Most years, I begin our reading workshop by focusing on how students can make meaningful connections to the texts that they read and how those connections can bring them a deeper understanding of those texts. We go beyond using the terms “text-to-text” “text-to-self” and “text-to-world” to talk about how these connections can really help us as readers.
And I have always been happy with what those lessons have brought. They begin our year by asking students to deepen the thinking that they do as they read. They show the students that I don’t just want them to use the words that they think will make their teachers happy. They show the students that what I want is for them to notice the way their thinking, and their thinking about their thinking, help them to gain more meaning from their texts.
But, this year, I wanted more. I knew that I could take the idea of connections and make them more authentic and meaningful to the students. I knew that if I could just slightly alter the way I framed these lessons, I could get more genuine thinking and reflecting from the students.
So this year, I began with a different question. This year, I began by asking my students, “How can books help us to feel less alone in the world?”
I shared the book Exclamation Mark (which is lovely in so many ways) with my students and talked about how when I read it, I instantly felt less alone in the world because the book talks about trying to fit in by denying who you really are and trying to act like everyone else. I shared with the kids that when I was younger, I had big curly hair, big glasses, would rather read than play sports and constantly felt like I wasn’t like those around me. I spent a lot of years trying to be like other kids instead of realizing my own individual strengths. Reading the book Exclamation Mark showed me that other people must feel this way too and the lessons that the Exclamation Mark (the main character of this delightful story) learned, are lessons that I had to learn as well. I told them that I wished I had read this book as a child because I know it would have helped me to feel less alone.
I stopped to talk with the students about what happens when we feel less alone. We came down to this: When we feel less alone, we feel more brave.
So if we pushed that thinking, then we could reasonably say that reading books, and learning to see ourselves in books, will make us braver.
So after that first discussion, I introduced the concept of books being both windows and mirrors. We can see ourselves reflected in books (books as mirrors) and we can see into other people’s lives through the books we read (books as windows). Windows and mirrors. Both of these kinds of books can bring us connections. But these connections are so much more complex and genuine than what we often ask students to think about. These connections not only help us to better understand what we read. These connections can make us braver.
We are starting with books as mirrors. We are starting to learn about the many ways we can see ourselves in the books we read. We had the most incredible moment in class when I asked the kids to think about moments when they read books that they saw themselves in. The kids were so incredibly open and honest. They quickly began sharing about how they have read books that helped them feel like they weren’t the only ones trying to fit in. They shared books that showed them that other people also worried about not looking like everyone else. One boy shared how the character of Percy Jackson helped him to see that even if he got in trouble in school sometimes, he could still do really great things. I mean…this stuff was gold!
After the kids showed me what it meant to be open and honest, I figured that it was my turn. So the next day, I read them Patricia Poloacco’s incredible book In Our Mothers’ House. The book shares the story of a lesbian couple and their three adopted children. I shared with the kids that when I read this book for the first time, I felt so happy. Not only did I see myself reflected in the characters of the mothers, but I knew that one day, my daughter, Millie, would read this book and see herself reflected in the characters of the adopted children.
After this lesson, I started asking the kids to look for places in their independent reading books where they might be able to see themselves in their characters. When we pulled back together to share what they noticed, they mentioned that it was hard because their characters weren’t really that much like them. The kids weren’t able to see themselves yet in their own books because I hadn’t shown them the many different ways we can see ourselves in our books.
I knew that we needed to do a bit more work on helping the students to see specific ways that they could see themselves reflected in the books that they were reading, even when those books had characters who were not exactly like them. This meant I needed to do some more modeling.
So today, I began the book Mr. Lincoln’s Way. Another Patricia Polacco treasure. The main characters in this book were a male elementary school principal and young boy, two characters who were not similar to who I am. As I began to read the book, I stopped to share moments when I saw myself reflected in Mr. Lincoln (the principal) and when I saw myself reflected in Eugene (the boy). I also shared what these connections helped me to understand about the book. I asked the kids to listen for the different ways I saw myself in this book and how these moments helped me to better understand the book.
After reading for a bit, we stopped to chart our observations. We came up with the following list:
We can see ourselves reflected in…
*Who our characters are
*The situations our characters are in
*The emotions our characters are feeling
*The personalities and characteristics of our characters
*The relationships between characters
*The conflicts our characters are facing
*The lessons our characters are learning
*The motivations of our characters
After creating this list, we then began to answer another, harder, question: How does seeing ourselves in our texts help us to better understand those texts and our own lives?
Here is what the kids came up with so far:
Seeing ourselves in our books can help us to…
*Understand, with both our hearts and minds, what characters are feeling
*Understand why characters are doing certain things or making certain choices
*Understand why characters are starting to change
*Understand why characters feel a certain way about other characters
*Figure out how to deal with things in our own lives
*Feel connected to others in the world and allow us to feel more brave knowing we are not alone
We have only read half of the book so far and we will continue reading more tomorrow. But already, I am blown away by what the students were already able to understand. I am blown away by how changing the way we looked at connections, just slightly, has brought about an incredible deepening of thought. And I am blown away by how willing students were to open themselves up to this kind of thinking.
We have a long way to go still and there are many things that we still have to think about and discuss, but so far I have been so grateful for this new way of looking at connections. I look forward to continuing to talk about the many ways children see themselves reflected in books, pushing further to think about groups of children who might not often see themselves reflected in books, and then starting to look at how books can not only reflect ourselves, but how they can teach us about others who are vastly different than us and build our empathy for others.
It is exciting to think about what else we will discover together about using books as mirrors and windows.