“I have lived a thousand lives and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time. Because I read.” - George R. R. Martin
A picture book can become a powerful change agent. The words, characters, images, and story combine to enlighten and inspire children to see the world—and themselves—in new ways. Yet the question many educators ask is how do we tap into the power of the books we read to use them as a catalyst for critical thought, reflection, and conversation. This is the question that inspired my co-authors, Jigisha Vyas and Keisha Smith-Carrinton, and I to write Read Alouds with Heart: Literacy Lessons That Build Community, Comprehension, and Cultural Competency. Our goals became both to support teachers in doing vital self work and to provide teachers with ways of pairing beautiful picture books with lessons designed to invite perspective sharing, critical comprehension, connection, and empathy.
In this post, I share the framework we’ve created to highlight all that books have to offer. This framework focuses on three aspects of reading: studying identities, understanding harm and healing in stories, and reading with heart and empathy.
Character study is way more than simply determining traits. To fully see the character on the page, readers must notice and think about the identities they carry and how those identities shape the experiences they have throughout the book. Exploring the characters’ identities can also help children find connection with the characters and/or catch a glimpse into a world unlike their own, building a deeper understanding of this wide world we all live in.
Why Harm and Healing?
Raising a generation of people who will preserve our planet, respect one another, and create a better world requires that we teach children to look for the causes of conflict, the impact of choices, AND the ways we might heal the hurt we have caused. If we focus on the challenges characters experience and the ways they find a way forward to heal, we can help our readers deepen their understanding of the story and be moved to make different choices themselves.
The beauty of literacy is that we can marry literature with practicing empathy because reading mirrors and provides context for life, helping us understand the world and one another (Mar & Oatley, 2008). When we read, we share a connection with our characters. We feel the pain of having a best friend move away or being picked last for the kickball team. We experience the joy of baking bread with our grandmother or performing a solo in the recital. Reading and tuning in to the emotions of characters and to our own reactions can provide emotional context and understanding.
Of course, any time educators carry conversations around identity into the classroom, they must do some excavation work themselves first. Begin that journey by studying the work of amazing mentors like Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and by checking out the Learning About Ourselves section of our book, Read-Alouds With Heart.
As you move forward on your teaching journey, I hope this framework helps you imagine new strategies and questions that lead students to deeper, more empathetic reading… and brings even more heart into your read alouds. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about how studying identity starts with an exploration of self.