My work is deeply inspired by the children I’ve known—and shared stories with—in underserved communities in the United States and abroad: 13-year-old Daniel, in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, who reclaimed a childhood of joy after a hard life in foster care; Diana, in Nairobi’s Kibera settlement, who had never seen a girl stand up to a man before she read Charlotte’s Web, then learned to advocate for herself by paying close attention to Fern; and Sanjee, in Pakistan, who can’t attend school because of the dangerous route to get there but who enters new worlds through the power of stories and books. For these children and the others I have met on my journeys, reading is not only a source of entertainment or joy but also a doorway to new possibilities, where the power of imagination and knowledge become infinite.
With the launch of its new statement of mission, “Open a World of Possible,” Scholastic is championing every child’s right to have access to books and stories in all forms. Literacy builds a bridge to all realms, real and fantastically dreamed, and I couldn’t be more excited to team with Scholastic to spread the message worldwide that reading is much more than just words on a page—it is the opportunity to live a life one imagines and dreams of.
Here are five ways we can help our students enter a “world of possible” and use the power of words and stories to transform their lives.
1 | Honor every child’s stories.
The most powerful tool we have to strengthen literacy is often overlooked, and that is a child’s own stories. Make your classroom a stress- and judgment-free place where each child feels welcome and encouraged to share his or her experiences with you and fellow students. You can do this by crafting writing exercises around what I call “The Four Prompts”: I wonder..., I remember..., I imagine..., I observe…. These four ideas validate a child’s personal experience and encourage self-expression. Build on these ideas by reading aloud to children and inviting them to envision what matters to the author and where that author’s stories have come from.
It’s also important to use everything you learn from and about students to help them build a reading identity. Be a close listener inside and outside the classroom. What are they talking about at recess or lunch? What seems most interesting to them? Bring those passions into the classroom and guide students to find books that match what they are curious about. Encourage them to be open and courageous in their reading choices, even quirky and eccentric, goofy, fun, and personal.
2 | Emphasize the importance of lifelong learning.
My LitWorld initiatives bring kids together to read and write, explore and discover within a collaborative learning community. Positioning ourselves as co-learners with our students—demonstrating that we love to read and that sometimes we, too, struggle as readers—creates an inclusive community that bolsters success for all.
Let’s also create the kind of community where students can share their writing and can collaborate with many different audiences. Connect your classroom to the wider world by publishing student work on a blog; sharing a student-made video in response to a book they’ve read; or opening a classroom Twitter account. In the current era, reading and writing are deeply social; via social media and other venues, we can find many ways to be in dialogue with one another about what we are reading and how we are responding. This way, students can see that their ideas are influencing and affecting others and that their voices are heard.
3 | Make the most of one-to-one interactions.
When we forge deeper connections, we enhance our students’ strengths and help them achieve their goals. In some classrooms I have visited, teachers can be responsible for more than 100 children, but even in those crowded spaces, teachers think of themselves as mentors and coaches, working to create a personalized learning environment to empower every student.
Create a schedule for weekly check-ins. Keep notes on students as readers and writers, speakers and listeners, and bring these notes to your reading conferences to show each child that you truly know him or her. You might even videotape your conferences so that parents can learn to have similarly deep conversations with their children about books.
4 | Enroll families as partners
We must engage parents and invite them to build a love of literacy with us. According to the National Education Association, there is a 74-point achievement gap between classrooms with low family involvement and ones with high family involvement. The 2013 Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that having parents who are reading role models has a greater impact on kids’ reading frequency than family income.
Try different forms of communication—e-newsletters, text messages, Google Hangout, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook—that bring parents together, virtually or live, to share resources. Help them see that what most of them do naturally is best of all: asking children to tell their own stories, building stamina by valuing reading minutes, and creating supportive reading environments at home. Children dream big dreams in a cozy corner of a couch. All they need is an adult to listen to and encourage them.
5 | Evaluate what you value.
Monitoring progress must be centered on a child’s core abilities. At LitWorld, our assessments focus on four areas: reading and writing identity, civic engagement, sense of self, and a sense of one’s hopeful future. A sense of curiosity is vital, too. Recently, I led a college course in which my students developed an evaluation tool for children based on curiosity. This was the most important quality for their own success, they said.
We want our children to develop college- and career-ready skills. These skills are not all about retelling facts; they are about critical thinking and making connections, about being curious, collaborative, and independent. Seek ways to measure these capacities through formative assessments and performance-based tasks rather than fill-in-the-blank tests. Name the characteristics of strong readers (stamina, fluency, engagement) and identify simple ways to measure these traits by interviewing students and watching them read in their “natural habitats.” Invite families to be part of this. Ask them to send you a note when they observe something wonderful developing for their children as readers.
My work happens in the most crowded places, and also in the most remote places. Yet no matter where I go, what I see is that every child is hungry to become a reader and a storyteller. Access to books stokes a child’s inner life, bringing distant horizons within reach and nourishing the value of a child’s own stories and dreams.
In the new world of possible, every child will become a lifelong reader and storyteller.