Inspiring Students Where They Are
A little more than a year ago, a mutual teacher friend put me in touch with Debbie Myers, an 8th grade reading teacher at a private school for kids who come from low-income families. “Leslie,” my friend said, “you’re going to love her. You guys remind me of each other.”
To be honest, I didn’t really “meet” Debbie, I just “friended” her on Facebook and started checking out the content she posted. It wasn’t until early June of this year that I sat up and paid attention. Debbie posted this:
“When I introduce myself to my readers on the first day of school, I always
have the stack of books I read over the summer on a desk right beside me. The
first words out of my mouth are: 'I am a 46 year old (this year it’ll be 47) white
woman.' I point to my own arm as I say it. And then I pause. The kids will start
looking at each other like 'this lady is weird' and I say it again. 'I am a 46 year
old white woman, and I’ve led a 46 white woman’s life. I’ve never been
anything but a white woman my entire adult life.' At this point, the kids
typically start giving each other looks that clearly say, 'What’s up with this
woman?' I’m pretty sure most are shocked that I’ve shared my age with them.
From the looks I get, I’m sure what I’m saying sounds odd to them and they
can’t figure out why I’m pointing out the obvious - that I’m old (ancient to
them!) and I’m white. Then I hold up the stack of books I read over the
summer. And one by one, I share the book cover and tell them who I was
while reading that story. 'In this book, The Bridge Home, I was a young girl
living in India, and my sister and I had to run away from home and learn to
survive on our own. In this book, Genesis Begins Again, I was a young black
girl, and I despised the color of my own skin. In this book, Refugee, I was a
teen boy from Syria, a young girl from Cuba, and a young boy from Germany,
and people were trying to kill me no matter who I was! In this book, The Only
Road, I was a young boy from Guatemala, and if my cousin and I didn’t leave
our town, we would have been killed by the gang who murdered my cousin
Miguel.' The strange looks have stopped and the room is quiet. Without fail,
each year, one skeptical student will say something along the lines of, 'You’re
not all those people.' I don’t respond right away because, without fail, another
student will explain for me: 'Not in real life she’s not, but she was those people
when she was reading the books.'
Once I read through this post, I knew that I needed to connect with this woman on a more personal basis. I reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to do an interview. Her enthusiastic “yes” paved the way for our discussion.
Debbie originally started her 13-year teaching career as a 6th grade teacher of all subjects. From there, she transitioned to math and ELA, and finally landed solely in the ELA arena with a focus on writing. When applying for her current position, she emphasized her writing expertise, but when she was hired, it was to be a reading teacher. With a kind of “What-the what???” reaction, Debbie dove into researching best practices as a way to prepare for this new role. She openly admitted to being afraid to teach reading. “How do you get kids with a serious distaste for books to love reading?” she wondered. Her research sparked a curiosity and passion within her. What she learned turned out to be life-changing.
In the beginning, she prepared to put into practice all the good stuff that teachers now know about reading. Student choice is critical. Access to books is essential. Dedicated time for reading is a must. But there was something missing, something else she needed to tap into. This realization hit her while she unpacked books in her new classroom. A fellow teacher wandered in while Debbie stacked shelves. After looking over Debbie’s collection, the teacher commented, “Your kids are going to hate them [the books]. They’re all about white kids and dogs that die.”
Guys, I just want to pause here for one second because it’s a super-legit point that really struck me. As teachers, just like Debbie, we come prepared, we come with the tools, with the education, with the creativity. But we also have to come with the stuff that speaks to and inspires are students where they are.
And that’s exactly what Debbie did.
Enter the “I’m a 46-year-old white woman” speech. I wish I could somehow convey the passion and excitement in Debbie’s voice as she talked about all this. It was like a pulsing beat, moving the conversation forward because the next thing to talk about was even more important than the last. This woman is on fire for getting her kids to read! But I digress...this realization - that her classroom library, while filled with amazing books, did not reflect the students sitting in the room - served as the catalyst for learning more, doing better.
The second year at her new school, Debbie did more research, quickly becoming inspired by the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. Her “windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors” analogy (take the time to click the link to her essay and read it!) sparked something inside of Debbie who began transforming her classroom library. She remembers, “I realized kids need to find themselves in the book; and they need to live other lives - that’s when I started telling them, ‘I’m a 45 year old white woman…’ I wanted them to open their eyes. You don’t know anyone else’s story except for yours.”
So, like every other dedicated teacher in America, she shelled out her own money to start building a collection. Armed with the Amazon app on her phone, she took orders from students right there in the classroom. Students want to find a book about pan-sexuals? Click. It’s on its way. Need a story about a kid from Hawaii? Click. It’ll arrive Tuesday. Debbie capitalized on her kids’ interests to beef up the titles she offered. Continuing to follow Dr. Bishop’s advice, Debbie emphatically notes, “People are supposed to see themselves in books.”
Stocking her shelves in this way didn’t come without a little push-back. First there was the inequity between classrooms. Because she was personally funding her library, other kids didn’t have the same access to books, often coming to her from other classes asking to borrow a title.
Then there was the content. Because Debbie serves kiddos who grow up in incredibly challenging environments, it’s natural that the kind of content that accurately reflects their lives might be a little rough around the edges. A couple of the books she ordered got removed. But Debbie stands by the research. “Everything I do is supported by the [school] handbook. I don’t do this to be a rebel,” she says. “I don’t like conflict. It makes me uncomfortable to do something that people are fighting. I’m doing this because it’s for the kids. I’m doing this because if they don’t become readers, there is a whole world they don’t know about. But you’re not going to get them to be a reader by forcing them to read the textbook.”
For the kids. Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.
If there is anything I've learned in teaching, it's that you're not going to be able to reach a kid's mind if you're not first reaching a kid's heart. Allowing kids to choose books that speak to them, that reflect the struggles they experience, that grapple with the questions they have, that tangibly show the life someone just like them lives - you're going to lose them before you even get started.
Let's all have the courage, like Debbie, to give our kids what they need right now. It's never been more important.
For more information on some of the resources that inspired Debbie, check out the links below.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's essay "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors."
Reading to Make a Difference by Lester Laminack and Katie Kelly
The Danger of a Single Story - a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
Beyond the Letters on Apple podcasts
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