Diane Barone, president of the International Literacy Association, opened the 2016 convention in Boston with a reminder to the thousands of teachers who filled the auditorium that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” day. Every day holds the extraordinary opportunity to make a difference — one book, one child at a time. This message was echoed by the speakers who followed: first the young activist Adora Stivak and later the HMH author of The Crossover and Booked and Newbery Medal winner, Kwame Alexander.
From my seat in the audience, I can assure you that this was no ordinary day and these were no ordinary speakers.
If you have never heard of Adora Stivak, you might want to check out her TED Talk about what adults can learn from kids. She is a force of nature committed to the belief that understanding starts with the stories we tell our children. Using her own experiences as a young reader to support her claims, Adora explained why it is so important that these stories reflect the lives, faces, and feelings of the children who will read them.
She also enlisted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the course of her argument, quoting, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” I agree. For too long we have ordered students to read harder and longer books with the promise that complex texts will best prepare them for college and career. The message students hear is: suffer now so you can play later. A return on investment model mightily shortchanges the currency of what the realms of gold have to offer. Reading great books enriches the reader now, here, today.
Kwame Alexander then took the stage. A commanding presence, he immediately engaged the audience in a response reading from his picture book Surf’s Up, a testament to the power of reading, even when the surf is up. Kwame used the text to illustrate the danger of segregating books. He told of how a teacher once asked him what color the frogs (the main characters) in Surf’s Up were. Their color — yellow-orange and green to my eye — is irrelevant to the book’s message. We need to keep our eye on the ball. All children need diverse books.
Citing the charismatic librarian in Booked, Alexander reflected upon how teachers can make or break a child. Students read our responses to their behavior, good or ill, and from those clues draw conclusions about their own worth. His observation that “the mind of the adult begins with the imagination of a child” still haunts me. The choices teachers make about the books we teach and put in students’ hands have the potential to change the world.
Inspired and challenged to do more and do better, I headed to the exhibit hall and came across a few of my favorite books:
No, this was certainly no ordinary day.