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.