowledge, experience, and concerns on how to effectively implement disciplinary literacy in the MA school systems.  We were encouraged to focus on learning from teachers who work in disciplines different than our own in order to broaden and challenge our understandings of literacy education. As you can imagine, the day was a whirlpool of networking, collaboration, creative problem-solving, idea-generation, and sharing of resources.

In addition to the list of contacts, resources, and ideas I left the unconference with, I also left with a new conviction of the critical importance of disciplinary literacy education in the modern classroom.  My goal for this post is to share some of that conviction and explain my own understanding of how teaching reading and writing within the difference academic disciplines can shape and guide our pedagogy.

Traditionally, reading and writing has been understood, according to Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan as “a basic set of skills, widely adaptable and applicable to all kinds of texts and reading situations” (40).  This essentially means that, if you learn to read, summarize, paraphrase, and identify main topics in a piece of writing, you should be able to apply those skills generally across any discipline.  The basic skills you learn in middle school need only to be honed and applied across the academic disciplines in order to achieve successful learning. So why are secondary and higher education literacy skills so poor?  Why do universities and colleges from the entire array of academic disciplines bemoan the atrocious literacy skills their scholars bring to the classroom?

What Shanahan and Shanahan propose is that a student’s literacy skills need to develop as the literacy-related tasks become more difficult and more specialized throughout a student’s coursework.  Figure 1 below shows the pyramid diagram from Shanahan and Shanahan’s article, “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.

Taken from Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan's  “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.” Harvard Educational Review 78.1 (2008): 40-59. NYC Schools.gov. Web. 30 June 2015.

Taken from Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan’s
“Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.” Harvard Educational Review 78.1 (2008): 40-59. NYC Schools.gov. Web. 30 June 2015.

Shanahan and Shanahan are making the point that the skills we nebulously think of as “reading and writing skills” actually work very differently within the different disciplines.  A chemist will read differently than a mathematician who will read differently than a historian.  The writing skills that a literary critic uses will be of very little use for someone who is writing a technical report or an article for a scientific journal.  If we are not explicitly teaching students how to read within the respective disciplines they are studying, we are not adequately equipping them to have success with the content we are trying to teach them.

The next step in solving this equation is equipping all teachers to be aware of and teach literacy skills within their discipline.  This means helping math, science, history, and world language teachers to become aware of specific strategies and expectations that characterize reading and writing within their disciplines so that they can model and share those skills with their students.  Students need to learn to read like a historian  when reading a history textbook or to write like a biologist when writing a research paper for biology class in order to successfully access the disciplinary content.

Sometimes problems with implementing this kind of disciplinary literacy education occur when we run up against the common misconception that literacy is an ELA teacher’s responsibility.  Traditionally, ELA teachers are supposed to educate students on how to read and write so that they can apply those skills in their other disciplinary classes.  In theory, this means that, if a student hands in a horrifically written lab report to her science teacher, the ELA teacher has failed his job in preparing the student to write in that genre.  If a student is unable to comprehend the word problem in his geometry textbook, the ELA teacher has failed to adequately teach reading comprehension.  The absurdity of this becomes apparent when we realize that many ELA teachers are not equipped with the disciplinary knowledge to teach scientific writing or mathematic reading comprehension.  The literacy skills required in each of these disciplinary tasks are vastly different from the skills required to write analytical essays or read and analyze novels. Doug Buehl says it best by saying, “In other words, students need to be mentored to read, write, and think in ways that are characteristic of discrete academic disciplines” (10).

All these ideas and more were the foundation for much of the discussion in yesterday’s unconference.  It was truly inspiring to see educators from all disciplines and districts coming together to work towards a better plan for helping students achieve the literacy skills they need to succeed academically.  Science teachers were learning how to teach reading skills and reading teachers were learning how to help their students prepare for their discipline-specific literacy tasks.  My notes from our time together are fairly extensive and I hope this post is just the starting place for future thoughts and research on interdisciplinary literacy as a part of this blog.

On Rediscovering my Discovery of Books in a Blue and White Library

There isn’t too much to love about returning to a chilly, rain-soaked New England from a sunny trip to the Bahamas.  One of those sparse, loveable things, however, is the fact that I can share how one of the stops on my trip reminded me of the lifelong joy and goodness that a skilled reading teacher can gift to her students.

When I was young, my family lived on a sailboat for many years.  My mum, dad, sister, and I floated around from port to port following our wandering whims.  My mum homeschooled both my sister and I from preschool straight up until we returned to the States which, for me, was around 5th grade.  This meant that my mum taught me to read.

