Literacy Call to Action

This week I started reading Forged by Reading by Kyleen Beers & Bob Probst.  

These authors are mentors to me and all of their book have shaped my teaching and learning. Kylene Beers, author and educator, is a past-President of the National Council of Teachers of English. She received an NCTE Leadership Award, held a reading research position in the Comer School Development Program at Yale University School of Medicine, and has most recently served as the Senior Reading Advisor to the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. Robert E. Probst is an author and consultant to schools nationally and internationally. He speaks to administrators and teachers on literacy improvement, particularly issues surrounding struggling readers and meeting standards. Bob is Professor Emeritus of English Education at Georgia State University and has served as a research fellow for Florida International University.  

In their newest book, Forged by Reading they explore historic and timely topics through the context of literacy— literacy is the gateway to power and privilege. The book serves as  a call to action. Educators have a critical role empowering readers to think; to seek curiosity and skepticism; to shape themselves and their ideas through evidence and reason, vision, and imagination and; in doing so, to forge themselves and our world through reading.

As more and more students lose interest in reading visual and print text, there is space for misinformation and manipulation. In PART II of the text Beers and Probst explore power and how throughout history, reading and writing was used as a form of control and suppression. Discussing slavery, first nations people, Latino-Americans and education the reader looks throughout history to see how literacy was used as a tool to control and oppress.

Kylene and Bob help us understand that reading is a transaction between the author and the reader (Rosenblatt, 1995). Every time we enter a text, there is always the possibility that we will emerge somewhat changed by the encounter—with new insights, ideas, and understandings. And this is as true of fiction as it is of nonfiction. We want our children to read with open minds and hearts, alert to the possibility of learning something new that might sharpen and deepen their understanding—leading, perhaps, to questions that might, in turn, show the way to additional learning.

What does this look like in the classroom? Kylene and Bob (2021) suggest that the ideal reading environment for our children would reflect the following:

• “A rich diversity of literature that acts as the ‘mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors’ that scholar Rudine Sims Bishop wrote of decades ago.

• A rich diversity of response that promotes questioning more than answering and leads to a sharper understanding of ourselves, our students, and of the text itself.

• The acceptance of the student’s uniqueness, to allow each student to feel welcomed in the classroom, to be more fully present and, perhaps more fully engaged.

• A welcoming of a range of opinion and interpretation, providing an opportunity
to learn how to deal with differences and how to bring evidence and reason to bear upon assumptions and beliefs.

• And, perhaps most important, inviting students to see the act of reading as an opportunity to grow and change.”

Educator Kate Roberts reminds us, “Literacy is an essential element of freedom.” Too often, traditional, mind-numbing instructional practices diminish the robust power of literacy for our students. Too many children experience reading in the classroom as little more than extracting and recording information from the text, rather than a freeing intellectual exploration—reading as an invigorating and deeply satisfying cognitive and empathy workout that makes possible the joy of new learning.

Throughout the book a central idea is that we need to be both Responsive and Responsible Readers. In the simplest of terms, we have to be open to the idea that reading can impact us, lead us to think, create a sense of urgency to act and then we must act. We spend so much time teaching kids to read for information that we inadvertently teach them to ignore the feelings they encounter. Students are focused on completing tasks asking irrelevant questions at time to prepare for a standardized test and not recognizing the thoughts and feelings that we have around a text. I am reminded of a scene in the movie A View From the Top:

This is exactly what teachers have been doing when teaching reading: emphasizing accuracy, lexile levels, classical canon over critical thinking and personal reactions to the text. Bob and Kylene include multiple examples of interactions with readers that make us cringe because the teaching points at that moment ignored the student, what they can do, what they felt, how to support them as readers, thinkers, and someone with feelings.

In Forged by Reading Bob and Kylene expand on a great Framework that they gave us in Disrupting Thinking to increase the role of responsibility in reading. The Book-Head-Heart Framework is an amazing tool to help readers be more responsive, providing a structure to responsibly organize their thinking around a text and reflect on the importance to them. In Forged by Reading it goes a step further asking what we can DO. BHH-D asks us to take that next step and our students are ready for it when the opportunity is provided because our students want to talk about and work to make better the problems of the world.

The revised “BHHD” strategy, first introduced in their book, Disrupting Thinking, where students are asked:

  1. “What’s in the book?
  2. What’s in your head?
  3. What’s in your heart?
  4. What will you do now?” (p. 178)

Beers and Probst end with a call to action: “You, our nation’s teachers, have the power to help students become empowered readers and thinkers. You can help each student forge his or her life through reading. And so again, dear teachers, we turn to you” (p. 193).

As a middle school English teacher in a suburban school 25 minutes outside of New York City, I am seeing more and more parents challenge the work that I am doing in my classroom. Questioning literature choices and my agenda to provide contemporary young adult fiction alongside classical text that raise issues relevant today, so that my students have mirrors, windows, sliding glass doors, and even telescopes in the fictional texts they read. My agenda is to support my students as critical thinkers of information and to promote kindness. When my students read I want them to “to think again and anew about significant issues, so they may see the world and themselves more clearly,” (pg. 16) and have the courage to realize their potential to help make a positive difference in the world.

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