January 29, 2016
[First Printed as the closing comments in Lester Laminack (2009)"Unwrapping the Read Aloud: Making Every Read Aloud Experience Intentional and Instructional" NY: Scholastic, (pp.93-95)
Reading aloud to the children in our lives seems like such a commonsense practice. Yet in recent years I have heard teachers remark that they simply don’t have time to read aloud. These same teachers comment on how much they enjoy reading to their students and share fond memories from their own school years when teachers read to them. It is as if we feel the need to justify the use of precious time to read aloud. We seem afraid to exercise our own good judgment to do what our professional knowledge tells us is right and good for children. Let me remind you that we are professionals. Somehow in the midst of all the demands for higher scores, the very real threats of school takeovers, and the infiltration of scripted programs, we have lost sense of this fact. We are professionals.
Remember that we have a specific knowledge base that sets us apart from the rest of the population. We have deep understandings and insights into human growth and development, language and literacy development, pedagogy, curriculum design, and instructional technique. We know things the general public simply doesn’t understand. Yet we continue to allow influences beyond our profession diminish our sense of self and steal our very professional identity from us, and in doing so we lose our professional integrity.
I urge you to renew that knowledge base. Revisit those books and articles that once sparked your professional knowledge and piqued your curiosity. Revisit those books and articles, conference proceedings, and videos that once excited you, invigorated you, and nudged you into new practices in your classroom. Revisit the last time you felt charged and in charge. Remember those days when you entered the profession, and remember the feelings and beliefs that brought you in.
I can’t know your reasons for becoming a teacher, but I am virtually certain that there is not one teacher breathing who chose this profession because he or she wanted to raise a test score or make adequate yearly progress goals for the school. Whatever the reason you had for becoming a teacher, I’m confident it had something to do with children and their welfare and their sense of self. I am fairly confident it had something to do with helping children reach their potential and realize their dreams. Let’s refocus our energies on the children. Let’s make each decision based on what we believe would be good for the specific children in our charge. Let’s make daily decisions with that in mind. Let’s trust our professional judgment to guide our decisions. Let’s teach with integrity and know that our students will do well if our attention is directed toward the child—the mathematician and scientist and artist and writer and musician and athlete and reader and social scientist and dreamer and inventor and visionary in each of them. Let’s teach children again. Let’s be reminded we are here to raise humans, not scores.
Let me remind you that literature in all its many forms has such potential to expand the horizons of every child—regardless of background or baggage, privilege or poverty. When we read aloud to them, we offer them new vistas and new visions. We offer them new ways of coping with life’s issues and pleasures. We offer them new opportunities to grow their language and their understandings. We help them realize how much there is to learn. When we read aloud, we show them how we gain a little knowledge to ask better questions, and that asking better questions drives us to read even more. When we read aloud, we introduce them to people just like them and like no one they have ever imagined. We help them realize their homes are only a small sample of the dwellings of all humanity. We help them realize their families are one of many ways families can be formed. We help them realize that the sound of their language is one note in the music of the many languages on the globe. When we read aloud, we help them realize what they value and cherish as worthy and worthwhile and holy is only one way of assigning importance in this great big world. When we read aloud, we help them realize that no matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter what we value, no matter how we sound, we are more alike as human beings from the inside out than we are different from the outside in. But perhaps the most important message that comes from our reading aloud to them is one that says you are worth the time this will take. You are the focus of what I do as a teacher. When I read to you, I give you that same undivided attention you once had snuggling in the lap of a caregiver who read to you. When a teacher reads aloud, it is a bonding between the teacher, the children, the books, and the act of reading. That in itself is worthy.
Friends, I urge you to reconnect to those stirrings that brought you into this profession. I urge you to refocus your attention to the children in your care. There is no more precious treasure on this globe than the children of its people. Nothing holds greater potential for good, for truth, for justice than the children on this Earth. We cannot afford to contaminate that precious resource with notions of worth connected to the number on a test. We cannot afford to lead our children to the belief that our school’s success, our success, their success, and, by association, their worth, is invested in adequate yearly progress. For a child to believe that he or she has responsibility for the success of a school, a community, a state, and the nation is ludicrous at best and immoral at worst.
