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Harnessing Our Wonderings for How to Best Use Children’s Literature to Support Students This Year

As children head back to school, virtually, hybrid, or physically distanced, we have been grappling with how to best support children and teachers specifically around the use of children’s literature. Our work at The Classroom Bookshelf has always focused on honoring books as a pathway for children to understand themselves, others, and the world. We believe in the reader and we believe in the book. That hasn’t changed for us but the complexity of this moment leaves us with more questions than answers. In this post, we share the questions we are grappling with and how we are beginning to come to some answers. We also invite you to share your questions or answers with us in the comments section so that we can tailor our posts this year to sharing books, resources, and teaching ideas that support what you and your students need.

Our Wonderings

What can we emphasize to bring greater reading joy to students? 

Katie: Books can be a source of comfort and escape but finding the energy and interest in reading right now may be a challenge for many. Invite students to set simplified reading goals that feel right for them in this moment like: reading to relax, reading to to connect with others, and reading to be surprised or amused. Model the ways in which you are finding reading joy in your own life and the ways it may feel like a struggle (see Donalyn Miller’s column on this topic for ideas). Consider abandoning practices like book logs that may erode reading joy for students and instead establish new practices like daily or weekly book talks by students to build on the social practices that drive student interest which can happen in-person or virtually. 

Grace: It’s also important to remember that different kinds of texts bring joy to students for different reasons. Rather than centering a unit on a particular genre of text (e.g., a historical fiction unit or a poetry unit), thematic units can provide the flexibility to explore a theme through the genre that an individual student might enjoy most. Social justice topics are often centered in realistic or historical fiction, but plenty of fantasy and science fiction books are grounded in social issues, as well. In addition to expanding students’ opportunities to read in the genres they enjoy, consider holding reading conferences every once in a while that are simply about students’ aesthetic responses to what’s in the book. Which characters do they identify with the most, and why? What did they think of the plot twist in Chapter 15? Who do they know that might enjoy reading the book after them?

How can teachers support the emotional lives of students through literacy learning, especially in light of the loss many students may be experiencing?

Mary Ann: In the midst of a global pandemic, we are also experiencing a national reckoning with systemic racism. We have witnessed the very public loss of too many Black lives, lives cut down too soon by police officers. We have seen the ways in which COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color.  Black students, students of color, Indigenous students, White students, students from all parts of the world, students from all religious backgrounds and none, LGBTQIA students, with binary and non-binary gender identities – all of them need our love right now. Our support. And they need information, too. How did we get here? How can fiction, nonfiction, and poetry help students better understand this moment – if it’s possible for any of us to truly understand this moment while we’re living it?  We’re inspired by the many Black authors and illustrators we’ve heard from this summer. We’re moved and pained by Jacob Blake’s sister’s powerful words. How can books like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi contextualize this moment for middle grade readers? How can picture books like the forthcoming All Because You Matter by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier celebrate each child’s potential?  

Denise:  In response to the ongoing forms of systemic racism, School Library Journal highlights many books and resources to support educators in leading classroom conversations about the realities of racism.  As a starting point, see: Antiracist Resources and Reads: Lists for All Ages; Because Black Lives Matter, a Collection of Resources; and Crucial Conversations. First Book’s, Empowering Educators | A Convening on Racial Equity in Education, is also a fine place to begin.  

Erika: In addition to the pain caused by untimely deaths due to violence against people of color and systemic racism, students may have experienced the death of a loved one. They may not have had an opportunity to celebrate the life of the deceased in the way they would have wished and they may not have had access to grief counseling or even to the comfort of extended family members and friends. As we create reading and writing experiences for our students, how can we create spaces within these activities for students to talk about (or reflect on) the losses they have experienced? 

