This post was originally published on April 19, 2015 on my team’s Edublogs site: Literacy Matters (http://littvdsb.edublogs.org/) In honour of today’s 70th celebration of the liberation of the Netherlands, I’m sharing this post here.
A wise friend once told me that some of the most memorable journeys are the ones when you learn something about yourself. I’ve found that to be true in travel, but hadn’t considered its resonance in other areas of my life. Now, I might have anticipated that I would benefit from learning professionally at this year’s Journeys into Literacy, for instance: how selecting multimodal text engages the audience emotionally, how pacing impacts energy and how silence can foster reflection. What I could not have imagined was the impact Journeys into Literacy would have on my personal learning, that is, learning about myself. After examining one of my reading paths and choosing to share my reading life with participants, I realized how important this pursuit was to ourselves and our classrooms.
Every session started with a focus on self, since, as Sarah Ahmed and Harvey Daniels claim, “Our selves are our main teaching tools.” Our professional learning series was focused on reading comprehension, so we began by looking at ourselves as readers. What were we reading? We recorded our personal reading list (aka our reading diet) and we wrestled with whether it was a balanced diet both outside and inside the classroom. We reflected on how often we were reading what our students were reading, balancing the demands of time but knowing the power of putting the right book in a child’s hand to spark and feed the love of reading. How well do I know my students to guide a book recommendation? Was I putting students on a path to becoming lifelong readers? Kelly Gallagher suggests that many of the books we read are on a reading path and that one book becomes a stepping stone to another and so on. He traces one of his reading paths back twenty years!
Which made me question: Was I too on a reading path?
I scoured my bookshelves. All that data. Where to begin? I started with book ends. At one end, a book that catapulted my reading life and made an indelible impression on me: Ondaatje’s The English Patient. At the other end was my most recent read in February: Michael’s Us Conductors. After sifting through stacks of novels, I discovered, or uncovered, some themes that surfaced repeatedly across more than a dozen novels. The stories were invariably connected to or set in the Second World War. This conflict and its tragic impact on life was told through stories that saw strong-willed women making sacrificial choices so often in the best interest of their children. They embarked on journeys that forced them to grapple with their identities, where each foot stood warily in two different cultures. These stories revealed the personal costs of migration and how one comes to terms with, or comes to redefine, the concept of home.
And I was gobsmacked.
My mom was already a widow and mother when my father and the allies liberated the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War. She chose to come to Canada to start a new life, not always an easier life. Although I grew up on some iconic stories of the war, I don’t recall many stories of her life before the war. It was as if that chapter of her life was closed and she had put all those memories in a box. She would say (in her accent), “You don’t know hall-f de story.” She died when I was 21 and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been grappling with her story and my identity ever since through my subconscious choice of texts. I have been exploring questions that I never got a chance to ask…through my reading.
To be sure, the stories in these novels were not carbon copies of my mom’s story, but the resilience of these recurring themes was undeniable. Thomas Newkirk believes, “We read to make sense of ourselves.” In my case, this certainly rings true. I learned that my reading path was a journey of self-discovery. But after my decision to share it at Journeys into Literacy, I came face to face with the prospect of how sharing our reading life with others builds bridges between readers and a stronger reading community. After one of our sessions, a participant approached me to say, “I think I know your next book on your reading path.” And I thought, this is exactly what we want happening in our classrooms! When you share your reading life with others, they come to see you in a new light. Indeed, they become instrumental to guiding you to your next read because they know you much better. In a classroom, I’ll share my reading life that speaks to the age of readers I’m teaching, whether YA or Junior novels. Both teachers and peers play a powerful role in nurturing the reading lives of those around us. You never know if the book you’re reading right now may be critical not only to your own reading life, but to a fellow reader in the future. Of course, the side effect of all this is: we learn the stories and sometimes the struggles that we have in common.
Just today I finished that ‘next book’ recommendation, Blum’s Those Who Save Us, about a daughter coming to learn of her mother’s former secret life in Europe during the Second World War. That apt recommendation galvanizes my belief around the power of sharing your reading life with others.