Take some time now to search through your books, to carefully and critically examine your schedule, to revisit your vision about why this matters. Pull a favorite book, stop what you are doing, and read to them.
In all things, be kind and truthful. Let nothing you do take from a child his or her dignity as a human being, his or her integrity as a learner, his or her identity as one who is capable. Cause no intentional harm.
Peace be with you,
October 30, 2015
International Literacy Association Interview
Q: You’ve often discussed the importance of read-alouds in school. Do you write with that in mind?
A: I am very conscious of rhythm and phrasing as I write. All through the development of a story I pause to read and reread and read aloud. I listen for the sounds of words hanging together. I listen for those places where the balance is off, where the music in language just doesn’t resonate. I read with attention to how those words feel in my mouth, noting where I stumble or have to pause when reading aloud. Reading and listening to my own writing is one of my most frequently used revision tools.
Q: What about read-alouds get children interested in independent reading?
A: Reading aloud to children is one way of making numerous deposits into the account they will draw from across their lives. It fills their ears with the music of written language, attuning the ear to the rhythms, pacing, and flow of language used in story, essays, expository material and every other type of text. Reading aloud broadens vocabulary, develops familiarity with the arc of a story, the patterns of beginning, middle, and end, the development of a character. It creates a sense of kinship among those who share the story. Reading aloud to students exposes them to the structure of an essay, the framework for an argument, the reflection of a memoir. It is an engaging and non-threatening way to expose children to various genres, authors and purposes for reading. When a text is delivered on the voice of one who is passionate about language and writing and reading and teaching, the result is a powerful current that pulls anyone within earshot of the banks of onlooking and into the flow of language. I believe that experience is necessary to the development of independent readers.
Q: How has your work as a college professor affected your children’s books?
A: I’m taking the liberty here to alter your question just a bit. I was an elementary classroom teacher and a Title I Reading teacher before I was a college professor and I think of myself as a teacher who happens to be a writer. As a teacher I have knowledge of the growth and development patterns in children and youth. I believe that helps to keep me focused on what and how children make sense of experience. And while that clearly rests in my conscious mind, it doesn’t constrict or define parameters for me. Perhaps it comes from that academic background, but I believe the more powerful influence is that I have somehow kept alive the child within.
Q: Do you sit down with a particular lesson in mind or does the plot just lead to the lesson (envy in Three Hens and a Peacock, for instance)?
A: I believe my best writing emerges and is fed by the process of allowing a story to grow. I have attempted to begin with a “lesson” in mind and it always fails. When I have taken that stance the story builds to a point and implodes beneath the weight of that heaviness. There is one particular story I ache to tell and the primary problem with every draft I’ve made is that I am being guided by a particular “lesson” when I need to be guided by the character and let the story emerge. I have learned that story works better when I give the characters enough room to live in my head and just follow them around taking notes.
Q: I saw a photo of you in front of a bookshelf. Is that really yours, and if so, how are they organized?
A: Yes, that photo was taken in 2010 in my old loft in downtown Asheville. I’ve moved since then, but had similar shelving built in the new place so all my friends could come along. Regarding the system for organizing. Anyone who knows me well understands my need for organization (I can hear a few of my friends chuckling as they read this). These books are organized in two ways. The majority of these books are shelved alphabetically by authors last name. I also have several subsets organized by category or topic (bats, honeybees, civil rights, the holocaust, kindness, etc.) because I work with them frequently and need to pull a collection for some purpose.
September 27, 2015
How can educators teach character?
It is my view that character is something we demonstrate and develop over time. There are lessons we can teach, books we can share, conversations we can host, but none of it will matter if we are not living exemplars of what we say and ask our students to live out. Children, even the youngest of our students, recognize the disconnect between our words and our actions. In short, integrity is not something we can fake. Our actions and behaviors are the more effective teacher in matters of character. Children learn from our behaviors what a promise means. They learn from our actions and our reactions what it means to be kind and truthful and honorable. They learn from our consistent ways of being what it means to be trustworthy, considerate, empathetic and caring. Our ways of being are, in my view the most powerful instruction we can devise when it comes to developing character.
