Seeing Clearly: Global Visions in a Teacher Inquiry Community
by Kelly Wissman
As a university professor with an abiding interest in children’s literature and a firm belief in teachers as intellectuals and agents of change, I started the 2012-2013 school year with some trepidation. In addition to a proliferation of media discourses that painted teachers in a negative light, some interpretations of the Common Core State Standards seemed to marginalize both fiction texts as well as the value of engaging students in reflective conversations about literature. Against this backdrop, the Tri-Cities Global Literacy Community began exploring global literature in the summer of 2012. This teacher inquiry community consists of six members, including reading specialists, a reading teacher, an ESL teacher, and teacher educators. One late September afternoon as we all gathered for our monthly meeting, a cacophony of voices traded concerns about new teacher evaluation procedures, the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, and revamped literacy curricula in districts. As more and more examples and stories began to build upon each other, one of the group members proclaimed, “It’s hard to see straight!” As our meeting continued, the visual appeal of the global picturebooks surrounding us on our meeting table and the compelling stories housed within them captured our attention and began to focus our discussion on the potential of global literature to revitalize our teaching and to reach our students. While the sense of anxiety around the complex educational climate in which this work would occur lingered, it moved a bit to the background as we considered the picturebooks and their possibilities.
As I have looked back on notes from our meetings and from the time I spent in many of the teachers’ classrooms over this past year, references to “seeing” often emerge. At times, group members commented upon how we can sometimes lose sight of children in the midst of high stakes testing pressures. At other times, group members noted how their own eyes have been opened by the global literature they read as a part of this group. Overwhelmingly, though, teachers spoke about how they witnessed their students’ eyes light up in response to books that reflected their experiences, that transported them to distant lands, and that inspired them to draw, debate, perform, and take action. For ESL students, “struggling readers,” and academically successful students alike, reading global literature cleared spaces for dialogue, creativity, and participation. Reading and responding to global literature troubled some of the students’ assumptions and promoted a sense of empathy. While the dizzying amount of pressures the teachers were under rarely abated across the time we spent together, incorporating global literature helped shift the focus to the global visions students were developing.
Our monthly meetings typically started with members sharing their plans for incorporating global literature into their classrooms and seeking out suggestions and responses from the group. A wide array of global literature was also on hand for members to look through and consider. As the school year progressed, members shared teaching experiences, student work, and reflections on their teaching. We also discussed articles or book chapters exploring how other teachers have conceptualized global literature and incorporated global perspectives into their classrooms. Along with another group member and teacher educator, Suzanne Davis, I visited the classrooms of the teachers to learn more about the work they were doing with their students. While both Suzanne and I also incorporated global literature into our own Children’s Literature classes with pre-service and in-service teachers, the vignettes we present here focus on the teaching and perspectives of the four K-6 teachers in the group.
The four vignettes written by the teachers in the Tri-Cities Global Literacy community reflect broad themes across our work together. The vignettes render in vivid detail how students from urban schools to suburban schools, from English Language Learners to native speakers, from Kindergartners through sixth graders, took up opportunities to engage with multiple, critical, and global perspectives in fiction and nonfiction texts. We begin with perspectives from Heather O’Leary, an ESL teacher, who provides windows into how her students’ engagements with global literature across the school year prompted rich inquiries into bilingualism, lived experiences of migration, and civic action. Next, Krista Jiampetti explores her work as a literacy specialist collaborating with a sixth grade teacher to bring global perspectives to a unit on war. In addition to reading and responding to a range of novels, nonfiction texts, and multimedia texts, students also participated in interactive picturebook readalouds that prompted thoughtful, critical, and sometimes emotional conversations about war, the motivations behind it, and the effects on the global community.
Maggie Burns, a reading specialist in an elementary school, then introduces us to a group of third grade boys so moved by the story of one man’s efforts to make books available to Colombian children that they mobilized resources –including their own literacies – to make a difference. Finally, Simeen Tabatabai, a fifth grade reading teacher, provides accounts of her students’ multi-layered discussions about global texts in a classroom environment founded on the premise that reading creates opportunities for all students to be world “travelers.” Simeen’s vignette illustrates in vivid ways the central themes of seeing – and seeing anew – that connect all our work.
Engagements with Global Literature: Asking, Listening, and Pausing
Across this year, I have witnessed how important it is not only to have high quality global literature available in classroom, but also to create contexts for meaningful engagements with that literature. When Simeen asked her students, “What are you thinking?” rich reflective conversational spaces were opened where students wrestled with their own responsibilities as global citizens. When Maggie listened to the questions her students asked about “Alfa and Beto: The Biblioburros” (Morrow, 2013), an idea for a social action project was born. When Krista paused in a read aloud and waited for students to share their responses, a range of deeply personal, philosophical, and analytical perspectives about war and its consequences filled the room. In asking, listening, and pausing, each teacher nurtured valuable, purposeful, and intentional engagements with books. The educational moments the teachers describe in their vignettes resulted from:
• wide-ranging study of children’s literature;
• careful thinking about how to surround fiction with nonfiction, multigenre texts;
• thoughtful arrangement of classroom resources to promote discussion;
• considered attention to local, state, and national standards;
• purposeful development of a teaching stance of listening and openness;
• an embrace of the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of not knowing all the answers or how students will respond.
Within such an educational context where engagements with global literature were purposeful and meaningful, the students in Heather’s classroom found themselves in the books and found themselves as readers, thinkers, citizens, and scholars. When “testing season” took over many weeks of instructional time and the books were not as prevalent in the curriculum as before, these same students demanded to know, “Where are our books?!” Within that question, asked adamantly and assuredly, the students recognized the power of reading and the value of educational inquiry tied to their worlds and to the broader world. They made a claim to “our books” as an educational birthright. In the vignettes the Tri-Cities teachers share, we see glimpses of how students took up these opportunities to claim books and their own responses to them as evidence of their active participation in and shaping of the world around them.
Morrow, P. (2013). Alfa and Beto: The biblioburros (abridged version). In I. C. Fountas & G. S. Pinnell, RED leveled literacy intervention student test preparation booklet (pp. 19-20). Portsmouth, NH: Heinneman.
Kelly Wissman is an Associate Professor of children’s literature and literacy in the Reading Department at the University at Albany-SUNY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org