During summers at the Long Island Writing Project, each day began as predictably as a sunrise, with "shared reading." That meant one of the participants or facilitators would bring in a text to read aloud to the group. The texts could be anything- a picture book, poem, article, excerpt from a novel...whatever the reader selected. The group would listen and then as the last word was spoken, pens would be picked up and start dancing across notebook pages, the words lingering in the air as inspiration arrived.
There was one shared reading that always seemed to be chosen to open up the Summer Invitational Institute. It was a chapter from a memoir, The Moon and I, by Betsy Byars. The chapter was entitled, "Miss Harriet's Room." In this chapter, a young Betsy describes how she always wanted Miss Harriet to be her first teacher after witnessing her older sibling delight in being Miss Harriet's student. When the first day of school arrived for Betsy, the children were divided up into different classes and Betsy was given another teacher- not Miss Harriet. She ignored instructions and followed Miss Harriet instead, refusing to give up on the idea that Miss Harriet would be her teacher. After being feared to be lost, she was discovered to be in Miss Harriet's room and the principal tried to make her leave. Miss Harriet intervened and said, "Let her stay" and so Besty was able to be one of Miss Harriet's students. She wrote that many things in life disappointed and did not live up to expectations, but Miss Harriet did not disappoint!
One of the things she loved about Miss Harriet was the way she read stories to the class in a way that made the book come alive. Today I watched with interest a TED talk about the importance of reading aloud to students of all ages. I still had Donalyn Miller's recent Nerdy Book Club blog post, "Getting on the Bus" percolating in my mind as I watched Rebecca Billingham talk about the value of reading aloud. Donalyn wrote, "Teachers who read are more effective in engaging children with reading, more likely to use recommended literacy practices in the classroom, and more likely to provide students authentic opportunities to share book recommendations and responses with each other." Later in the post, she writes, "It's not enough to count our blessings when our own schools and the schools in our communities do more to engage teachers, children, and families with reading. Children's reading lives should not depend on their luck in getting a teacher who knows about books or a school with a librarian. All children deserve these opportunities. Every year."
From Donalyn's post, I took away that it's not enough to be Miss Harriet, to be the teacher who reads and shares this love with students. As teachers walking the walk, the ones in the choir she is preaching to, Donalyn is issuing a charge: "Lifting up children's literature and celebrating it doesn't lift up children if they never see these books and read them. I am confident that we can do more together."
Donalyn's post has stayed with me and like a riddle I cannot solve, it rattles around my brain as I try to think of solutions about the more we can do. If we as teachers do not read and write in our own "real" lives, how can we expect our students to value reading and writing as anything more than school work? How can time be carved out for teachers to have conversations with each other about books- children's books and professional books? How would those conversations change the culture of a school? How can a classroom teacher, often low man on the totem pole, be an agent of change and inspire colleagues to read more?
I have many questions and not many answers. But, I'll borrow from Oprah and end with "what I know for sure." What I know for sure is being a reader has made me a kinder, more empathetic, wiser person. Being a reader has enriched my life in innumerable ways and made me a better person. Being a reader has brought me joy and solace in difficult times. Being a teacher gives me the unique opportunity to show students the power that reading can have in their lives if they only let it. As Kate DiCamillo said, “We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world.” And while presidential candidates scream about building walls, I can't help but think we desperately need more of that.