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PODCAST: Using Book Choice to Build a Caring Classroom Community

Posted by admin on Jul 16, 2020 11:15:49 AM

Layers of Learning Podcast Graphic-1

What if we viewed every read aloud as an invitation to learn more about literacy and ourselves?  That’s the opportunity presented in JoEllen McCarthy’s new book, Layers of Learning: Using Read-Alouds to Connect Literacy and Caring Conversations.

Earlier this summer, JoEllen joined us to talk about her new book, how to think differently about your classroom library, and offered several great choices of heartprint books. Have a listen!



Preorder Layers of Learning


JoEllen's Book Suggestions


Nate: Hi JoEllen! Thank you for joining us today , I appreciate it.

JoEllen:  Thank you, Nate.

Nate:   So you have a great new book, Layers of Learning, coming out at the end of August.  What does the title refer to?  

JoEllen: So, that title has been a way of framing the teaching that we do to be inclusive, compassionate, caring classroom members, where we think about not just isolating our skills from reading to writing, but thinking about literacy evolving from literacy to literacy and life lessons. Oftentimes, in a struggle to fit things in, teachers tend to isolate, and sometimes it's the structure of the day, where there's been a time period or a slot for a lesson around X or Y. So, what we can do is step back and see where are there connections, because there is a reciprocity between reading and writing. So, that's an easy shift to make. If we just consider the ways that those books can now touch the hearts and minds of our students, I think it really becomes an opportunity to layer all of those lessons and connect across the day.

Nate: Part of that is the heartprint framework. That's the underpinning of how this book is structured. Can you tell me about that a little bit?

JoEllen:  So, that is sort of loosely based on the transactional theory of Louise Rosenblatt, where she talks about how the reader writes the story. We all have different connections to the books that we read. So, oftentimes, teachers will say, "Do you have a book list? Do you have a suggested title or a suggested author?" So, in an attempt to move away from a very structured list that's been drive by me, I try to think in terms of a heartprint as a framework for how do we let books touch our hearts?

JoEllen:   We're not the same. Therefore, we're not going to all have the same feelings around books. That's more of a reason why we have to be so mindful and so intentional of bringing books that will reach our students. Our job as educators is to research books and research kids. We do that, we can be really purposeful in the books that we choose and why we've chosen them, and, hopefully, then grow our curated list of heartprint texts, and let kids do that, as well.

Nate: I really like the way the book is structured, with part one , learning as heartwork followed by part two, heartprint connections.  How did you arrive at that setup?

JoEllen: Actually, it goes back to the framework. In an attempt to have more than just a list, I wanted to have an explanation of a why. Why did I do this? I believe that there is power in read alouds. I believe that has been proven, research based, and I've seen it through my own work across classrooms over the years. So, part one is, in essence, an opportunity for me to provide the vision and visible voice of kids that have influenced my work, the teachers that I've learned alongside of, from, and with, and that opportunity to set the foundation even for understanding this framework, and then say, "If you want, you can do this. Think about the heartprint books, think about the kids in front of you, those books that are being published every single day. It's not about a book list."

JoEllen:     In fact, I've said I prefer teachers to just focus on part one so that they can then look more deeply at the books that are on their shelves and how they may use them in this way, touching their readers and writers and learners in that way. Part two is an example that gives an invitation to notice, so that teachers can be comfortable and feeling like, "Oh, right. That makes sense. I can do this." Here are real examples from kids. It's that authentic learning. So, when I share an example in part two, it's from the day to day work that I've done with students. It's the halls and walls that are teaching. There are literacy snapshots in there. I know, for me, just to have that opportunity to share and celebrate the work that kids are doing, I think it strengthens this idea.

Nate:    Makes sense to me.  In that second half, you introduce an acronym. It’s CARE right?

JoEllen:   Yes.

JoEllen: That's interesting. So, I really believe that books, read alouds, and literacy should be a vehicle to care. In playing with that idea, I started to think about, "Well, what are some of the essentials, the nonnegotiable that I try to incorporate in my daily work with kids?" That's establishing a sense of community, a sense of agency, and it's just evolved from there, thinking about, "Well, these are definite areas, respect, empowerment, they all fall under this acronym of CARE." But, ironically, because of my hesitation to label anything, if you look really closely and you think about the why, and you're thinking about the kids in front of you, those books could really shift around many of those categories, because with regards to community, some examples that I have been able to share are looking at spaces and places with kids, or looking at identity.

