Extending the Discussion: Can We Continue the Conversation about Ferguson?

It’s been more than a month since the shooting in Ferguson, and schools across the country are now in session. This conversation is still relevant: more news from Ferguson, MO made the paper today, PBS organized a recent town hall meeting, and #FergusonSyllabus has sparked discussion on Twitter.

I wonder what kinds of conversations are happening in classrooms. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s recent blog post Justice on the Lesson Plan, encourages teachers to engage students in a dialogue about power, race, and justice (and includes some wonderful resources). But, I admit I’m not optimistic.

First, I wonder how much time teachers are able to devote to these complex discussions. In order to effectively explore this topic students have to understand the issue, work with and through empathy, analyze and evaluate complex ideas, and be willing to participate in uncomfortable conversations. Facilitating these kinds of discussions is no easy task. I’d argue that they are some of the most challenging conversations that teachers will lead all year. I wonder how many teachers have been adequately prepared to lead students into conversations that are uncomfortable for most adults as well—my suspicion is not many. In order for schools to be a true vehicle for change we have to train teachers how to lead effective discussions about issues like Ferguson, and give them time to work with these topics everyday.

It also occurs to me that these discussions are best had in heterogeneous classrooms where a myriad of experiences and perspectives are represented. Unfortunately, those classrooms are few and far between. (Not to say that students don’t benefit from conversation, they do, but it is much easier to build empathy when students can have experiences with peers who represent opposing perspectives.)

This reminds me of my experience teaching special education in a school in Washington, DC where 99% of the students were African American and all but two teachers (me and another teacher) were African American. One of my fourth grade students approached me one day, holding the picture of her brother. He had been shot by a white police officer. “I hate white people,” she said.

“But,” I said, “I’m white.”

“No you’re not,” she responded, “I like you.”

Ultimately, for the larger conversation about Ferguson, and other issues around race and power to change, the smallest conversations, like the one, have to change first.

To start the discussion with your students, here’s an article from PBS about How to Talk to Students about Ferguson. Also, a book list of texts that can be used to teach that, as Rhuday-Perkovich puts it, Black Youth Matter can be found at her blog post. Personally, I recommend reading Rita Garcia-Williams and Jacqueline Woodson.

On Screen Reading

If you’re reading this article online, chances are you’re reading it in an F-pattern. Your eyes are reading horizontally right now, but soon enough they’ll start to scan vertically, and eventually you’ll miss the lower right hand corner of the page. (That’s a typical reading, because, of course, now all you can see is that lower corner). As Thomas Newkirk points out in The Art of Slow Reading, that F-shaped pattern is how our eyes trace the “page” when we read screens.

The F-pattern, and the constant skipping from article to article that happens with online reading, explains why I get frustrated with screen reading. I’ve read on a Kindle and an iPad, and do a good portion of my daily reading on my computer (news articles, Buzzfeed, my own writing, etc). Screen reading has changed my reading habits—I find myself reading to grasp, rather than absorb, constantly distracted by ads and links to other articles. I click out of online newspapers and articles feeling a bit unsatisfied. This change became particularly obvious to me recently when I sat down to reread A Wrinkle in Time and had trouble focusing. So, I’ve shifted to buying more paper books and my iPad has been relegated to checking social media and scanning through Pintrist. I’m not alone. The Wall Street Journal recently covered the slow reading movement; “a return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions.”

I wonder how reading will change as screens continue to proliferate—will the way we read evolve to allow us to have the same enjoyment and depth that we have when we read books? I’m sure this same lament has been made before with some technology that we now take for granted. (Newkirk writes about the transition from reading aloud to reading silently as something that was lamentable, and is now expected.) Still, with everything that sucks up time these days—work, trips to the DMV, cooking dinner, pinning recipe ideas on Pintrist—reading for any stretch of time is a luxury. So, it seems like a luxury worth investing in.

Board Book Round-Up: Top 5 Board Book Authors

I’ve been reading a lot of board books lately (my audience is one 5-month-old) and board books, because they are read over and over, can be delightful or dismal. Over the past five months, I’ve developed a list of authors that I seek out. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 board book authors:

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Sandra Boynton

Boynton is the board book queen. With titles like Belly Button Book, Hippos Go Berserk, and Are You a Cow? her books are whimsical, fun, charming, and make incredibly economic use of language.

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Karen Katz

Katz’s books from Counting Kisses to The Babies on the Bus (a rendition of The Wheels on the Bus that actually has plot development) make for roly-poly reading.

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Margaret Wise Brown

If Boynton is the queen of board books, Brown is the tsar. She wrote the insurmountable Good Night Moon (who doesn’t have that on their baby’s nightstand?) as well as my favorite The Runaway Bunny and the charming Big Red Barn. Hers are stories that your kids will read to their kids and on and on.

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Mary Brigid Barrett

Barrett’s rhymes in Pat-A-Cake and All Fall Down are winsome, and she seamlessly incorporates children and families of various ethnicities into her illustrations.

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Mary Murphy

Murphy’s simple illustrations and story lines (for books such as Quick Duck, I Kissed a Baby, and Slow Snail) are fun to read and the illustrations are clean, crisp drawings that delight.

Teaching with Multi-Cultural Texts: Getting to the How

The knowledge that kids should have about the world—from understanding the perspective of kids in Iraq to understanding the Chinese experience—can be overwhelming. It’s obvious that we should be exposing kids to multicultural literature, but the “how” is less explicit.

It’s tempting to fill classroom libraries with diverse titles and let students dive in. But, simply exposing students to multicultural literature without purpose or principles, can lead to indifference or resistance, which undermines the purpose of using the texts in the first place (Louie, 2006, 438).

