New Classics

Jonda C. McNair, Assistant Professor of Reading at Clemson University, publishes I Never Knew… a terrific newsletter highlighting African American children’s literature. In her Fall 2008 issue (which you can get by emailing her) Dr. McNair invites readers to expand the definition of “children’s classics” to include more representation of diverse authors and texts, as follows:

It is my hope that teachers, teacher educators, parents, and others will broaden their definition of the term “classic” so as to represent all children with a diverse collection of books that will stand the test of time.

I’m currently reworking my classroom library and keeping McNair’s words in mind. I recently came across a box of old books (left by the teacher who occupied  my classroom before me) and to my delight I found copies of picture books by Lucille Clifton (like-new copy of Everett Anderson’s Goodbye) and John Steptoe, as well as several titles by Eloise Greenfield. My library also includes many of the newer titles mentioned in the newsletter, and my students and I agree that Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson is a “must” to be included on anybody’s list of new classics!

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Lifeboat for teaching

Digging for treasure in old notebooks!

Digging for treasure in old notebooks!

I’ve been rummaging through old notebooks and favorite texts as I prepare for the semester ahead with my students (preservice teachers). While leafing through my dog-eared copy of  Lucy Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing, my eyes fell on the following words: “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential. It is not the number of good ideas that turns our work into art, but the selection, balance, and design of those ideas.”

About 12 years ago, I attended my first summer writing institute at Columbia’s Teachers College. Katie Wood Ray (KWR) delivered a keynote address that echoes Calkins’s words and resonates to this day. KWR told a story of planning and preparing to do a week of writing work with a school on an island (maybe Jamaica?) and she talked about how she and a colleague thought long and hard about all the things they “needed” to bring with them in order to teach well. Her list included particular overheads and artifacts that she thought at the time were essential to her teaching of writing. By the time she finished packing, her bags were groaning from the load of “stuff” she decided she had to bring. When she got to the school, not only was there no overhead projector, there was no electricity! There were no books, and few –if any– of the supplies that we take for granted and think we can’t possibly teach without. She and her colleague had to rethink their whole itinerary and start from scratch. In the end, they realized they did not need most of what they had originally thought they couldn’t teach without.

KWR asked those of us in attendance, “What will you pack in your lifeboat for teaching?  You can’t take everything with you, so you have to think long and hard about what is most essential to your teaching.” Her question provoked us to reflect on how we would prioritize …. think about what’s most important and central to our teaching. It came down to the stories of our own lives, our own experiences, the literature that we read and was read to us, all those things that we know by heart, along with the strength of our convictions.

So … one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep the “lifeboat for teaching” metaphor at the forefront of my planning and hold onto that  which is essential to impart meaningful instruction …. and let go of that which is not!