It is hard to imagine the start of our reading year without the brilliant work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and her explanation of books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. If you aren’t familiar with her work, here is a quick clip of her explaining the concept which she first coined back in 1990. None of what follows would be happening, if I had not been exposed to her work and thinking.
At the start of the school year, I used to focus on helping the students make meaningful connections to the texts that they read. We focused not only on making connections, but also on articulating how these connections helped us as readers. And then, as a teacher, I began to try to shift the work that I do in my classroom to be more authentic and to better match the work that humans do in the world outside of my classroom. I wanted the teaching of reading to be less about covering a checklist of skills and more about teaching them how to use reading and writing in order to make the world a better place.
And so I began to shift our focus on connecting as readers to, instead, thinking about how readers can use books as both mirrors and windows. In this way, we could focus not only on how making these connections helps us as readers, but also how it helps us as human beings.
After that first shift, I then made another shift as I wanted to combine our first reading and writing units into an Inquiry into Story. The thinking behind this can be found in THIS POST and THIS POST. So now, as we begin our school year together as readers, much of our work focuses on learning to better read the stories that other people tell from their own lives. We begin this work by thinking about how we can use true stories from people’s lives as both mirrors and windows.
***AS A SIDE NOTE: Last year, I created a new structure for our literacy work. As a district, we have been moving towards Ellin Keene’s brilliant idea of a Literacy Studio model. I described some of my thinking behind this in THIS POST from last year. This allows me to set aside a portion of our literacy time as independent work time. This is when students are choosing to either work on reading or writing. During this time, I am conferring and helping students set student-written reading goals and writing goals which they keep track of in their reading journals or in the writing they are doing.
At the start of the school year, all of my lessons on what we do as readers and the lessons that establish our routines of independent work, take place during this independent work time. This time is dedicated to individual goals that students set for themselves. Then, the rest of our Literacy Studio time is set aside for us to work on class reading and writing goals. This is when we “cover” our curriculum. So the work that I am doing with kids on stories as mirrors and windows takes place during this time because I have been able to wrap our reading and writing learning targets into this work. I thought this was important to explain so that people did not wonder how I had time to do all of this work! I am also lucky enough to work in a district that ensures two hours of literacy instruction each day. ***
So during the first weeks of school, during our literacy studio reading focus time, I introduced to my students our first reading and writing units by explaining how we would work on our Inquiry into Story. Here are the charts that I created to help them understand the work we would be doing. The learning targets are a combination of our district learning targets for our first reading and writing units, the common core standards and Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards.
Creating these charts was probably more for myself than for my students. When I do this work, it is important for me to make sure that I am balancing the things that I have to teach to cover curriculum with the things that I want to teach in order to remain hopeful that my students are going out into the world and using reading and writing to make this world a better place. Crafting these learning targets helps me to do that. It also helps me to know if I am being successful in teaching these skills because I have learning targets to guide me as I look for evidence in the students’ work that shows me they are meeting these targets.
So once I have introduced the BIG ideas to the kids, then we are able to get to work on some specifics. As writers, this takes us into a study of memoir writing. That is for a different post on a different day. But as readers, this work takes us into a study of how we can use the stories that other people tell from their own lives as both mirrors and windows.
We begin by thinking about what this concept means:
After spending some time talking about this concept and explaining that we would work as readers in order to think more deeply about how we saw ourselves reflected in the stories of others and then also how we could see into the lives of others through the stories that they tell, then we started to think about some books that we have read that allowed us to do both of these things. Here are some of the titles they discussed:
It was so powerful to hear them think back on the books that they had read and talk about how they have been both mirrors and windows for them. I realized that this was the first conversation where I was really able to see my students pushing their own thinking. They were willing to think about texts in new ways and reflect back on their reading in a way that allowed them to see more than just the plot of the book. This was a first for us this year.
After our initial discussion, we started to look more closely at how we might use the stories of others as mirrors. I asked the kids to think about a book that made them feel less alone in the world. I told them that these were often mirror books. I shared with them that I do not often see my own family reflected in books because more families in children’s books have a mom and a dad, but my own family was my daughter and her two moms. I told them that when I found a book that had a two-mom family, it made me feel less alone in the world.
I then began by modeling the thinking that might occur as we read through a book that is a mirror for us. This part of the work is always a little bit scary for me, but I figure that if I am going to ask my students to make themselves vulnerable and share how they see themselves in the texts that they read, then I had better be willing to do that myself. So the first book that I read to them is Patricia Polacco’s, In Our Mothers’ House. For those of you who have not read this book, it tells the story of a family with two moms and three adopted children. (An important note: The brilliant Dana Stachowiak speaks about the problematic and stereotyped representation of the lesbian moms in this book. This is something I continue to wrestle with. I agree with her one-hundred precent AND I still continue to use this book because it truly is one of the ONLY books in which I see my own family reflected in a way that feels genuine and authentic. And still, I believe it is incredibly important to make this note.)