Denise: When we think about the different forms of loss that the United States is presently enduring, we are struck by the possibility that children’s trust in humanity may be diminishing, too. Now is a good time for all of us to renew our commitments to enacting culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies that are inclusive of children’s cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) and spiritual capital (Pérez Huber, 2009).  Supporting children’s emotional lives requires that we recognize children’s spiritual lives, which may or may not be part of any organized religions.  All of us want to feel loved, safe, accepted, and connected to something greater than ourselves. Highlighting these commonalities and holding space for children to talk about their spiritual worldviews can help to begin cultivating pluralistic classroom communities that value both students’ emotional well-being and students’ different cultural perspectives around their places in the world. 

Grace: At the same time, we need to pay attention to when students express a resistance to or a disconnection from our literacy instruction. Resistance and disconnection doesn’t necessarily mean that students are disengaged; rather, they could signal that students are highly engaged in the ways that texts and life intersect. Resistance and disconnection can show how students are reading both the word and the world and having difficulty reconciling the two, especially when the world they are experiencing is so tumultuous and the words they are reading in books and at school seem to disregard their lived experiences. Supporting children’s emotional lives by acknowledging and inquiring into their resistance and disconnection to classroom literacy learning can lead to powerful opportunities for critical literacy, learning, and love. 

How can teachers support students with access to books and captivating content right now?

Mary Ann: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve taken some comfort in virtual museum explorations, which take us to more places in a day than we could ever travel. Our March 25th entry  “Using Online Museum Resources for Literacy Learning’ shared some strategies for harnessing the potential of online content. It’s important to note that museums are having their own moment of reckoning regarding the origins and orientation of their collections. Whether we are teaching virtually from home or from an empty classroom, or with students in socially-distanced classrooms, we can transport them around the world and back in time through art, artifacts, and performances, and we can use those digital experiences to engage students in real-world, real-time interactions with their communities. Can we be virtual and place-based simultaneously, and support students as they get to know their local communities with a new set of eyes, while making sense of their landscape- urban, suburban, or rural- in the context of the rest of the world, to which they are connected digitally? 

Denise:  Supporting students’ access to books with captivating content calls upon us to recognize childrens’ personal curiosities and interests.  Ideally, children’s interests will inform their reading preferences from the pool of texts that are accessible to them. Conversely, depending upon the range of topics and genres in the pool, children’s reading preferences could reveal their curiosities. In preparing surveys or inventories to determine children’s reading interests, it is important to ensure that the instruments we employ are inclusive of a wide range of varied genres, styles, formats, media, and content. The Reading Interest-A-Lyzer, as described in Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisper, is just one sample of a reading inventory survey.  The next step will be to determine if the resources that are available to students accommodate their curiosities. 

How can teachers support students (understandably) struggling to find time or motivation in reading right now?

Erika: Choice has always been a key ingredient in reading motivation, but it is more important than ever right now. While we are passionate about books, we also recognize that our students have varied reading interests. One starting point is to help students to recognize that they are already reading many different kinds of texts – cereal boxes and other food labels, captions and subtitles in YouTube videos, Facebooks, Instagram, and Twitter entries, Apple News stories, magazines and comics, labels and signs. Legitimize these reading experiences, but inviting students to discuss what they are reading, noticing, questioning and understanding. To broaden their reading options, begin by inviting students to name their interests – what are they passionate about, what do they wonder about, what do they want to spend time learning about? Have students create a two column chart – on the left side listing their interests. On the right side, support students to list reading materials that they can access to connect and go deeper with each of these interests. 

Denise:  Motivating young children can be supported by making reading a special event at home.  Having comfort and routine during uncertain times can be soothing to all members of the family.  If possible, establishing 15 – 20 minutes of sustained, uninterrupted quiet time in which everyone sits together, sans the bings and buzzes of digital devices, can help.  An older member of the family could start-off the reading and the child could continue.  Moreover, selecting humorous books that make everyone chuckle could go a long way in elevating children’s morale at a time when their opportunities for connecting with peers is limited.  As the sayings go, “humor is good for one’s health” and “laughter is the best medicine”!

How can teachers engage students in conversations about books, content connections, and their personal responses remotely? What are some alternatives to traditional reader response notebooks?

