For the past few years, I have started my literacy studio year with a unit on Inquiry Into Story. For the first part of the school year, my students and I study story, both nonfiction and fiction, both as readers and as writers. We begin our unit by looking at Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work on books as mirrors and windows.
As in past years, we began with an overall discussion of how the books we read can act as both mirrors and windows. After a brief introduction, I ask my students to think about the books that they have read that have served as both. I am always blown away by how many titles they can come up with and the powerful discussion that always ensues.
We then begin to take a close look at how we can use stories as mirrors. I ask my students to think about how books can help us to feel less alone in the world.
This year, after our first discussion, I shared the incredible and gorgeous and powerful picture book by Jacquline Woodson, The Day You Begin. If you have not yet read this picture book, please fix that immediately. This is truly one of the most beautiful picture books that I have ever read.
I shared this book and stopped to tell students how I saw myself reflected in the book and how seeing myself helped me as a reader and as a human being. After sharing my thinking, my students and I brainstormed all the ways readers can see themselves in the stories they read and the different ways this can help us. Here are the charts where I summarized what we came up with:
With this in mind, my students then looked at a variety of other short texts and practiced thinking about how they could see themselves in a variety of ways in these texts and thinking, writing and talking about how seeing themselves helped them.
Our final work with this idea had the students looking through the picture books in our classroom library, looking for books where they could see themselves reflected and writing about how this helped them. I was blown away, as I am every year, at what my students found and how bravely they were willing to share.
This work also gave as a chance to introduce the idea that some groups of people traditionally have had an easier time seeing themselves reflected in the books that are in their classrooms than other groups of people. This is a concept we will spend much more time exploring later on in the year, but I am always grateful to have the chance to bring this idea up early on in the school year.
One of the things that I love most about the work we do with stories as mirrors is that it gives my fifth graders practice slowing down and being reflective about what they are reading. I am not asking them to understand WHAT is happening in their books. I do not want them thinking about the plot. Instead, I am asking them to look at their books in a different way in order to see themselves within them. I am asking them to slow down in order to think more deeply about themselves as readers and how they are interacting with the texts in front of them.
I notice that each year, the slowing down seems to get more difficult. I look at the fast-paced world that these kids are living in and I get why it feels uncomfortable to move slowly. In fact, some days it feels downright painful. But the beauty of this work is that by slowing down, we are able to uncover so much more about our texts. This is the groundwork for the critical reading that we will do throughout our fifth grade year together and it is amazing to watch it develop, even as my students resist it. The difficulty they have, the discomfort they feel, it is not a sign to me that I need to turn away, but rather a sign that I need to lean in, together with my students, and help them to see their texts in a new way.
Once we have spent a few weeks looking at stories as mirrors, we are ready to move on to looking at stories as windows. One of the things that I notice about my students as readers is that they are REALLY good at reading texts where the main characters remind them of themselves. Even if they do not share all aspects of a character’s identity, if the characters life seems similar to their own, they are able to navigate the text easily. However, my students have a harder time understanding and sticking with texts where the characters and the character’s lives are vastly different than their own. They struggle to read texts that take place in other countries, they struggle to read texts where the main character’s culture is vastly different than their own. Many of my students have the privilege of existing within the cultures, identities and families that children’s books have traditionally been written about. They have never struggled to find themselves in the texts around them. They have been grossly overrepresented in the books that they have read. And I truly believe this has caused deficits in their abilities to tackle texts that center lives that feel different to them.
When I think about this struggle, that many of them experience with books, I realize that this struggle is not limited to the stories they read. Those who have lived their lives being overrepresented, do not always have the skills built up to be able to understand the lives of others. So, if I can provide them with stories and provide them with strategies to better learn about others through the stories they tell, then just maybe I can also arm them with the skills and strategies that they will need to better listen to the people they share this world with and better understand other people as well. That is my hope at least.
So as we move into our work using stories as windows, I am always thinking about how they might be able to apply the skills and strategies that we are learning beyond our classroom, beyond the texts that they are given and out into the world as they encounter all sorts of people who have all sorts of stories to share.
