Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Helping Readers See Themselves in a Text

Every week during summer vacation, mom used to load us into the car and drive us to the library. While my sisters and brother were racing around with picture books and whatever toys they could get their hands on, I snuck off to a quieter corner of the library where the children’s biographies were shelved.

I plopped myself on the floor and ran my finger over the spines, looking for just the right one. I read the names to myself: “George Washington. Thomas Edison. Another Washington. Ben Franklin. Patrick Henry. Daniel Boone."

It would have been so much easier if the books had been arranged by the subject, rather than the author. There were dozens and dozens of people I didn’t want to read about. Eventually though, I’d find one that was perfect: “YES! Dolly Madison!”

I’d pull the book off the shelf and begin reading immediately. My favorite books were ones that began when the person was close to my own age. Even though we might have lived decades or even centuries apart, we had things in common—whether it was trying to learn how to cook or fussing over school work.

When we finally loaded back into the car, everyone else had colorful books about cartoon people or lovable animals. My arms were filled with stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Washington, Juliette Low, and Dolly Madison. Before the week was out, I would read them cover to cover and beg to go back to the library to find more.

Occasionally I’d put a book about George Washington or Daniel Boone on the top of my reading pile, but they felt like text books from history or social studies class. I’d make myself read them, but they were always like bitter medicine you suffered through so you could get the spoonful of sugar afterward.

It all seems slightly funny now. I was doing what any reader wants to: I was looking for stories that reflected by own experiences. I wanted stories about young girls, about their accomplishments as women, and about the journeys they took from child to adult.

Don’t bother me with stories of boys becoming apprentices, men fighting battles, or chopping their way through forests. Show me people who are like me. Show me people who are like the person I want to become.

In my own way, I guess I have been celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) every day, from the moment I started demanding to see myself in the texts that I read. At its heart, Día is about making that kind of connection between readers and what they read. It’s about connecting with readers, in their own languages and with texts that they can identify with.

Every reader should have the experience of looking at a text and making connections based on their experiences, culture, and heritage. With ever-increasing class sizes and the rich diversity of our classrooms, finding the right text for each student is quite a challenge. Better is the goal of equipping students to find these texts themselves.

If I had waited for someone else to find books for me on those trips to the library, who knows if I would have found the right books. Somewhere, however, I picked up the skill to search through the stacks till I found the texts that I connected with. That’s the skill I hope to teach students. My ReadWriteThink lesson plan “Assessing Cultural Relevance: Exploring Personal Connections to a Text” demonstrates one technique I’ve tried.

In the lesson, students work as a class to evaluate a nonfiction or realistic fiction text for its cultural relevance to themselves and as a group. After completing this full-class activity, students search for additional, relevant texts. By the end of the lesson, students have found a book and written a review about its relevance to themselves and their cultural background.

The books they find help them see themselves in what they read, but more importantly, they practice and refine techniques for finding and selecting books that they connect with. With that knowledge, they too can make every day El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day).


1 comment:

Carol Mikoda said...

Traci, your account of childhood trips to the library to find relevant biographies brought back many memories for me, as well. I worked my way from one end of the biography shelf to the other. Like you, I often picked biographies of women, but not always. I love the idea of helping students learn to find themselves in texts, to make yet another connection. I think, from my classroom experience, that it also leads to students expanding the connections they make to include others not so much the same...a step in the direction of tolerance of diversity.