Modeling Vulnerability

Our very first unit in reading workshop is on using books as both mirrors and windows.  This means, that we will look at how we can see ourselves reflected in the books we read in order to feel stronger and feel a part of a greater community in the world.  We can also use books as windows to see into the lives of others in order to build empathy and understanding for those whose lives are vastly different than our own.  

We began last week with our work. I explained the concept of books as mirrors and windows briefly, knowing that my students would not even begin to really grasp the idea until we did much more work. And then I shared with students how sometimes, something amazing happens when we read a book. Sometimes, we start to see ourselves, or some part of ourselves, in the characters we are reading about. We start to see ourselves in our books. We start to see our lives, our struggles, our worries, our fears, our successes, our families, our cultures showing up and being lived in the pages of our books. And this gives us strength. This makes us feel less alone in this world. This gives us guidance in how to deal with our own lives. This makes us feel as if we are seen. We are worthy. We are like others. We are a part of something larger than just ourselves.

And that is powerful.

So I ask my students if this has ever happened to them. A few students talked in generalities about seeing characters who reminded them of people in their own lives or even of themselves. And then this year, I had two exceptionally brave souls. One was a girl who said that she saw herself reflected in a book when she read Smile by Raina Telgemeier. My student explained that Raina worried about not fitting in, about being different just as my student worried about those things. But then my student saw that Raina survived. Raina made it through just fine and she then realized that she could make it through too. Another boy spoke of Percy Jackson. He said that one of the reasons that he loved Rick Riordan’s book The Lightning Thief so much was that Percy was a boy just like him. A boy who got in trouble, who didn’t always do well in school, but then Percy got to be the hero. And my student, he said he liked that.

I was nearly in tears after both of these students spoke. But more than that, I was in awe. I was in awe of the bravery of these kids. To speak this freely in front of their classmates. To tell these things to me, their teacher, who they barely even know at this point. That is bravery.

What they showed me is their capability to make themselves vulnerable. To be willing to share the deepest parts of themselves. To leave behind the worry of how others would react and share these moments and glimpses into their lives with us all.  

And it made me think. I need to do that more in my classroom. I need to model the very vulnerability that my students just modeled for me.

So tomorrow. I am bringing in Patricia Polacco’s amazing book In Our Mothers’ House to share with the students. And I am going to read it in a different way than I have in the past. You see, this book is about a two-mom family and their three adopted children. This book, is a mirror book for me. Within the pages of this book, I see my own family. A two-mom family with one adopted child. And that is the part that I shared with my students last year. That is as vulnerable as I made myself.

But this year. This year I have been inspired by the bravery of my students.

This year, I plan to share all of the ways that I see myself and my family reflected in this book. I want to share with them that when I hear the moms speak of the feelings of bringing home their children, who were not born to them, but were as much a part of their family as any other child could be, I immediately know what that feeling is like. I know what it is like to walk into a home carrying a child who is a part of you and a part of someone else too. Seeing myself reflected in this way helps me to understand the relationship these children have with their moms and it also allows me to feel connected to a larger community of adoptive mothers.  

And then, when there is a neighbor who glares at the family and tells her children not to play with the children in this family, I want to tell my students that I see my family reflected here too. I have seen the looks of others who do not think that our family is as good as a family with a mom and a dad. I want to share with my students that I know the sting that these mothers feel when the neighbor quickly shuts her door. I know how they are feeling and I know their fierce desire to protect their children from the hatred of others. I understand why they do what they do in response to this woman. I know their feelings and I know their motivations. Seeing myself reflected helps me to understand the characters of the mothers and it also helps me to know that this neighbor is not just cranky and mean because she is cranky and mean, she disapproves of this family because they are different than her own.  And knowing that I am not alone in feeling this reaction. Knowing that others have felt this sting too. That makes me feel so much less alone. It doesn’t make it any easier to stomach, but it does give me strength in knowing that I am not alone.

And when these mothers, and their gorgeous children, come face to face with this woman, and her hatred, they are quickly surrounded by the love of their neighbors. And this part. This part gives me hope. Because this is my greatest fear. And I want my students to know that. I want them to know that when I read this book and I see myself in it, I am seeing one of my worst fears played out. And then I am also able to see something else. I am able to see how to deal with this fear. That there is a way through it. I watch the characters in this book bravely confront bigotry and I am able to learn from them ways to deal with it myself when the time comes. And it gives me hope. Hope that when, and if, the time comes when we come face to face with someone else’s hatred that there will be people who love us who will stand by us and surround us with their love. This book gives me hope that we will be okay. That our daughter will be okay. Because we will have the love of others to keep us safe. Seeing what happens in this book that so very closely reflects my own life, this gives me strength and hope for how my own problems will play out.

I have never shared these things with my students before, though I think them every single time I read this book out loud. Something has always stopped me. I was afraid to be vulnerable. I was afraid to show them that I fear and worry and care what other people think of me. But if I am asking my students to be vulnerable. If I am watching them make themselves vulnerable on the third and fourth day of the school year. Then I had better be willing to model that same kind of vulnerability myself.

Reimagining The First Reading and Writing Units of the Year

This summer has already been more reflective than any other summer I have lived through. This turns out to be not the best timing since I am spending my days with a VERY active 18 month old child who mostly wants nothing to do with reflection. In other words, there has not been a whole lot of sitting still this summer.  And though this leads to a sort of exhaustion that my body has previously not known,  most nights it is hard for me to fall asleep because my mind just won’t turn off.  I am constantly reimagining the kind of teacher that I want to be in the Fall.  I am reimagining what my first few days of school will look like, what my classroom will look like, how I will greet the kids and for the past few nights I have been kept awake by thoughts of our first reading and writing units.

