The new year is a time of reflection and prediction. As an educator of 620 children aged three to twelve, I grapple with how to prepare them for a tomorrow that seems likely to include climate change, increasing inequality and political instability. For me, the question of ‘what comes next’ is not only hypothetical and philosophical but practical. As the school librarian, I plan storytimes and discussions that I hope will engage every child. My students are diverse in every sense of the word: socio-economically, linguistically, racially and geographically. They speak more than forty languages at home and were born in more than fifty countries. Some that I know of (and likely others that I don’t) have special needs, or are coping with trauma, or are exploring notions of gender identity and sexual orientation.
During my years of my practice I noticed that there was something powerful going on during the best storytimes, but I couldn’t explain it and because it couldn’t be explained, it couldn’t be measured. Because it couldn’t be measured, it wasn’t valued in the data-driven education climate in which I work. I used various assessment techniques, but none seemed to fully capture the sense of enchantment and intellectual growth that I sensed was happening during the most successful storytime discussions. In an attempt to understand it, I took a year’s study leave to pursue an MPhil with a focus on Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature.
Underpinning all this is a sense of urgency about the attainment gap, recently and more accurately redefined as the opportunity gap. Because it is not our students’ lack of capability that is causing this lack of achievement, rather it is the lack of opportunity they face. Like schools across the UK and US, middle class white and Asian children do very well at my school district. Children who are marginalized by issues of race, poverty, special needs or other differences don’t do as well. Ranked number one in Virginia, my school district has the highest test scores and low absenteeism. We are doing a lot right. Yet despite years of interventions, children who are most in need are still being left behind. There are contributing factors at a societal, macro level, but that doesn’t absolve me from action at a micro level.
Micro-level action for me means storytimes that engage every child in a discussion that develops skills for visual and literary interpretation. The intellectual development and wellbeing of every child is foremost in my mind as I select books and scaffold debates that foster the type of nuanced critical thinking and empathetic dispositions that children will need for their own good and for the good of others in a complex, confusing and changing world.
Which brings me to the topic that my 142 fourth-grade students (age 9 – 10) were learning about when I conducted empirical research for my MPhil thesis: the complex, confusing and changing world of the period leading up to the American Revolution. Dare I call it Brexit-1773 style? The people were divided and tempers were high. Rather than present the revolution as a straightforward choice between the freedom of citizens and lack of representation as subjects under King George III and parliament, I chose a book that revealed the many nuanced opinions of the colonists. In free verse and detailed illustrations Colonial Voices: hear them speak by Kay Winters and Larry Day, tells of the decisions and choices made by fourteen colonists on the day of the Boston Tea Party. The book communicates to readers on a spectrum of ages and experience. Fluent readers can master unfamiliar phrases and words from the 18th century. Novice readers might have a more perceptive eye for pictorial details. It is ideal for classrooms of students of varying background, reading abilities and languages. Every sighted student can glean something from the images alone. Every hearing student can glean something from the words read aloud. The characters’ differing perspectives fostered productive, exploratory dialogue during a scaffolded discussion in which I asked students to provide evidence to support their claims, or to offer conflicting evidence about the nuanced views of those with power and of those without.
One example of encouraging children to think critically is the close examination of two consecutive pages that describe the barber and the blacksmith’s slave.
Note the raised eyebrows and chins of the barber and his clients. Proud and haughty, they look down their noses at the patriots’ plans. This verse refers to human hair from London as “the best quality to be had!” It ends with the barber admiring the judge’s new wig and reflecting that “[h]e looks a proper Englishman!” There is no doubt as to the political persuasion of this colonist. Ethan, meanwhile, is staring at the jar of leeches. The bold label “LEECH” might invoke multiple interpretations from sophisticated readers. Leeches were used by barbers in the hope of curing bruises (peritext). Another meaning of the word ‘leech’ refers to someone who takes advantage, like a parasite. This meaning resonates as the page is turned to the blacksmith’s slave.
The enslaved man is hunched toward the fire and bound by chains. Their postures alone suggest the power dynamic between master and slave. Ethan stands between them, suggesting that there is only one voice that matters in this room. This is a one-dimensional image of slavery. It denies the myriad covert and overt ways that enslaved people resisted. Our discussions explored whose voices were included in this book, and crucially, whose were omitted and why. Lawrence Sipe, in his book Storytime, asks how children might learn to identify ideologies through literary understanding, because doing so helps them to think critically about how stereotypical racial, sexual and class attitudes are implicitly inscribed and how they shape social norms today.
I repeated the lesson in six classrooms. Seven highly qualified and experienced classroom teachers with contextual knowledge about their students and the curriculum objectives observed. Their perceptions of their students’ interaction with the book revealed high levels of engagement, connections of prior learning to new knowledge, and the development of literacy skills. They regarded this storytime lesson as an effective and enjoyable way to engage students while seamlessly integrating specific literacy, history and research curriculum standards. This study provided the type of data that I need to provide evidence of learning.
Studying with others from around the world helped me to examine my own practice closely and critically, and to take a more global perspective. According to the United Nations, 617 million youth lack basic literacy skills.
In a world where many children are unprotected from vicious and demoralizing experiences, and where they may feel existential despair, dread and anxiety just as intensely as adults, these issues are eminently relevant for them, and the experience of literature and the development of literary understanding may be an empowering and affirming force in their lives.Lawrence Sipe
Could humanity’s age-old life-affirming tradition of storytelling be harnessed in ways that prove competency in data-driven educational climates? Could the implementation of teaching strategies that use books and scaffolded discussions to seamlessly integrate literacy and critical thinking skills have an impact?
Since my small study, I have returned to my school with new insight, although I’m still searching for more ways to prove the impact that books can have on children’s wellbeing and intellectual development. I can’t predict what comes next on a global scale, but I remain convinced that the enthralment of storytimes can be powerful experiences to cultivate the promise of every child.
Sipe, L. (2008). Storytime: young children’s literary understanding in the classroom. New York: Teachers College.
Winters, K. & Day, L. (2008). Colonial voices! Hear them speak! New York: Puffin.
Karen Bentall has worked at state and independent school libraries in the UK and the US. Last year she took study leave from her position as school librarian in the Washington, DC area to complete the MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at the Centre. She won the Jacqueline Wilson Award for Best Thesis in 2019.
EDIT: This post was amended on the 30th of January 2020 to correct the name of the Jacqueline Wilson Award.