What can I say about WVELA ’19 that hasn’t already been said by so many? Jessica’s recap covered so much of a weekend that was transformative and inspiring, and I’ve never left a conference with my well (and my heart) so filled. At the final plenary session of the conference, poet and author of The Crossover Kwame Alexander shared his then yet to be released treasure of a book, The Undefeated. He began his keynote by sharing a sentiment that I truly believe echoed in the hearts of every educator there: “I believe in the power of words to transform lives.” Kwame moved us, challenged us, inspired us. Then we all left, returning to what he referred to as our “sacred” work.
Isn’t that work why we’re all really educators? Isn’t it why you’re reading this post right now? You believe in the power of words to transform lives, and you believe that the work you do in transforming these lives is vital, honorable, and never finished.
One of the ways in which we transform the lives we have the privilege of impacting is through the way in which we choose, read, and teach texts. This is one of the most powerful takeaways from WVELA ’19 that I’ve kept tucked inside my heart and mind. As Kwame’s words reverberate through them also, I feel a mounting sense of conviction to share what I’ve learned about the ways in which we can teach by valuing, celebrating, and honoring our students. Ways that let them know they are seen and known.
I previously shared my own journey and growth in the ways that I promote diversity and inclusivity in classrooms through a blog post about the “shock of recognition” and why our students desperately deserve it. In this post, I touched on the ways in which I’ve strived to honor my students’ diverse experiences, identities, and perspectives and the many ways in which I have – with the best of intentions – failed. As I learn, I do better. I strive to be better.
So much of my ongoing growth is due to the amazing teacher leaders and educators at WVELA ’19 and the work of those like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who they have pointed me to. It is her research and work that has given us insight into how books are “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” and the transformative power that they offer readers – ourselves and our students. If we understand these possibilities and how our students both need and deserve them, where do we go from here?
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” – Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990)
So much of the work and learning we do as teachers forces us to rely on one another. Ours is a passion and career where we find renewed strength when we join together. The more connected we become, the stronger we become… and the more we grow. As I attended sessions at WVELA ’19, met and chatted with educators, and cried through powerful keynotes, I become more aware and certain of these truths.
This is why it made sense that, naturally, my heart leapt out of my chest as I listened to Tricia Ebarvia share the work she and her team are doing through restorative practice as they #DisruptTexts in a typically Western, white and male canon. Further still, I felt myself want to shout out loud in unison with the Hallelujah chorus that was rising within this same heart as I was encouraged to #TeachLivingPoets and widen my reading and teaching lenses through #THEBOOKCHAT.
I looked around the rooms I was in thinking, Wow. These are my people.
Only, sometimes it can be slightly polarizing to feel like one of the few elementary teachers you know who are dedicated to and currently engaging in this work. I know there are others out there, and thanks to my WVELA experiences I’m more inspired than ever to seek them out and connect. It’s time for me to step out from the background and join in the conversation. And so, I find myself looking for ways to join in the conversation and encourage others to do the same.
This is a conversation that is threaded throughout hashtags and Twitter handles of the secondary ELA cybersphere. The discussion is impassioned and honest, with souls bared. They challenge, encourage, and learn from one other. There’s a sense of collective purpose and common good – tied together by the same belief in the power of words at the heart of their sacred work.
But equity, inclusivity, and diversity are not grade specific.
We need to bare our souls as well.
So, let’s talk about the elementary canon.
So often, the read alouds and mentor texts that are used are those that have always been used, and not often questioned. And they are usually limiting – exclusive narratives from the same perspectives, cultures, and identities that keep our students from experiencing books as mirrors, windows, or sliding glass doors.
This is why I continue to be so thankful for organizations and movements like We Need Diverse Books, Teaching for Justice, Rethinking Schools, and 1,000 Black Girl Books. There are a plethora of resources for elementary and middle school teachers who want to take part in the conversation and take steps toward growing as teachers through engaging in restorative practice.
So, in the spirit of National Poetry Month and in an effort to #buildmystack as I continue to honor inclusivity and diversity through the texts I choose, I wanted to share a few of the poets I’ve been celebrating and teaching recently. Poetry is by far my favorite thing to teach. Over the years, I’ve created units for teaching elementary students that have consisted of poetry from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. All amazing poets, and all no longer with us. While I enjoy reading living poets, I hadn’t previously considered the lack of exposure my students had to them or how limiting my selection was.
This year, I’ve been committed to introducing students to living poets, with particular emphasis on poets from various cultures, races, identities, and groups. The accessibility of poetry makes it the perfect genre for introducing some of the heavier topics and social issues that elementary students are sometimes shielded from. Also a beneficial means of tackling interpretive work, determining themes, and analyzing authors’ choice and craft, it allows for reading through a critical, analytical lens.
Some of our absolute favorites in fourth and fifth grade this year have been Naomi Shihab Nye, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, and Clint Smith. All of these poets’ work are great access points to introducing students to social issues. They are also a great starting place for disrupting the elementary canon. Most recently, I have witnessed “the right way to speak” from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and “Commercial Break” from Locomotion challenge, move, and inspire students, much like the words of Kwame Alexander in that auditorium full of teachers.
While I acknowledge that I’m still moving through my journey as a teacher who values social justice, restorative practice, and equity, I strive for my practices to match my philosophies. As I reflect on how far I’ve come with some satisfaction, I look with anticipation to the teacher I will become. More than this, I look forward to meeting and learning from those who will make me better.
WVCTE is wondering… How do you disrupt the elementary canon? What diverse books, authors, and poets do you recommend? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.