Developing character is an incremental process, one that takes time, consistency, modeling and conversation. I believe our task begins with living what we expect. We model civil conversations in which all participants listen and respond, initiate and scaffold. We behave with our colleagues in ways we would expect our students to behave for I do not believe we can lead the development of anything in others that is not a basic component of our own belief and behavior.
In my work I am encouraging teachers across the country to drop the traditional list of rules; the "you can't..." statements and the "if you do..." threats we find posted on the first day of school. I'm suggesting that in place of those lists we focus on a guiding principle such as this: "In all things be kind and truthful; cause no intentional harm." This statement focuses on what we expect, what we hold as common behavior in a civil society. It doesn't suggest the behaviors we want to avoid. It doesn't imply a punitive system to coerce the behaviors desired by authority. Character is not compliance out of fear, it is a manifestation of core beliefs. Character is how we live every day in every circumstance. The task, then, is to help students develop deeply held beliefs about the value of human dignity, respect for oneself and for others.
August 9, 2015
On August 6, 2015 I delivered the Thursday keynote for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (#TCRWP) August Writing Institute. I focused on the importance of trust in teaching writing. At one point in the keynote I read my most recent blog post (see www.LesterLaminack.com). That post was my response to the recent events in Charleston, southern heritage, and the confederate flag. The speech was well received and I was deeply touched by the response.
Though many came up to speak with me afterwards, one young African-American teacher from CA (I wish I had his name) came up to tell me what the remarks had meant to him. I thanked him. We embraced and he removed a button from his shirt and handed it to me. "I want you to have this."
I pinned the button to the lapel of my jacket and left it there. I embrace its message and I'm proud to wear it. But as I moved through the hours I became unconscious of having it on my jacket. So yesterday afternoon (Friday) I board the flight from LaGuardia to Charlotte. I had been upgraded to first class and took my seat on the aisle in row two. The flight attendant came through asking if anyone wanted a drink while we waited for others to board. I declined, but noticed that each time she passed she seemed to be looking at me as if she expected me to say something. Finally, as everyone was boarded she stepped into the aisle and came over to me, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but I'm intrigued by your button. Shouldn't it say, ALL lives matter?"
I looked at her and sat silent for a moment. Then I asked, "May I ask you how old you are?" She was 32. "Then this may be hard for you to imagine, but I'm going to ask that you reflect a while before saying anything. Imagine you have two sons that are the same age, twins. But one is white and one is black. Can you hold that thought in you mind?" She said yes. "Now let's imagine that your two boys are age 19 or 20 and are heading out for the evening in the city...maybe in Ferguson or Baltimore or Charleston... (I pause to let that settle). Would you feel that both your boys would be equally safe for the evening? She said little. Very little. Then I said, "So, I guess you could say we have to remind our friends, families, and neighbors that Black Lives Matter. And until they embrace that notion and live with it as a truth, we can't do more than give lip service to the notion that ALL lives matter." She just stood there and I added, "you know, I think I will have a drink."
July 30, 2015
Southern Heritage is Deep and Complex
by Lester Laminack
My American family can be traced to a German immigrant who entered Philadelphia in 1739 and made his way to South Carolina in 1767. The roots of my family tree have reached deep into southern soil and spread far across the region. I grew up in a small rural town halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. That Alabama county seat with its three traffic lights was my geographic world back then.
I was born in 1956, early enough to remember two water fountains on the side of the Tasty Dip, separate schools, and separate churches; early enough to witness, but not understand, two separate worlds. I was a child when the evening news brought black and white images from the streets of Birmingham into our home. I saw a bombed church and heard the somber voice tell of the death of four little girls close to my age. I saw fire hoses being used to force black teenagers off the sidewalk. I saw police officers holding taut leashes with German shepherds lunging toward black people on the streets. I saw images of people draped in white robes with conical coverings that hid their faces. I saw a burning bus twenty miles away in Anniston. I saw burning crosses and burned churches. I knew little and feared much. Those images from the news are as much a part of my southern heritage as long humid summers, bird dogs under the front porch, the wafting smell of pine and the haunting sounds of a whippoorwill at dusk.
