Author: Ellen A. Thompson, Ed. D.
During the summer of 2021, I had the good fortune to have a group of 12 educators join me in a course wrapped around the book, Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life written by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. Not only did the book push my thinking about the value and importance of reading lots and lots, so did my conversations with these smart teachers! The teachers represented all grades from first to high school English. They taught in suburban schools and small rural schools. Some were literacy coaches for their faculties, while others were the school librarians. We were a very multifaceted, diverse group of educators. One thing we had in common was our deep respect for teaching the children of Vermont with an eye to the realities of our current world. We understood the need to help nurture and scaffold our students into becoming actively engaged learners who thrive on becoming actively engaged citizens.
So, what does a book about reading lots of books have to do with creating engaged citizens? Lots! Beers and Probst suggest that reading can open doors into new contexts, cultures, and opportunities. The act of reading critically allows the reader to not only experience the narrative or information contained within, it also allows them to actively question and engage with the text in ways that begin to shape them as a person. This type of reading is not passive. It requires much thinking and questioning of the text. It requires lots of text to be read. It pushes our young readers to make it matter. By doing this what we read and read well shapes us into the person we want to be. We are “forged” by our reading. To quote the authors, “books give us the opportunity to change ourselves.” pg 13.
The authors move us through their thinking by asking us to think deeply about what we teach and why, especially when it comes to choosing the books we have our students read. We can keep them “safe” by reading books of compliance or we can push their thinking to bring in real world examples of people making decisions that matter. They warn us not to impose our definitions of learning on to others. This can be limiting for our students. We need to really hear and see our students as real learners, each unique and quirky in their own way. Our learning goals need to be informed by them. It is quite possible that we will need to CHANGE our teaching to ensure that each of our students gets the best from it.
Beers and Probst go on to state “ Remember, reading and writing are not literacy; they are the tools of literacy. Literacy itself is power.” pg 77. For students to gain this POWER they have to understand their reading in order to apply its relevance to their own lives. Rereading text helps us to more deeply understand our reading, but we rarely do it as an instructional practice. When rereading sections of text, we notice things that we missed the first time around. The second best way to truly understand what you are reading is to have a conversation about it with another reader. This talk can allow both readers to dig in to their understandings whether the same or different. Using very open-ended questions to spark the conversation helps.
- What surprised you?
- What did the author think you knew/
- What confirmed, challenged, or changed your thinking?
If our students wrapped themselves around relevant and important text with time to converse deeply about their reading we will have helped move this POWER of literacy on to them.
Independent choice reading becomes the key to creating literate lives. It is through this element of choice that readers truly create their readerly identities to carry with them throughout their lives. This reading allows each reader to change themselves because of it. “We are looking instead for the independent reader, one who is a responsive and responsible reader, one informed by reason and directed by purpose.” pg 154. The reader must assume the responsibility of the reading. Much of what will be read will raise questions and offer complicated issues with differing values. We HOPE that our readers will participate in this process of building deeper understanding from texts that offer reasoned information with evidence. Our readers, now and in the future, need to be able to discern when a text is not reasonable and is not supported by other texts. Our democratic society leans on the HOPE we have for young learners. Learners who are eager to discover new ideas and concepts through their reading and who are not afraid to change their perceptions based on the knowledge they have put together for themselves.
We left this course and the reading of this book with a stronger willingness to CHANGE to create the spaces in our schools, libraries, and classrooms that support a student’s ability to independently read from books of their own choosing. We promised to help students engage with their books through meaningful conversation with others. All of us want our students to claim the POWER that is theirs when they live a literate life forged by reading! We understand our role in providing HOPE for our future through our students.
Beers, G. Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life. 2021.
Ellen A. Thompson, Ed.D., Literacy Consultant
Ellen A. Thompson has been an educator for over 43 years. She taught as a classroom teacher in Vermont for over twenty years with many of those years in a multiage setting teaching children aged 6-9 years of age. Ellen was named the Vermont State Teacher of the Year in 1993 and she achieved her National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist in 1999. Ellen began consulting nationally in 1993 and has continued this work throughout her years as an educator. Upon leaving the classroom, Ellen joined the Elementary Education literacy faculty at the University of Vermont in 2000. At the University, she taught undergraduate literacy courses, supervised student teachers and also worked as a literacy consultant in two large scale literacy research projects which spanned the grades K-6. For twelve years Ellen worked with the Essex Town School District as the Director of Instruction and Information Services. During this time, Ellen completed her doctoral studies in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2007. After the merging of the Essex Town School District and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, Ellen continued working with educators in the newly created Essex Westford School District as the Director of Learning Design. Ellen is currently a literacy consultant for Partnerships in Literacy and Learning.