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What do good "readers" do? In my family. . .

From my childhood perspective, the story of how my mother taught me to read is romantic, but not very helpful to me as a teacher coach. It is the “everything happens because it just happens” tale. Magic. It would be unlikely that my mother would label it as coated in sweet fairy dust, or even natural, our process of working together. I would get frustrated with myself, and she would become disappointed in my frustration. I stopped trying to spite her, and then perform a task correctly to unsteady her own confidence in her efforts. In one moment with one set of blue eyes, I looked at scramble and saw nothing. I squinted and teared. The inner tantrum boiled. My three year old head throbbed and I thought the house might spin or fall. I slouched on the couch. I sat forward and spread my fingers across the book on the leather brown table. I traced the stain from the coaster, a permanent print of steam. I gave up. I shut my eyes. I refused to look at the book. When I opened my eyes, the letters came together and all made sense. I read. I read smoothly and easily. Magic, and a happy ending.

Difficulty decoding text disheartens and excludes beginning readers from their peers. Often, it is not only the student experiencing these feelings. Last fall I presented at the Wisconsin Teachers of English as a Second Language conference. The workshop session was based on a curriculum that promotes basic comprehension and critical thinking through empowering illiterate parents to read with their children. However, my own story illustrates that it is not just illiterate parents but all parents who step into uneven teaching and learning roles.

The curriculum I referenced for the presentation, Creating a Community of Readers, was part of a program used by Child Aid in Guatemala where I worked in preschool classrooms with indigenous Maya and ladino parents in rural Guatemala. Results observed increases in: library use, strategies used by parents designed for children to express their learning (i.e. questioning, manipulating the pages of the book, expressing opinion, making connections, and self-selecting books). Parents also expressed a more positive attitude towards reading and practicing reading at home. The idea of creating a community of readers is one that took up residence in my pedagogy since reading it as the school literacy program title.

My mother laid extensive groundwork with library visits and bedtime stories, both live and her own recorded version. Since I was being read to constantly, I’m less and less sure as I continue my teaching career that her level of expertise mattered. There appears to be some amount of pixie dust in play. We, as educational coaches, are charged with keeping the dust available and the guiding hands returning to the velvet tied pouches. I am not in the role of translator, as teacher training literature will often mention. I am in the role of language builder, both vocabulary and its effectiveness in co-constructing communication. My past year spent in the United States demonstrated that libraries and adult literacy organizations along with schools have taken notice of the importance of early literacy and the positive effects for children observing primary caregivers practice reading (i.e. 1000 Books before Kindergarten). They are currently focusing on programming that addresses its intersection with adult education through family engagement initiatives. Thus defining an ever growing number of possible participants in the “community of readers”.

However, the inclusive concept of “text” is not applied in such a way that families are included by their own determination. During one library storytime I observed, an invited Yoga instructor created a Yoga Story with the children. Children wobbled, put their feet or hands down to guide, and sometimes fell, but there was no mention of a disability as a descriptor of their physical actions. Without the introduction of written word as text, it was acceptable for all to participate at their own levels and navigate the application of individual ability without standard benchmarks. This example demonstrates that inclusion is still, more or less, an academic imposition because families are not included in the conversation.

I find Kabuto’s article an important reminder for construction of educational communities and their language in a variety of contexts. In Guatemala I learned how to weave on the backstrap loom, a task unrelated to my academic successes. I struggled greatly to understand my teacher’s instruction, to apply what she modelled for me, to understand her actions and to repeat learning independently. If I had quit, no one would have labeled me as “slow” or “below grade level”, because these constructs do not exist around weaving, nor is weaving a cultural marker of “smart”. At the nonprofit, the staff used the question “What do good readers do?” as a means initially to redefine Child Aid’s community of readers, our unique basis for the social construction of reading abilities for ourselves and participating teachers and students. As time passed and the staff became more competent in school based definitions of literacy, they were less likely to notice the critical thinking characteristics in their local communities. To counterbalance this shift towards exclusion, we dedicated time in professional development to notice what the “reading” or “smart” skills looked like with other texts like pottery, cooking or weaving, including staff presentations from their own lives. Both of my parents were practitioners in their application of strategies as early literacy teachers as well. The divisive factor, in my observations, is a cultural marker of “smart” attributed to readers of printed text.

“How did I learn to read?” I asked my father. He shows sad surprise at the question.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Your mom read to you a lot. She must have been a good teacher.”

During sessions when my mother occupied explicitly her teacher role, we used a set of wafer thin books. They were not really stories like the illustrated titles we checked out of the library on each visit. The unimpressive books weighed nothing in my hands. Their existence was only as real as her own smooth palms and fingers that lightly moved in cadence with her voice. This idea of community becomes ever more complex when concepts of learning “ability” or “disability” are, as cited by Bobbie Kabuto, “a pedagogic making”. Through the case study her article, The Social Construction of a Reading (Dis)Ability reminded me that when coaching teachers, parent, classroom, among others, it is not enough to use borrowed vocabulary. We must co-create meanings. “Terry and Peter’s case study raises critical questions around how we define reading ability and how parents use discourses to construct, support, and challenge their children’s identities. . .” Clearly my mother identified as a reader. She had an emotional connection to reading, inviting her children to speak with her through books both in structured teaching moments and independently guided by her voice. My father was not a part of our community of three, my mother, my brother and myself. However, this was an act of labeling on his part, and not ours. Through his use of dramatic play and storytelling while picking raspberries or playing with blocks, my father demonstrated key characteristics of readers. Hoeing his garden or strumming his guitar, he also demonstrated critical thinking skills, but identifies our group of three as “smart”, again isolating his participation.

In coaching conversations with parents that reach beyond traditional storytimes or parent-teacher conferences, I want to deconstruct vocabulary so that common narratives of “failing” or “succeeding” are not continued under new headings. Learning abilities and description of progress through strategy benchmarks use the parents’ funds of knowledge in order to value lived experience and skill development transferrable to characteristics of good readers in order to establish an inclusive community of practice around reading. A name equals existence. If something exists, it can be known. Once something is “known”, in order to be efficient, assumptions are made in uniformity related to the named. In my family, we are all readers, writers, teachers and learners. How about yours?

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