The teachers at my school and those I have trained from other schools often have a good chuckle when I say the names, “Penny Kittle” and “Kelly Gallagher.” Some have even started tallying how many times I reference them in my trainings and meetings. It’s ok, though. I am unashamed of my love for these two literacy giants (I mean this literally–sooooo tall!); they are my greatest paperback mentors. They made me a real English teacher.
After two years of wondering why teaching the way I was taught wasn’t working for my students, I was desperate for help. I found a book titled Readicide. As soon as I read the definition of readicide, “the systematic killing of the love of reading,” I knew that I had inadvertently done that to many of my students. In my quest to make them fall in love with Romeo and Juliet like I had, I had forgotten to get them to love reading first. So, I changed. Later, I found Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love, and my world shifted again. And for every additional book they’ve written (and I’ve devoured), I have changed and I have changed and I have changed again. Thank heavens–or better yet, thank Penny and Kelly–that I am not the same teacher who walked into her classroom on the first day of her teaching career! I still have the same desire to change the world one book at a time, but now I have the tools to do that.
Since those first two books, I have followed them everywhere, hungering for and soaking up everything they have to offer. I’ve seen them at NCTE and TCTELA, and yesterday, I got to spend all day at their feet. Literally at their feet, I sat in the center of the front row with my team, and we drank from their fountain of knowledge. And once again I am changed. We were reminded that we must stop asking how we can raise student achievement, and we have to start asking what we can do to challenge, stimulate, and engage our students! If authentic engagement happens, student achievement will take care of itself. If we are responsive to our students’ needs and interests, we can create empowered and independent readers, writers, and thinkers. I have always said that my greatest win as a teacher is not how many students pass their standardized tests, but how many students I run into at Barnes and Noble in five years.
Through their exploration of best practices in motivating readers and writers, they extolled the power of passion, book talks, choice, reading/writing conferences, and book clubs. They highlighted the most important ways for students to become better readers and writers: volume, choice, and modeling. But through all of that learning, the thought that kept pounding in my brain came from the very first slide in their presentation:
Wow! If that doesn’t remind us of the importance of this work, I don’t know what will. What an amazing gift and responsibility we have as English teachers!!! No matter what standards exist, and no matter what standardized assessments exist, our first concern should always be whether students have equal access to quality texts and writing space. Literacy is for everyone! And, we have the great opportunity to share it with today’s youth. With the gift of reading and writing, barriers begin to crumble, doors begin to open. Literacy has the power to inspire and destroy and rebuild. Without it, our society is empty, devoid of humanity.
With literacy, there can be no walls.