This week I had the amazing opportunity to fly across the country and learn from some of the best in the field of literacy. I never take these amazing opportunities for granted. I recognize the privilege that is extended to me to learn how to better serve my students and build a literacy community that works for all. I was able to learn from some of my literacy heroes like Bob Probst (who is so brilliant I could just listen to him talk forever) Kylene Beers (my idol and friend and inspiration) Tanny McGregor (who helped me feel confident to represent my thinking in new ways) and Pernille Ripp (who inspired pages and pages of thoughts and notes and is one of the most profound speakers I have ever had the privilege of listening to.) I also attended a few other sessions from more local teachers that also taught me a few things. That said as I pondered this morning the work I need to do and the messages I took away I found that a common theme kept coming through. That literacy work is not equitable and that if we want, truly want, all our students to be successful we need to be not only aware of these inequities but we need to be actively addressing them, pointing them out to our students, helping them see how they benefit from these inequities while others unfairly fall further behind.
My learning this week did not start with my conference. It started when I read this beautiful post by Aeriale Johnson that can be found here . The post is beautiful, powerful and important. I don’t want to oversimplify her words so I would ask you to read it. THat being said I found this post started my thinking for the week as Aeriale discusses when she teaches her students to embody compassion versus just teaching them to hold empathy for others. This quote is powerful and really got me thinking about the language I use in my class and how I need to adjust, it also so beautifully collects my own thoughts on empathy and identifies where I have struggled in moving my students beyond feelings and toward action,
“I have begun teaching children to embody compassion instead. Compassion was derived from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. Empathy sees injustice and thinks, “How sad! I’d be so broken-hearted if that happened to me.” Compassion shows up in the middle of the storm, remains long after it has passed, and centers the individuals having the experience, giving them space to identify their own feelings and solve their own dilemmas, be their own heroes.”The fantastic Aeriale Johnson on her blog kinderbender.com (follow it and be better)
As I had this post in my mind I sat at the opening Keynote of the Reading for the Love of It Conference. To begin we were greeted with a group of First Nations Drummer and Dancers. We were blessed to be able to listen to some traditional songs, view their dancing and get a small sample of their culture. After an introduction that very much highlighted the challenges facing many First Nations communities such as no accessible clean water, no working sewage, no access to high schools we were introduced to Tanya Talaga who would deliver our Keynote. Her message was powerful. She focused on the importance of educators stepping up to support our first nations students, she discussed the trauma they are often born into because of Residential School the history and adversity they do not choose but yet is an obstacle that is difficult to overcome. She spoke about the inability to attend High School for some First Nations children because of access, the closest school being 5 hours away. My privilege made this thought, in CANADA unthinkable but yet here it was. She continued to talk about our choices, “We are mostly water, we must choose where we go” At one point she started to talk about equity and began again highlighting the struggles First Nations adolescents in many communities face, parents and grandparent still struggling with the far reaching trauma of residential schools, access limitations on services that we would take for granted like CLEAN, DRINKABLE water and then Access to School, ACCESS TO SCHOOL in 2020! She continued “This is about more than EQUITY it is about survival” The keynote set the tone for my learning and the sessions that followed continued along this point.
I was so blessed to attend the breakout sessions that were put on by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Pernille Ripp and Tanny McGregor. Each in their own way addressed ways to help our students close gaps and what we as educators can do to provide a more equitable learning experience for all of our students. Kylene and Bob talked about the power of Literacy and not about simply reading and writing but also about the concept that Literacy is about power and privilege. Their examples looked back at the enslavement of Africans in the early United States as well as current places in the world that withhold literacy learning from people as a way to slow or halt their progress to freedom. I thought back to what we just finished learning about in Social Studies class and enslavement of Black people in Canada as well as the power that was wielded by the Catholic church as the only people who likely could read in an area and what that meant for the power and privilege they held. They talked about the importance of making sure all of our students learn to think about the messages they are receiving and have the skills to maneuver the world where news is no longer seen as truth and that having the skills that make up literacy also helps bring about power, power to make decisions, power to decipher all the information they are receiving and make informed decision.
Pernille eloquently talked about her classroom, her work, her students and how she has arrived at a space that values her individual learners and honours and respects them. As we listened to her points around choice, honouring students feelings regarding simple things like taking notes in a conference or sharing their writing work I reflected on the little things I do that do not build community unintentionally. I was struck with the idea that my own assumptions often place a limit on my students and if it is not my assumptions it is the assignment itself. How we assign work, the texts we use in our classrooms, the strategies we employ to teach them. All of theses factors can impact our students and if done without proper examination of our actions can further push inequalities that we don’t always consider.
I am still decompressing from my learning this weekend but here are the beginnings of my thinking
- Empathy is a start but most certainly is not the end. We must go further.
- Literacy is power and every person has a right to that power.
- Our teaching plays an integral role in providing the opportunities to spread that power. We are privileged to have it and it is our responsibility to pass it on.
- As Pernille mentioned, “Reading is the number one factor for educational success even more so than socioeconomic status” So my goal is to figure out how to get books in homes and reading in our community culture. I can’t always address poverty but I can work to get books in kids hands.
- Finally Literacy work, Education, is life saving work. As Tanya Talaga shared “Education brought us into this mess and EDUCATION will bring us out of this”
I love to learn. Leaving this conference feeling a renewed sense of both urgency and direction as to what work I need to research and do for my own community was my most powerful take away. Poverty is a problem but so is apathy and a lack of compassion from those who enjoy the privilege of not having to worry about how they might be getting to school, if their water is clean, if there will be food on the table or if there will be someone there to help them with their homework. This is not about some sense of saviour mentality. We all need to start lifting more to make certain equity is within reach not just for our students but for their families and their neighbours. The work is more than just recognizing the problem and feeling bad as Aeriale stated in her blog. It is about compassion, being there to help and support and provide the tools to help lift themselves up. We need to stop piling more and break down the barricades for this to happen.
I am so grateful for those who have served as teachers for me this week as I head back to the classroom.
Continuing to decompress.