As I read through In Our Mothers’ House, I stop and share with my students the many ways that I am able to see myself and my own life reflected in this book. And, more importantly, I stop to share with them how seeing myself reflected helps me as both a reader and as a human being. As I read and share, I ask my students to notice the ways that I am able to see myself AND the ways that this helps me as both a reader and as a human. After I finish reading and modeling my thinking, we come together to chart the ways that they noticed this helping me as both a reader and as a human being. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:
After making this chart together, we went back to a short story that we had used as a mentor text as we were learning how to write stories from our own lives. We used the story “Principals and Principles,” from the short story anthology Guys Write, Guys Read. We had first read this story in order to look at how writers can weave reflection into their writing in order to show readers what the writer learned or realized from a moment in their life. As readers, we were now going back into this text to look for ways that we could see ourselves reflected in the story.
I asked the kids to think about all of the ways that I saw myself in the story I read and then work to write down the ways they saw themselves in this new text. The students wrote their ideas down on the margins of the story and then used this as the basis of some small group discussions. When they got into groups, I asked the students to share how they saw themselves and then also talk about how this helped them as a reader or as a human being. I asked them to push each other by asking the question, “How did this help you as a reader or as a human being?”
As the students talked, I worked my way around the small groups in order to prompt deeper thinking and also to name the many different ways that I noticed them seeing themselves reflected in this story. After the small groups had finished, we came back together and created a large chart (one for each of my two classes) to capture ALL of the different ways we might see ourselves in the stories that we read. Here are the things my students came up with:
After brainstorming this list, it was time to send my students out into our classroom library in order to apply this new way of thinking. So the next day, I began our work by reading the kids the book Scaredy Squirrel. I told my students that I saw myself reflected in the book In Our Mothers’ House because the family in that book looked just like my own. But, I also saw myself in the book Scaredy Squirrel because I understand the squirrel’s love of routine and his fear of the unknown. This is something I recognize in myself and see reflected in this book.
After sharing these two very different ways of seeing myself reflected in two very different books, I explained to my students that today they would be heading into our bins of picture books in order to look for books where they saw themselves reflected in some way. I asked them to think about the many different ways they could see themselves and look for books that might show themselves reflected in different ways. I then handed out THIS PACKET for them to keep track of what they found.
As students spread out with stacks of picture books, I made my way around the room to stop and chat with my readers. I asked them questions to help push their thinking. I asked them, “How do you see yourself in this book?” and then, “How does this help you better understand this book or how might it help you simply as a human being?”
It was so powerful to hear the students’ responses to these questions. I was so impressed with their willingness to be vulnerable and could hear the ways that many of their thinking was beginning to deepen. I also realized at this point how important it was for me to make sure that before I sent my students off into my classroom library, that I had worked to bring a wide variety of stories and lives into that library. For the past few years I have worked to gather stories that represent the wide variety of humans who we share this world with. During this activity, I was so grateful that these books were there because they allowed each of my students to find themselves in some way.
We then came back together the next day and I asked for people to share the things that they found, if they felt comfortable. What a powerful moment this was for each of my classes. More than any ice breaker could ever have done, this form of sharing began to solidify the community of readers and humans that we were just beginning to form. At this point, we had been together for several weeks of school and I was, again, in awe of how the students had started to trust each other and how willing they were to share with each other.
After I thanked them for being so brave and for sharing what they found, I introduced the idea that some people might have an easier time seeing their lives reflected in books made for children. I talked again about how hard it was for me to find books where my own family was reflected. We began to talk about why this might be and the problems that this showed us about the world of children’s literature and the world outside of children’s literature as well. These were just the very beginnings of a much larger and an extremely important conversations. But this work and these thoughts have started a conversation that we will continue to build on as we work our way through this school year. We will pick back up on this idea when we switch to focusing on stories as windows and how we have a responsibility to seek out the stories that are not always heard.
As this first part of our work together came to an end, I realized that important changes were starting to happen in our classroom. Changes that gave glimmers of goodness that I know will continue to grow throughout the year. It’s hard to see those glimmers of goodness sometimes in the first weeks of the school year because there are still so many things that the students do not yet know. However, when I step back and reflect on it, I realize that we are laying important groundwork for what is still to come. We are learning to think about reading as more than just a checklist of skills to be applied. We are starting to think about power and who has been given more of it and who has to fight to get it. We are starting to talk to each other and listen to each other. And most importantly, we are starting to build the community that we will need as we move forward together into the kind of work that will require trust, vulnerability and communication in the future.
In my next blog post, I will write about the work that we are now doing to learn how to use the stories that other people tell in order to learn about those whose lives might be vastly differently than our own. This will be the work that we do in order to learn how to use stories as windows.