There has been a lot of talk about heritage lately. Though our southern history is deep and complex we tend to cling to and glorify the charming and romantic images of the south while we gloss over or ignore the more heinous ones. However, history is not a flower garden where we are allowed to select the most beautiful blossoms to grace our table when company is coming. History is everything from the past, all of it. Our past unfortunately includes the truth of slavery and cruelty, mistreatment and systematic legal racism. We are not afforded the luxury of selecting only a few scenes from our storied history to set on display when we speak of our heritage.
Each time we embrace the soft, romantic notions of the old south we are pricked by the thorns of cruelty inflicted upon countless human beings. When we evoke images of Spanish moss drifting in the moonlight we must not forget there have been human silhouettes hanging from those same branches in the night sky. When we chuckle about Jack Daniels and Jim Beam as cousins who find there way into our family stories we must not forget how Jim Crow and George Wallace also played a role. When we think of southern women and speak with admiration for the character Scarlett O’Hara we must not forget the very real women named Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary McLeod Bethune. When we speak of the innocence of a southern childhood let us not forget Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley who had their own cut short. When we wave a flag and speak of valor and courage and honor we must not forget Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Medgar Evers who risked everything to ensure the human rights of our neighbors.
Our southern heritage is not rooted in a symbol emblazoned on a piece of cloth clipped to a chain and run up a pole. It isn’t an icon to flaunt in the faces of those oppressed by the attitudes, behaviors and policies of previous generations. We cannot gloss over the fact that one group of humans believed themselves more worthy than another group of humans and made their existence miserable at best. This truth is part of our history. So as we have conversations about our southern heritage we must remember this ugliness IS part of our history and all of it is brought forth in symbols of the past. Nothing is exempt. Any symbol from the past brings with it the best and the worst of our history. Let us recognize this is our collective southern heritage. As such the very symbol some hold up to honor their ancestors is an affront to the loss and pain and indignities suffered by the ancestors of their neighbors. Any symbol of our heritage should represent all of us and give each of us something to be proud of.
Let us pause and consider what we hope to bring forward, what we hope to represent us as southern people. What shared attributes can all southerners take pride in. What would we lift up and hold on to? What is worthy of continuation in future generations? The heritage I want to bring forward is a tradition of caring, of lifting up those in need and offering them food and prayers and support. It is tradition of music and praise, of family and friends, a tradition of community. This part of southern heritage is evident on front porches, in hospital rooms, and in a neighbor’s garden. It emerges when a house burns, when a child is sick, when a church needs a new roof, or when the high school band needs new uniforms. It is in the act of caring for others. It is a way of being, a manner of living, and an attitude of gratefulness. It is reflected in dialect and conversation, story and song, in “bless your heart” and “lawd have mercy” and “well, I never.”
If the roots of your heritage run deep and spread out into the rural south you are likely to find a plow and a pulpit, an outhouse and moonshine still, a hand dug well, and a chimney built of stones taken from fields plowed by a man walking behind a mule. You will likely find folks who ate what they planted or hunted, and built the houses that sheltered their families. You are likely to find folks who helped a neighbor bring in a crop or build a barn or change a tire.
The confederate flag has become so divisive that there is no clear message it can evoke in ALL people. Regardless of what it may mean to some, it has become a flagrant banner of racism and hatred and arrogance that calls up the worst of our past. At best that prevents old wounds from healing, and at worst it continues to inflict new ones. Many southern folk lift verses from the bible to justify their attitudes and behaviors. Here’s a verse to consider: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30). If you are a southerner, one who holds dear the best of our collective heritage this flag is “your right hand.” Clinging to it while knowing that it evokes pain and images of the worst of our history is a deliberate act that perpetuates the attitude of supremacy of one group.
No flag holds the essence of what is good about being southern. That is within us. The best of what it means to be southern is in our behavior toward others, in our kindness and caring. If pressed for a symbol of the south it would as likely be a magnolia blossom as anything, or perhaps a glass of sweet tea with beads of condensation swelling up on the sides.
We must move forward.
