10 Educators I’ve Never Met that I Need in order to Teach

(inspired Ocean Vong’s “ The 10 Books I Needed to Write my Novel”)

I’m trying to write my Book Love Foundation grant application, and they asked me about what books/people/magazines I’ve been learning from. I couldn’t fit this all into the word limit of the application, but I thought that others might find these educators to be as career changing as I have.

1. The Leaders of #Disrupt Texts

Finding the #DisruptTexts group was a turning point for my thinking and teaching. Tricia Ebarvia, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán consistently use their time and energy to provide exceptional professional development for educators on what it means to be an anti-racist teacher. I particularly appreciate how the leaders of this group always push their thinking. For example, Tricia Ebarvia writes about her evolving ideas about the texts we use in the classroom in her article “Why Diverse Texts Are Not Enough.” Her evolving ideas have taught me that my thinking can’t stand still. I need to keep learning.

Also, I recently purchased Lorena Germán’s The Anti-Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook, and it is forcing me to work through my practice; I highly recommend it.

I hope the other women in this group will find publishing deals in the future (I believe Tricia Ebarvia is currently writing a book!), so I can continue to learn from them and support their contributions to my learning. I also admire how these women actively tag and lift up other educators. All of them reliably and consistently credit those who push their thinking.

2. Penny Kittle

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My whole journey started when a special education consultant put Book  Love into my hands. After I read it, I found energy and passion for my job that had been missing for quite a few years. I’ve seen Kittle speak twice at the Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto, and I wish I could go to her upcoming session with Tricia Ebarvia.

3. The Leaders of #ClearTheAir

Through the leaders of #DisruptTexts, I found #ClearTheAir and all the branches of #ClearTheAir. These groups offer exceptionally moderated slow chats and book clubs. A lot of my progress on what it means to be anti-racist has been thanks to these folks. Last summer, I participated in a book chat about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire. #ClearTheAir gave me the chance to ask questions while I processed the book. They also challenged my thinking- again on their personal time. I haven’t been able to participate in all the chats, but I go back and read the books that the group has looked, and then I follow the threads to help me through my thinking.

4. Matthew R. Kay

I already mentioned Kay above, but I can’t say enough about his book Not Light, But Fire. Julia Torres from #DisruptTexts recommended it to me when I asked her for advice about keeping students safe during discussions about race. Through Kay, I’ve learned that “safe” doesn’t mean apolitical and that we need to feel safe to feel uncomfortable. Kay is also an amazing resource for how to have conversations in your classroom period. Kay taught me that you can’t just decide to have discussions about race and make it happen without careful planning and practice. Our conversational toolbox and techniques need to be practiced from day one of the school year. Kay has also been responsive on Twitter, and I’ve had the opportunity to ask him questions, an opportunity that I’m very grateful for.

5. Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher taught me to teach reading and writing, not assign reading and writing tasks. All of his books are marked up and dogeared. The other day I tore my room apart trying to find Write Like This, but I suspect that I’ve leant it to someone, and I’m probably never getting back! At the 2019 Reading for the Love of It conference I saw Gallagher speak, and I admired the way he shared his thinking that was still in progress. He isn’t afraid to adjust and change his ideas as he finds new information.

6. Vicki Vinton

Vicki Vinton’s books What Readers Really Do and Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading have fundamentally changed my reading instruction. I see my students as problem-solvers for their own reading now. Instead of answering questions that I have generated about a particular text, students learn to navigate the twists and turns of texts through the tracing of patterns and the generation of their own questions. Everytime we talk about a text now, my students have the opportunity to create meaning without the interference of questions and lectures that ask students to see only what I see. And let me tell you, this way is infinity more fun than my old way.

7. Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti

Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing with Mentors, are a deep dive into the idea of mentor texts. Their books have helped me to provide students with a range of mentors which encourage student to make intentional choices in their own writing. O’Dell and Marchetti also run a website called “Moving Writers,” which consistently provides new ideas and mentor texts for teachers’ consideration. Ever since I picked up their book, I look forward to reading my students’ writing assignments because there is nothing the “same” or “boring” about them. Each piece is an original blend of craft moves that students have learned from their writing mentors.

8. Sara K. Ahmed

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Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change:Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension was a beneficial and practical read for me. Ahmed outlines her thinking by grounding it in lessons that you can use in your classroom tomorrow. Ahmed has also been generous with her time and answered my questions on Twitter when I was first thinking through how to use her lessons in my classroom. Her book has had an impact on the way I start my year with my students, and as a result, it has an impact all year long.

9. #THEBOOKCHAT

Through the other two hashtags that I mentioned above, I found #THEBOOKCHAT run by Scott Bayer and Joel Garza. Currently, #THEBOOKCHAT is working with #ClearTheAir to run a slow chat on Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. I’ve only been tracking with them for a year, but they’ve introduced me to so many books that I would have missed. After their discussions, they often provide resources for people who wish to use the books with their students. When I asked Garza about his use of Octavia Butler’s short story “Blood Child,” he emailed me a copy of the story. A story that my students are currently raving about because they are fascinated by it. 

10. #TeachLivingPoets

Melissa Smith runs #TeachLivingPoets, and she is responsible for introducing me to so many exciting poets. She moderates chats about poems and offers a ton of resources for using poetry in the classroom. I went from feeling obligated to include a couple of poems a year, to using poetry extensively throughout my course. #TeachLivingPoets has helped me to fall head over heels in love with words again.

Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.