It was a book about a collective of children who survived the end of the world. Alone in a world without adults, they formed a government, established a hierarchy, and — in true post-apocalyptic literary form — propelled a conflict of distrust, betrayal, revenge, and passion that gripped the attention of young readers page after page.
When I was 12 and in sixth grade, I read that book everywhere — tucked within the pages of my science textbook, hidden under my desk while watching Kids CNN News Today with a teenage Anderson Cooper, and even raised at eye level while walking down the four blocks of Libby Road in my suburban hometown. Today, I cannot remember the name of the book, but the plot, characters, and these reading memories remain clear some 25 years later.
Understanding the Page’s Power
As readers, writers, thinkers, and educators, I hope and pray we have each experienced that moment of total capture — when the book and her characters grab us through the pages, inviting us into a world outside our own. Too often, especially given the complications of testing and standardization in today’s educational climate, our students may quickly find those moments of literary choice and exploration vanishing before their eyes: 40 minutes becomes 20, which quickly becomes 10, and is then replaced by another, more appealing curricular program.
In the era of Black Lives Matter and school choice, this dedication to literary exploration, independent reading time, and sharing out are all the more important. Students who are gripped unfairly by poverty, systemic racism, and inadequate schooling opportunities are often the first to find themselves thrust into whatever the latest curricular literacy solution seems to be. And more often than not, these solutions are limited in scope and nature — keeping the true allure of engaging literature and independent reading time just out of reach for those who need it most.
In all my years as an urban educator in Cleveland’s small private schools, I have been extremely blessed, guided by leaders and scholars who valued the power of a text. Not only did they view the text as a window into and a mirror of our lives, they also considered the text/reader interaction to be an important tool for social change. We understood and worked to combat child slavery because we lived it through Sold. We rejuvenated our efforts to combat racial violence because we struggled with Starr in The Hate U Give. We imagined an urban community without the plagues of gangs and gun violence because we contemplated an act of murder with Will in The Long Way Down. We then paired these texts with the many titles and perspectives found in our class libraries — libraries our administrators expected us to use and make space for in our daily lessons and unit designs.
Each of those texts, independent reading programs, and conferences with teachers and peers created a space for our students to explore the power of their own voice, mind, and understanding. Cultivating this reader/text relationship and then analyzing the connection in dialogue with themselves and others, each student began to understand or create or recreate or edit or imagine a reality inside and outside their own because they lived the words on the page within themselves and with their peers.
As our educational communities — especially ones that serve students of color — work through the challenges and alleged “learning losses” of the pandemic, I plead with leaders and teaching colleagues alike to never lose sight of the power and potential of a page. Not a page for the sake of “answering these questions.” But a page for a moment of questioning the self, others, and the reality we create. Not quite for pleasure, not quite for requirement, but somewhere in between. A space where we lose sight of ourselves and, one can only hope, maybe even lose sight of the title itself — instead grabbing ahold of the characters, plot, and theme for many years to come.
Recently, I was reminded of this power after hearing from my student Anthony — a young man I had the honor of teaching and knowing for the last nine years. I taught Anthony as a seventh-grader 10 years ago, a year when I had formed our class library, independent reading program, and conference/share-out structure. Anthony recently reached out to me, seeking the title of the book he had read from my library all those years ago. “It’s about a girl who gets amnesia and finds clues to who she is and then discovers she erased her own mind,” he asked through messenger at 5:00 a.m. one Wednesday morning.
I never remembered the title and we couldn’t find the book together, but knowing that his mind still grabs that experience means so much. May we continue opening those spaces for our students as we come to grips with a new educational landscape in the year ahead. And I pray we all remember a time when we forgot the title itself.