In recent weeks we have seen confederate flags coming down from flagpoles and being pulled from license plates and store shelves. This symbolic gesture did not come as the result of a single action. Rather, the cold callous killing of nine human beings engaged in a bible study group was the final blow in a long history of mistreatment. A young man invited in to worship ended the lives of the very people who embraced him in the spirit of kindness and love. And had you or I been there with a neighbor or friend that night we would likely be dead as well.
Let us remember those nine human beings rocked their babies. They went to work with us and paid their mortgage payments. They sent their children to school just as we do each day. They gathered for holidays and sang happy birthday to loved ones. They made ice cream on the Fourth of July. They worshipped together. Those nine people lived among us. They were our neighbors… our brothers… our sisters. They ARE us.
And as difficult as it may be to accept, this young man also walked among us. He attended our schools. He shopped in the same grocery stores. He ate hamburgers and fries in the booth next to us. He nodded when he passed us on the street and waved as he drove through the intersection. He IS us.
WE are ONE. Even with all our differences, the essence of our shared humanity, that which makes any of us human, is present within all of us. Behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes certainly run the gamut, but the essence of humanity is within each of us. We are members of one human family. Let us be humane and lift what is best in our shared humanity.
The people of Charleston, including the families of the nine who were betrayed and murdered, have demonstrated the best of our humanity. We witnessed the power of grace and dignity and love. This is the best of our southern heritage: family, community, caring, grace. May each of us take a lesson, shed our old skin and emerge with our essential humanity intact and ready to move forward.
“In all things be kind and truthful. Cause no intentional harm.”—Lester Laminack
October 10, 2011
In memory of Matthew Shepard who died at the hands of hatred.
From my notebook: Lester Laminack
January 22, 2010
"This morning at 6:11am I flew into a breathtaking sunrise leaving Casper, WY and snow covered mountains and working ranches with cowboys who still ride horses. Yet, I thought only of one small boy.
Yesterday I was visiting author in Crest Hill Elementary. I saw over 350 children in assemblies throughout the day. But at one of the breaks I was told Crest Hill is the school Matthew Shepard attended as a child.
From that point on I couldn't stop myself from thinking of him walking through those hallways, exploring the world through the books in that library, laughing with friends and growing into the beautiful young man whose name and face have become symbols to remind us that hatred is fear's first cousin and that bigotry has a permanent residence in every part of this nation.
I thought of Matthew sitting "crisscross applesauce," hands in his lap, listening to his kindergarten teacher read a story before stretching his small body across a mat for nap time.
I thought of him learning to read in first grade, a delicious grin spreading across his face as he began to realize the power to unlock those stories was within him.
I thought of him running on the playground in the third grade. I imagined him looking into the clouds, scanning the mountain tops and dashing about with outstretched arms soaring among eagles without leaving the ground.
I thought of him searching the shelves for material on a famous Wyoming pioneer to write a report for fourth grade social studies class.
I thought of him...
before he'd been to Laramie
before he'd met the hatred hurled at LGBT youth
before, perhaps even he was aware of himself
I thought of the small boy who played with legos and video games,
who rode his bike and let his imagination fly as his spirit soared on the wheels of that pedaled stallion.
I though of him
before he was "Matthew Shepard"
that boy from Wyoming
What if no one knew him that way?
What if this country had evolved to respect humanity and human dignity for all who breathe?
What if he had never met hatred and fear?
What if he had never climbed into that truck with two men who offered to drive him home?
What if he had never been pistol whipped and beaten and tortured and tied to fence like a scarecrow?
How would we know him then?
What gifts might he have given the universe?
What now? What now?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Now is always the right time to do the right thing."
It is NOW.
It will ALWAYS be NOW.
Take a moment and think of someone you know who may need your expression of kindness. Think of someone who may need nothing more than your validation of recognizing his or his membership in the human family.
It is NOW.
June 19, 2011
My friend Reba Wadsworth and I have a new book in the works. It is devoted to helping children and teachers cope with bullying in our schools.
We are underway and working swiftly, but we would love your input. Please feel free to share your stories--your own personal experiences or stories from your teaching (more…)
February 28, 2011
Thanks for checking my blog. I'm currently working on a project with my best friend, Reba Wadsworth. We'd like to hear from you. Please share the title and author of your favorite picture book(s) for use in your teaching.