Belinda Louis (2006) outlines principles for teaching with multicultural text. Here are the four that resonated with me:

Cultural Authenticity

While I agree that we should be looking to increase the number and reach of diverse authors, we should also look for authors who are thoughtful in their writing and research to create authentic experiences. The Breadwinner Series by Deborah Ellis is a good example of this. Ellis was inspired to write the story about Parvana and Shauzia after she read about the Taliban’s treatment of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Ellis’ research, including visiting refugee camps in Pakistan, inspired the characters and informed the authenticity of her stories.

Teach Perspective

The ability to understand different perspectives is key to applying lessons learned from literature to kids’ day-to-day life. Kids (like adults) rely on their own experiences first and use those to influence their understanding of fiction. So, stories are a way to help students understand other kids.

This resonates most when reading about the immigrant experience. Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez and La Linea by Ann Jaramillo are both books that encourage perspective-taking about the Hispanic-American immigrant experience. (And, here are 10 More books about the immigrant experience.)

Teach Values

Conflict sheds light on values. Examining how characters handle conflict, what they value, and how their expression of values may differ, is a huge benefit of using multicultural literature. The most important lesson to draw, though, is not that we’re different, but that humans share many of the same values, even if those values are expressed in different ways.

Respond and Reflect

Reading multicultural texts can be challenging for students, especially if they are encountering ideas that run counter to what they’ve believed in the past. If kids have the opportunity to “talk back” to text with their opinions, attitudes, and judgments, they’ll have the opportunity to process their understandings and develop them in ways that encourage communication.

Citation: Louie, Belinda. (2006) “Guiding Principles for Teaching Multicultural Literature.” International Reading Association, The Reading Teacher, 59(5).

Literature as Cross-Cultural Opportunity

In Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender, Tyler, raised on a Vermont farm, and Mari, a Mexican immigrant who has been hired to help on Tyler’s family farm, become friends. Mari is worried about being deported, while Tyler worries for his family’s farm, yet their friendship withstands their differences. Return to Sender explores the challenges of building a friendship across cultures, even when it means reconciling your own ideas about a topic, in this case, illegal immigration.

There’s been a lot written about how reading fiction helps kids develop empathy and social skills. It also helps kids make and keep cross-cultural friendships. Jan Lacina and Robin Griffith, in their article, “Making New Friends: Using Literature to Inspire Cross-Cultural Friendships” (from the September/October issue of Reading Today) discuss the importance of being able to navigate cross-cultural friendships.

When kids have friends from different cultural heritages, they develop perspective, communication skills, and problem solving. And, as Lacina and Griffith point out, they demonstrate less prejudice. 

The world that today’s American kids inhabit is at once diverse and segregated. The New York Times reported that there are 5 million more students who are Hispanic or Asian today than there were in the 1990s. And, the diversity index, or the chance that two students, chosen at random, are of different ethnic groups has increased from 52% in 1993 to 61% in 2006 (higher numbers mean a more diverse student body).

But, even as diversity increases in America as a whole, individual schools and neighborhoods remain segregated. Earlier this year, when Brown vs. Board of Education turned 60, The Civil Rights Project assessed school segregation and found a disappointing picture:

  • The South has lost any desegregation progress made after 1967, but, despite this regression, it is still the most integrated region for African American students.
  • Hispanic students, which represent the largest minority group, are going to school in significantly segregated classrooms.

Overall, segregation is still the norm for students across the country. In a time when it’s imperative that students understand diverse perspectives and interact with people from different “worlds” than their own, reading about different cultures seem like an easy, foundational step that we can take. I’d love for kids who have grown up reading about cross-cultural friendships to seek out and make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds, and use that understanding to advocate for more diversity overall. The opportunity that students have when reading about cross-cultural friendships, after all, may be lost if there’s no one to befriend. 

10 Narrative Nonfiction Books that Leave an Impression

Back when I started writing, narrative nonfiction (creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, etc), or nonfiction that employs the techniques and tools of fiction to tell stories, was becoming increasingly popular. Now, the Common Core has brought narrative nonfiction back into the spotlight—for 6-12 educators at least—with the shift towards an increase in informational text across all grades, more literary nonfiction in the upper grades, and a focus on learning from text.

Thinking about how students learn from text, narrative nonfiction books and essays may be an untapped resource. Students remember stories, and great narrative nonfiction merges storytelling with information in ways that engage readers and leaves a lasting impression. They’re also fantastic anchor texts for students to use as springboards into more technical reading. Think: reading Unbroken alongside articles about World War II, aviation history, and the Olympics. 

These 10 narrative nonfiction books are bound to have an impact on students (as they did on me):

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

This is a narrative nonfiction classic, Capote explores the mystery of how the Clutter family was murdered with journalistic precision.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

I read this in high school and will forever remember the sultry, lazy setting and the engrossing cast of characters (Chablis, anyone?).

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Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson

In my middle school years, I read this book multiple times, fascinated at the life that was so different from any other experience that I’d previously read about.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I love medical narrative nonfiction, and Skloot seamlessly weaves medical info together with the story of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

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The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

Back in 1995, this was my first introduction to the ebola virus, in a book that reads like a Michael Crighton novel.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Boo paints such a vivid, and endearing, portrait of the children who live their lives in a large slum in India that I slowed down my reading so the story would last longer.

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer’s book is a perfect example of how to tell a tragic tale without losing it to sentimentality.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand’s story about Louis Zamperini reads as well as any literary epic journey.

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Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

McDougall makes the act of running a character in this book that inspired me to pick up distance running.

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1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies 

I love when history turns into a narrative, and this story of the exploration of the world by Chinese fleets reads like a movie.

For more narrative nonfiction, check out this GoodReads list.