Katie: Traditional notebooks still hold a place in our instruction and are a vital pathway for learners who express their thinking through words, drawing, and sketchnoting. But, some schools, particularly those that are fully virtual, may be looking at alternatives to traditional notebooks to give students space to share their thinking. One possibility via SlidesMania that replicates notebooks in a digital space is to use Google Slides to create a Digital Reading Notebook and to customize the tabs to reflect the kinds of reading and writing students will be engaged in. Another powerful alternative for student response includes personal Padlets for students to share their thinking through writing, photos, audiorecording, and video. 

Erika: Social interaction and personal connection are at the forefront of teachers’ thoughts and conversations about remote learning. What are the ways that we can connect with and create connections among our students through digital tools and video conferencing? We know from a well established body of theory backed with research that it is dialogue around books that sparks learning, not just the reading of the book itself. This spring we offered a set of teaching invitations for Reading Together…Books as a Site for Connection and Comfort. This entry offers a range of possibilities for connecting online around books. Have you tried any of these methods? What other ways are you engaging your students in dialogue about their reading? 

Grace: There’s been a lot of talk in both the public and professional sphere about how even when we get through this pandemic, what we know as school will never be the same. But that could be a good thing in some ways, particularly around the opportunities for supporting multiliteracies and 21st century skills. Readers respond to texts in all sorts of ways, and through all types of modalities–talking, drawing, moving, playing, composing, performing, not just writing–and we can encourage those kinds of responses, while still holding students accountable to the close reading skills our curricular standards may require. Our entry this spring on Feeling It All Through Reading, Writing, Creating and ILA and NCTE’s ReadWriteThink’s article on Teaching with Multiple Modalities offers some ideas to do this.

What are you hoping for now?: What are the ways schools might be changing for the better and what do those changes mean for literacy learning, in particular?

Katie: Beyond the safety and well-being of children and teachers, my greatest hope is that this moment fosters deep reflection on what we prioritize in the education of our children. The recent loss of Sir Ken Robinson has reminded me of the power of his words and the legacy he leaves behind for us to radically change the purpose of education: “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” The sudden shift to virtual learning for children around the world this year meant that new possibilities emerged for how students express their thinking and the ways in which their interests and identities have been valued. Teachers have drawn on their most creative selves and have fostered that creativity in their students. This moment challenges us to reimagine the social enterprise of school itself and to create something more just and more joyful for all students. 

Erika: Let’s use this moment to reflect on what truly and deeply matters in education! Let’s find ways to listen and connect with children and to craft educational experiences as partners with them. ‘Curriculum’ has so many definitions and so many interpretations. Early childhood educators use the term Emergent Curriculum, which positions teachers and their students as co-learners. Teachers closely observe children at play, documenting key moments and patterns of interest and collaboration. From these observations they provide materials, texts, and activities that serve as provocations to new interactions and understandings (learning). How might we all adopt an emergent curriculum mindset this fall? Given the constraints of our new learning contexts, such as required standards and technology platforms, how can we co-construct a meaningful curriculum in which each student has an opportunity to build from their experiences and interests to a broader and more collective understanding of their world? 

Denise: We are hoping for a silver lining in that children’s home literacy practices will become more visible to educators as teachers enter into children’s homes via online learning.

Grace: I echo what my colleagues have said, and I hope for the creativity, opportunity, and commitment this all brings for working toward social justice and equity in education.   

Mary Ann: This particular moment in time allows us to consider learning should happen within the four walls of school, and what is possible and transformative about the kind of teaching and learning that can happen beyond any walls – school, home, or otherwise. We’ve seen what’s lost when learners feel isolated. Learning must happen within individuals, but learning gets deepened in community. Learning can happen indoors and out, in multi-age and multi-generational settings. We can co-construct a vision of school that is even more tightly connected to and embedded within our local communities, and we can accomplish this with a sense of deep possibility and responsibility for an equitable collective future. 

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.