As I have shared before, I have reached a dangerous place in my teaching career.  I have figured out how to teach a lot of what I have to teach and I have been able to do it in a pretty successful way.  And last year, that lead me to a dangerous place.  I didn’t change a whole lot.  I settled for what had worked in the past, even when I knew things could be better.  I don’t think that I harmed any children in the process, it’s just that I know I could have done better.  So this year, I want to do things in a more meaningful way.  I don’t want to change things for the sake of changing things.  I want to make them better, more purposeful and more authentic.

Every year, our writing workshop starts with personal narratives and memoirs.  Our reading workshop begins with understanding how to make connections to texts beyond just making connections to make a teacher happy.  We spend a lot of time discussing and learning how to recognize connections to our texts that truly lead to deeper understanding, especially when we have little shared experiences or prior knowledge to go along with the text we are reading.  We then spend time learning how to effectively write about these connections and discuss these connections with others.  And every year, these are great units.  There is a lot of deep discussion. These units allow me to get to know my students better and they build reading and writing communities that sustain us throughout the year.

But I have started to do a lot of thinking about all of the opportunities that I have been missing with these units.  I believe that the lessons are important, but I believe that we can make our work more authentic and meaningful.  Here are some of the things that I have been thinking.

I want to turn our “connections” study into a study of how literature and non-fiction texts can serve to be both “windows” and “mirrors.” This is a concept that I, as a teacher, have read a lot about and thought a lot about and I think it could provide interesting learning for us as a class.  I want to take a look at how texts can be “windows” into people’s lives who are vastly different than our own. I also want to take a look at how texts can be “mirrors” which reflect our own lives and allow us to feel connected to a larger world and larger communities.  I want to ask my students how texts have been both windows and mirrors for them.

To help get the conversation going, I want to share the book “In Our Mothers’ House” by Patricia Polacco with my students.  The book is about a two-mom family with three adopted children.  The book tells the story of the family and the community that they live in.  The vast majority of the community welcomes the family as they would any other family. And there is only one woman who does not want her children to play with the children of the two-mom family.  I read the story with my students each year, but I think that I could do more with it. That is, if I am willing to make myself vulnerable (which I happen to know, always leads to the best learning experiences).

I would like to talk to my students about the reason that I love this book. I love that this book acts as a “mirror” for my family.  I see myself in the characters of the two moms and I see my daughter, Millie, in the characters of the kids.  And even more importantly, I love knowing that when Millie gets older, she, too, will be able to see herself and her own family reflected in this book, which will not be the case for the majority of books that she will read (though this is starting to get so much better).

I also want to share that this book acts as a “window” for me.  It allows me to see into the lives of people who might not accept my family or who might pass messages of intolerance onto their children.  While I wish people like this didn’t exist in the world, this book allows me to see into their lives and understand the power of their hate.  It also allows me to see into the lives of the many supportive families that exist in the world and understand that though hate is powerful, a community that accepts those who are different will always be able to overcome that hate.

I want my students to know that books are “windows” and “mirrors” for me.  I believe that this will allow them to start to talk about how books are “windows” and “mirrors” for them as well. I would like to wrap our discussion of connecting to texts into this discussion.  I want to show them that connecting to texts can make us feel less alone in the world.  It can make us feel valued and worthy. It can unite people and teach people. It can help us to understand the characters whose lives we are reading about.  And it can also help us to build empathy for those we might not understand.

From there, I would like to guide my students into an investigation of the books that we are reading.  I want to look at the types of people who are reflected most often in these books. I then want to look at the type of people are NOT being reflected in the books that we read.  Whose stories are NOT being told? I imagine that my students will start to see holes and gaps in the types of characters that we are reading about and those who we are not reading about.  I imagine that they will start to feel the injustice of this situation and I hope that they will be moved to some sort of action. But that will be up for them to decide and discover.

As we do this work in reading workshop, I would like to connect our work in writing workshop. I would like to talk about how, as writers, we are given the power to share our stories with others so that we can make people feel less alone in this world.  When we write our own stories, we are reflecting who we are through our writing.

This year, as I have mentioned, I hope to begin blogging with my students.  I believe that this will provide the perfect audience for the first pieces of writing that I want to do with my students.  I hope to share with them that as bloggers, our writing reveals who we are to the world.  And the first stories that we will be writing, will be posted on their blogs, to begin to show the world who they all are.  With that purpose in mind, I will guide my students in selecting moments from their lives that reveal something about who they are.  These are the stories we need to share.  These are the stories that demand to be written.

I am also thinking that once we start to discover whose stories are NOT being told, we might be able to do some fiction writing (which we never do enough of in the upper elementary grades). Perhaps we can begin to look at whose stories are missing from our libraries and begin to create fictional stories that introduce more characters that will allow more kinds of people to see themselves reflected in books.

I guess I wrote this post more for myself than for anyone else. I can’t imagine it would be interesting for anyone else to read.  I just needed to get some of these plans down, so that perhaps I can actually start to fall asleep again at night! I know that these plans will change.  I know that I will be guided by my students and I also know that I have to start somewhere.

If anyone should happen to read these ramblings, please feel free to leave suggestions as a comment.  I am so eager to hear other people’s ideas and to learn from the things that others have already done.