On Spaces, after reading Jason Reynolds’ As Brave As You

Ah cicadas! The harbinger of hot summers for me. I admit my family (well me mostly) have competitions for telltale signs of the seasons: the first robin, the first cicada, the first V of geese, the first snowflake…you get it. This week has delivered both the weather and the sights and sounds that invite you outdoors. As a teacher, the summer provides an escape from the demands on your time and the confines of your school as you rush headlong into a readathon to galvanize the escape. The season’s warmth and lack of routine ushers in the physical and psychological freedom, ie space, to explore reading and writing so I picked up a new read, As Brave as You, owing to the author.

What might I expect from a middle grade novel by Jason Reynolds?  Does an author switch gears and voice to appeal to a younger audience? As co-author of All American Boys, he equipped we northerners with a glimpse into the thorny persistence of racism in the States as manifested in the ever present news coverage of racialized police practice and the black lives matter movement (more prevalent in the US but not to suggest its absence here in Canada).  To be sure, the weighty issues of mental health, divorce, gun violence, suicide, alcohol abuse are all still evident in this novel, but somehow Reynolds handles these with such delicate care and sensitivity that you see them as understood from a preteen’s life view.   The potential gravity is lifted by the spirited writing and dialogue tickling your tongue, begging to be read aloud; the tea-drinkin’, pea-pickin’, poop-scoopin’ daily chores of a couple of brothers from Brooklyn visiting their grandparents in Virginia for the summer. The vernacular is entertaining, matching the nunya bidness attitude of the characters. As a reader, you come to terms with the family’s history alongside the lead character, Genie.  The teacher in me could swoon about Genie’s obsession to document and number his inquiry questions. In fact, the story launches out of one such question that plays with words and gives bathroom humour its due respect (eg. poopidity). In this way we truly gain insight into the character by seeing, not only hearing, what he’s thinking; that black and white demonstration of making thinking visible. Across the book you’ll find a grocery list of inquiries that dog the character as events provoke analysis. They range from scientific to philosophical:

  • “Is the sun hotter in the south?”
  • “Is there an age limit for divorce?”
  • “Is who we are only based on what we do?”
  • “Would I fight for Ernie?” (his brother)

Genie returns to his questions often as urgent responses are required in order to see which ones are Google-able.

And the characters! Grandpop who’s blind but sees more than others, except himself. Grandma with her suitcase full of sorrows and her arms full of love. Ernie, Genie’s brother, with his cool-cat-with-shades swagger betraying his still unsure confidence as the oldest. And a town full of quirky folks whose connections are intricately tied to the family history. We, like Genie, witness the tenacity of history repeating itself across generations as the story unfolds to expose patterns of behaviour, passions, responsibilities that come with birth order, physical resemblances, and names.

But it is the relationship that forms between Genie and his grandpop that stays with me, that forced me to work out its complexity in writing. I’m probably not done thinking about this.

Are there themes and concepts to explore with students to gird them with new insights into the human experience? Yes, like empathy, forgiveness (EVERY character bears witness to this), letting go to move forward, coming of age, looking out for family, etc. Maybe it’s me as an adult reader who brings all my background knowledge into re-writing the story. I fell for the symbolism of the caged birds. You see, Grandpop’s blindness instigates his self-imposed house imprisonment. His refuge is an off limits space devoted to a Narnia-esque ‘outdoor indoor’ room brimming with trees, plants and 5 caged birds (named after the Jackson Five!) Grandpop has chosen a replica of a childhood scene tucked inside his home, trapping himself and the birds where it is safe. This closed off space mirrors not only his visual impairment but his impaired relationships, such as the invisible barrier between he and his son, the boys’ father. As Genie and Grandpop bond and learn to trust each other, Genie unlatches the psychological and physical door that empowers grandpop to bravely venture outdoors. At night. With Genie as his guide. What’s perhaps most compelling to me was that the introduction into the open physical space enables, indeed precedes, the psychological space that grandpop experiences. He literally has to get comfortable walking outdoors before his emotions can be revealed and relationships repaired.

And that made me wonder about ourselves.

I began asking questions in writing, like Genie: do you stay trapped, closed off because it’s safe? are open spaces a catalyst for open minds? to what degree does our physical space determine our psychological space? This idea of course resonates with the flexible seating and outdoor learning ambassadors in education. How much more vulnerable might we be in settings that were open and inclusive? How do we arrange our physical spaces to mirror our own comfort zones? How do public spaces nurture or negate relationships?


Luckily, I have lots of space and time coming up to explore some of these ideas.


When’s the last time you learned something new?

When you’re responsible for facilitating system professional learning, the key to future success is to build safety and relationships asap, and then leverage that culture to open up dialogue and push learning forward.  When you’re the ‘new kid on the block’ at a school, I wondered about doing the same thing.

Just one of the ways we’ve encouraged teachers to be open to learning has been to share the following Vimeo video clip:  LEARN. It’s a short clip that follows 3 guys across 11 countries over 44 days, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles…all in an effort to push the envelope around learning something new everyday.

LEARN vimeo

We talk about the clip and while it is an engaging, bucket list series of vignettes, it can serve as a provocation to ask:

When is the last time YOU learned something new? and how did it make you feel?

I know we think we learn new things everyday, but do we? And what does it mean to really learn?  Harvey and Daniels claim that you’ve truly learned when there is a change in behaviour as a result.

We love this video because it also serves to create some empathy for our students since we put them in the position of being a learner everyday. In fact, I shared this video clip just last week at my new school for the same reason. What does it feel like when you learn something new? How do you respond when you don’t ‘get it’ right away? What are the ideal conditions for learning? In collaboration? Independently? What role does the coach play? What do you notice the coach/teacher doing/saying in this clip? How does the element of fun leverage motivation?

An ideal way to try on the shoes of a beginner learner is to intentionally put yourself in a place of discomfort. And then reflect.

An additional benefit of doing something new also creates the illusion of the time lasting longer.  Recently on twitter, I read an article in the Science of Us that explores how seeking out newness provides rewards we may not realize:

To Make the Weekend Last Longer, Try Something New, by Cari Romm

Imagine we could do that all summer long! When we are immersed in new surroundings, new people, new activities, we are so focussed on processing information and trying to make connections to what we already know, that it makes the time seem to last longer.

So remember to ‘lay down’ some memories this summer by trying something new. What new learning will you chase this summer?