By Peggy Wuenstel – Reading is a complex process that needs to be learned and nurtured. Most people can identify the key components of recognizing letters, understanding the relationships between letters and sounds, developing skills such as blending and segmenting sounds, and knowing the key elements of how print works in their literary environment. Globally, we don’t all read left to right, top to bottom, or with symbols that represent sounds. What we sometimes forget is that our literacy starts in the brain and not on the page.
Writing, and its companion, reading to decode that writing, are our attempts to put our ideas on paper, to preserve them for posterity, and share to them with the larger world. It is the way that students can express their content mastery to teachers, by which lovers convey their deepest unspoken feelings, and activists and social commentators call others to action. Therein lies the problem – the ideas generate the words. What happens when the experience base is limited, the interests are narrow, or the motivation to know more is absent? Reading and writing are then a chore, not the joy that every teacher hopes to give to a child.
I cannot appropriately credit the person that put me on this path to thinking about reading and writing instruction. I heard this wise person toss off a statement that children need windows and mirrors in what they are offered. He or she was referring to the content of what we offer students to read. This is an important issue on many fronts. Gender equality, racial diversity, socio-economic differences and the varied cultural and societal backgrounds of our students must all be considered and factored in when we design lessons, assign reading lists, and conduct assessments. The mirror aspect requires us to select literature and non-fiction materials in which the child can either see or envision themselves interacting. I need characters that look like me, think like me, feel like me and behave like me for me to understand what an author has in mind.
Much has been made of how national assessments do not equally reflect all of our students, and that this may partially explain performance gaps among certain segments of our classroom populations. By thoughtful, sensitive instruction we lead readers to broader understandings of others, compassion for those who are different and paradoxically a stronger sense of ourselves when we learn about the “other”.
In addition, the use of the mirror metaphor calls us to do something that is critical to learning and to teaching. We must continually reflect on what we see and determine how to proceed from this point forward. And the images that are important are not just the ones of ourselves. The setting in which we find ourselves and our students, the level of illumination we provide, the clutter in the background, the change or lack of change over time are all things worthy of note for the reflective teacher. Whether we journal or just keep these things clearly in mind, reflection is a crucial piece in modern teaching, and something we must model for our students. It is also necessary that we advocate for the time to reflect with legislators, administrators and policy makers. If we are running as fast as we can just to deliver content, the reflection that makes it true learning rarely occurs.
It is also a key role of literacy instruction to provide windows to the world. Those who have unlocked the code for reading and writing have an amazing passport to places, things, and relationships they will never experience directly. Some of the most gratifying experiences that an instructor can have are when a child is transported by a book and wants to take you along on that journey. Our ability to steer developing readers into new genres, to meet new authors, and to encourage deeper dives into content of high interest is one of the greatest gifts we offer to those in our charge. Finding that student who will truly appreciate the key books of our past is a gift to us as teachers and as readers.
I love the concept of “Book Love.” When you like someone, and you give them a book that you think they would like, it is based on your knowledge of them and your shared history. It is rare to find a connection deeper than that. I knew I had succeeded in passing this on to another generation when my grandchildren started asking “What book did you bring us?” at each visit. One caveat, however, is to make sure that readers (and writers) don’t get “stuck”, reading the same genre, author, or topic over and over again. Even mirrors can have many faces, and our reading habits should as well.
I have expanded this kind of thinking to include the writing process. Writers also need to look through windows and into mirrors to generate the ideas, words, and writing pieces that display their feelings, their questions, and their skills. We are a society that loves to measure things, and it is very difficult to measure this foundation-laying aspect of writing and teaching, so often we skip over it to getting things on or off the page depending on which part of the lesson plan we are addressing. For our youngest students and for those of differing cultural or linguistic backgrounds, engaging topic selection is key.
Many famous authors have been quoted giving the advice, “Write what you know.” For developing writers I would add, “Write what you want to know.” Check your reflection in the mirror, get inspiration from looking out your window, and go!