And that is where we began.
Since we had spent so much time practicing seeing ourselves in the stories that we read, I wanted to start there. We talked about the first step in understanding someone else’s story is really listening. Sometimes, when we listen or read the words that another person is telling us, we might see ourselves reflected within that story. Sometimes this can happen in unexpected ways. Seeing ourselves in the stories people tell can help up to build empathy and understanding. But it is not enough.
We also need to listen to the new information that a person is telling us through their story. The information that is not something we know or have experienced. We have to see this information as the person’s truth. Even when it is different from what we know about the world. When think of how we see ourselves in a person’s story AND we listen to the new information that a person is giving us through their story, then we are working towards better understanding.
But there will also be parts of a person’s story that will leave us with questions. Our job then is to notice those moments and seek out additional information instead of attempting to fill in the answers to those questions purely based on assumptions or misinformation.
So when we are reading stories from other people’s lives or when we are listening to people tell their own stories, we need to be aware of all three types of thinking that might be going on. Here are the charts that I used to summarize this conversation:
And then we dug into our first text. This past summer, I read the book Hope Nation. It is a brilliant collection of stories, from a wide variety of humans, all speaking about lessons of hope in a world that can feel so unhopeful. While I would not quite give this book to my fifth graders to tackle independently, when I was thinking about what texts to use for this work, I knew that there were stories from this book that would work perfectly.
So we began with a short story by Marie Lu that is titled, “Surviving.” As with all of the work we do, I began with modeling. I started reading the text and stopped to code the text in places where I was able to see myself, places where I learned something new about the writer’s life or about the world and places where I was left with a question. This is what that looked like:
After modeling this note taking for part of the story, I continued to read the story out loud, but then asked my students to take over coding the text.
When we had gotten to through the whole text, I asked students to look back and reflect on the notes that they had taken. And then I asked them to answer these three questions:
- What did this story help you to understand about the writer’s life?
- What did this story help you to understand about the world?
- What questions does this story leave you with that could lead you to more information and understanding?
After giving the students some time to reflect in writing, I then put the kids together into groups. We took one question at a time and I asked the students to share and discuss their answers as a group. After a few minutes, I gave each group one post-it note and asked them to try to synthesize their conversations in answer to each question. We collected our post-it notes on a class chart:
As the kids worked in their groups, I worked my way from group to group and conducted some guided reading lessons to help students tie their understandings back to the text and then to also help them to push their understandings beyond the text. It was amazing to hear how these kids were starting to talk about texts and it was even more amazing to hear how these kids were starting to talk about what we can learn about the world by listening to the stories that people are willing to tell from their own lives.
This work is not easy. There are many students who sat quietly (or not so quietly) during these discussions. Perhaps they weren’t quite ready yet to tackle this work, perhaps they still need time to develop the skills that will help them to access this deeper thinking, but they were there and they heard the conversations and they found ways to contribute and I have so much faith that even those who were not ready to share their thinking, were walking away changed by this work.
In the days that followed, I had my students practice these skills in other stories and with other picture books. And then finally, we returned to another story from Hope Nation, this one written by Christina Diaz Gonzales, titled, “Baseball Pasta.” And I used this story as an assessment. I read the story to the kids, they coded the text and then answered the three questions we had been working with.
What this assessment gave me was indeed information about what they had learned to do as readers, how they had learned to think deeply about a text, how they were able to tie their understanding to specific pieces of evidence in the text and how they were able to transfer their understanding beyond the text.
But it also gave me something else, it gave me a glimpse into how hopeful our future can be. If we are willing to take the time to teach our students how to read in a different way, how to truly listen and learn from the stories that people are telling us, then we have a hope of raising students who are better able to understand the lives of people whose lives might be vastly different than their own. And what a difference that would make. Because every day I watch the news and I see a lack of understanding, an inability to really listen to the stories that others are telling and screaming and shouting and hoping will be heard and understood. And I like to envision a world where we do a better job of listening, a better job of understanding and a better job of seeing the people we share this world with and the stories they are sharing.