I don’t remember many of the details of my reading education; the only things left are pieces of memories and a giddy love for the feel of a new book in my hands.  One of those hazy, rose-tinted memory pieces lives forever in the sunny island library in Georgetown in the Great Exuma islands of the Bahamas, where I had the unexpected chance to visit on this trip.  My sister, dad, and I were strolling down the Georgetown streets in search of something other than books when my dad casually pointed to his left and said “Danah, do you remember that?”  I looked up.

And there I was, on the steps leading up to the little blue and white library with the big tree out front.

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I wandered slowly in through the open door, stepping over the cats and feeling like an eight-year-old holding her mum’s hand.  The creaky floors, the humidity-curled pages of the much-loved volumes, and the surprisingly smaller librarian’s desk were all right where I had left them. The memories crystallized into perfect clarity.

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My mum and I would come here together several times each week, taking 3 books at a time.  It was our big adventure; sometimes we would get ice cream on the way.  Always we would spend the afternoon hunting through the shelves for hidden treasures, exclaiming in delight as we discovered beautiful covers, funny titles, and anything that related to horses.  Each outing would end with a small armful of carefully selected books.  I could never take out more than 3 at a time, meaning that sometimes I had to leave a truly tempting choice #4 hidden in the shelves until my next visit.

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We would then read our books together over the next few days, chatting about what was happening, favorite illustrations, words we didn’t understand, and hopeful predictions.  My mum would always read anything my eight-year-old self recommended to her so that we could have serious discussions about it.  Sometimes we would read together, theatrical voices and all.  We shared our reading and it became an exciting part of every week, laying the foundation for my lifelong love of literature and writing.

I recognize, probably incompletely, how incredibly blessed and privileged I am to have been raised in a literature-rich home under the watchful eye of my mother, the reading specialist.  I understand that my situation is very unique and my intent is in no way to suggest that a background like mine is the only surefire recipe for a love of literature.  My trip to the Georgetown library simply reminded me of the incredible importance of being a careful, intentional teacher who fosters joy and community in learning.  Even if the specific teaching moments and strategies get lost in the dust over time, real love for learning can’t be misplaced.  It’s the very thing we often suffocate in our fervent desire to educate.  It’s the thing that is at stake and the thing to fix our eyes on as we wade through the complexities of curricula, texts, and grading.  It’s the kind of thing one finds in a blue and white library on an island in the sun.

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The Danger of a Single Story: Why ELA Classrooms Matter

I have wanted to write this post for awhile, as I’ve loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie since the moment I learned about her and her work.  Adichie is an incredible author who was born and raised in Nigeria and has written several novels and short stories that have been published in over 30 languages.  She is an articulate and talented individual; she uses her identity and skillsets to create beautiful work, but also to actively promote values and ideals she holds important.  I could spend an overwhelming number of words describing her books, talks, and life accomplishments and I’d actually be happy to do that, but, I wanted to dedicate this particular blog post to a TED talk that Adichie gave in July of 2009.

In her talk, Adichie reflects on the danger of only knowing one story, one narrative, or one perspective.  She shares how growing up with a “single story” depicted in the literature she read hindered her own ability to express her culture and life as a child in Nigeria.  As an adult, the “single story” myth caused her to accidentally develop one-dimensional and inaccurate images of peoples foreign to her.  Coming out of those experiences, Adichie poses the questions: How can we really know anyone through a single story?  How can a single story ever capture the complexity of a culture, a people, or a nation?

Adichie goes on to push this one step further by analyzing how the myth of the single story not only puts the hearer or reader in the position of having an incomplete or simplistic impression of people or places; it also heavily represses and misrepresents the individuals depicted.

‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.’ – Adichie

This TED talk captures, in essence, what I believe to be the most important role of the ELA classroom: to teach students to demand multiple stories, to question suspiciously unified narratives, and to embrace the duality and complexity that comes with gathering information about the unfamiliar.  Developing students who insist on more stories and refuse to accept any single story as representative of a people or a place not only respects and honors our increasingly diverse classrooms and societies; it also creates the kinds of citizens our increasingly complex world needs.  I want my classroom to produce individuals who have meaningfully read white, Western literature, but who have also wrestled with female, multicultural authors and who have considered the multitude of perceptions that exist in any given topic.  These are the students who will be able to operate meaningfully, intelligently, and justly throughout our globalized society.  These are the students who will hear, respect, and respond to voices speaking for and from all classes, races, and genders.  These are the students that I make it my goal to cultivate.

“I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” -Adichie