JoEllen: That's just as powerful in talking about empowerment, addressing identity and community and spaces and places. So, it's really just a way of considering these opportunities. That's what I hope comes out of the book, that people will look at these ideas as opportunities and possibilities, and then continue to adopt or adapt and grow their own ideas, and share that with me. Because I want to continue to learn. We're never done learning, right?

Nate: Right! And I think we mentioned before we started recording that you’ve been been a strong proponent of the possibilities read alouds can offer since you were a student teacher.  Has your thinking or process changed over time?

JoEllen:   Well, I'm always growing those ideas and being heavily influenced by the amazing authors and illustrators and mentors that are out there, along with colleagues and professional educators that I have been influenced by. You've brought up student teaching. One of my first experiences was working at the Manhattan New School with Shelley Harwayne. Shelley Harwayne was a tremendous mentor to me. I had the very good fortune of being in Joanne Hindley's room and working with her, as well. When you think about Joanne Hindley, if you're not familiar with her, she wrote a book called In the Company of Children.

JoEllen:  That idea of kids being at the core of everything we do has been the foundation for my work. Whether I'm working in the classroom full-time with my own students or sharing the students that I'm privileged to work with as a literacy coach and staff developer, I have ongoing residences where those relationships continue to grow and develop over time, as does my understanding about what books are out in the world. I'm constantly reading, researching, trying to find new authors, new voices, own voices, because I think we have to shift. That has to come back to the teachers a little bit, because even when teachers ask for a list, I absolutely get that. It's great to have a vision of what's possible.

JoEllen:  But we have to go beyond those lists. We also have to go beyond the books, because it's the stories and the conversations that evolve based on, maybe, that initial invitation that then helps to grow the kids' hearts. So, yes the book is powerful, but what's more powerful is what happens outside of the book, which is another example and reason for part two, because I try to show, "Well, here's how this book, why I chose it, why it was a heartprint book for me." Again, I say in my opinion and my experience, based on the kids that I'm working with, the research that I've done, what I know about those authors and illustrators.

JoEllen:   Here's how it may have worked ... not may. It has worked in our classrooms. As a reader, this is one thing. As a writer, this is something. But here's some talking points. I think that's really essential, that we take the time to talk more deeply, and books can invite those conversations. Then step back or lean in and let the kids take over, because that's what's powerful about using stories in this way. Kids can connect to characters. They can also respond to conflicts. They can share emotions. They can share understandings. They can celebrate our differences. They can also celebrate our similarities. Really, the books, using books in this way, the possibilities are endless.

Nate: There’s something in there… one of the goals is to empower teachers to be able to make their best decision based on their circumstance, their classroom, their students, regarding book selection. Can you tell me a little bit more about your process and, perhaps, are there any titles that seem to be especially relevant these days?

JoEllen:  Sure.

Nate: Let's talk about it. Show me how it works.

JoEllen:  So, one thing that you pointed out was the opportunity to try to define how I choose and select books. So, in choosing and selecting heartprint books, one of the first things that I say to teachers is I try to look for those texts that feel right and necessary in the moment, because of current events, because of current experiences, because of current kids, or because of things that are going on in the world. Sometimes it's a really complex thing. One book that happens to be in arm's reach is a book for primary kids that I use. It's a rhyming text but it's called Felicity Floo Visits the Zoo.

JoEllen:  I say because, well, rhyming text is great. There's so many opportunities to talk about fluency, vocabulary, rhythm of words and story, but the story here is that she goes to the zoo and she has a germ. So, it's a really very silly, humorous way of looking at what we're dealing with right now with COVID. In the book, in the illustrations, the illustrations and the text both were done by E. S. Redmond. This book was published by Candlewick Press. The page after page actually shows something younger kids love because it has animals with these gooey hand prints that are Felicity Floo's germs.

JoEllen:   The message in here, of course, is how important it is to be mindful of our spaces, and be careful of germs, and to wash our hands, and to take care of one another, and to take care of our world. That's something that we all need to desperately hear right now. It can help explain a really scary situation. It can bring some humor to a really scary situation. It can also just make us feel good. I think that's important. Joy is a part of what I think about when I'm choosing and selecting texts. The other thing is I think about books that might touch our hearts in an indescribable way. For me, a heartprint book, going back to the transaction theory, is a book, Saturday by Oge Mora.

JoEllen:    Saturday is a wonderful book because it's about a young girl who's spending the day, on Saturday, with her mom. That's their routine because mom works all the time. I grew up with my mom, a single mom, and we enjoyed time together when she was off. Just like in this book, page after page they talk about the things they're going to do. Unfortunately, there's a mishap, and things don't work out the way that they planned. But the beautiful, empowering message in here is that it is a beautiful, wonderful day because they get to spend it together. So, that's another example of a book that we can talk about for community, for character, for family structures, for just thinking about the importance of celebrating the people that are in our lives, that we spend time with, and that we love. We're certainly looking to find those moments and opportunities right now, as well.

Nate:  I really love the design of the illustrations.

JoEllen:  Yes.

Nate:  It's really flat, 2-D look, but there's so much action in that frame. Is that the same illustrator as author?

JoEllen:                                                           It is. I was just going to say. She wrote another book that's called Thank You, Omu!, which is a family story. I think that's another thing I look for, to select texts that have a celebration of family literacies and family histories, and finding stories that really give us a glimpse into the heart and history and honor the lives of our students. Oge Mora was a Caldecott Honor winner.

Nate:  Wow. That's fantastic.

JoEllen: So, this is her second book, Saturday. Yes.

Nate:   You included a surprising graphic in Layers of Learning, illustrating the diversity of characters in childrens books.  Fully half of the characters were white, followed by 27%...animals?  So there’s a question of whether the books we read to kids are truly representative of our kids worlds…

JoEllen:     The Cooperative Children's Book Center is who did that graphic. It's very frightening because I, if you didn't notice, I am a white woman. So, if I was only choosing to use books that have people who look like me, I'm doing a disservice to the kids in my room, the kids in the world, because everyone doesn't look like me.

JoEllen:  I also think it's important that when we consider texts and we think about our own voices, that part of the work, and I started to say this before, is that we have to look beyond the Junie B. Jones or the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. That's not to say that those aren't great books, but if I want kids to think about feelings, their teachers right away will say ... or names. They'll say, "What about Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes?" It's probably not okay that I'm saying this. I'm not saying anything negative about Kevin Henkes, but there's so many more beautiful books. One that's brand new, it's not out yet, and I'll probably get in trouble for sharing it, but it's a beautiful book that's called Your Name Is A Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. That book celebrates the beauty and diversity of names and being proud of your names, because everyone's name comes from their heart. It's such a heartprint book.

Nate:  I really like the idea that you're encouraging teachers to think a little further outside what they normally might do, but, at the same time, acknowledging that, that the books that currently have been using are still fine, but maybe think a little further. Think more about the larger, broader library and the larger, broader world out there, which is fantastic.

JoEllen: That's so well said. That's something that in part two I was really intentional about, as well. So, where I have a selected anchor text and I give an example, I try to say, "Here's a heartprint book," and then go through the framework with that, how I've used it with student led meetings, what are some of the conversation starters that we've had. That came from kids, real conversations. In the same light, at the end of that section, have three other titles that are connected, almost a build your stack, if you would, that could help achieve the same goals.

JoEllen:  Again, the reader writes the story. So, you can go an entirely different direction, but if you're someone who doesn't have that book at your fingertips, it may just spark an idea about what's on your shelf and how, maybe, you could lift the level of your conversations with that same book that you already have on your shelf that, perhaps, you didn't think of using it in this way. Does that make sense?

Nate: Yeah. Absolutely. It's great that you're able to help provide that context, maybe, for teachers who already have those books but, maybe, haven't looked at that book in that way. It's not a prompt for them. "You must go out and replace your entire classroom library."

JoEllen:   Right.

Nate: It's making smart decisions about, maybe, what you already have, and figuring out how to supplement, how to broaden the experience for your kids.

JoEllen:  Yes. I love that. You were talking earlier about how do teachers fit in the time to do this work and to add that affective SELP piece. I think that, again, just the opportunity to not isolate things and think about it as, "Well, we're going to do a character trade of the month. Well, we're going to do bucket filling story time." I hate to be sounding negative but this is beyond bucket filling. This is beyond surface level. This is really going deeper with text and building on the community of the classroom so that all of these shared experiences, we can grow together, and we can reflect back on the experience that we have had with story, and how that influences our thinking and our critical thought.

JoEllen:  Because there are questions in there, in some of the student led conversations, where kids are talking back to text and to authors and questioning who's represented, who's not represented? What did they notice or learn from this text or this illustration? How did that influence their thinking? Things that I think, again, teachers are doing, but I'm trying to bring it more to the forefront so that it's an opportunity to consider another layer and to go even deeper.

Nate:   Yeah. It becomes a much more deliberate choice for the teacher, which is fantastic.  I know I’m bouncing around here, but  thinking about the idea of building your classroom community. I wonder what are the challenges that teachers may face as we enter a new school year in just a few weeks. Is building community going to be tougher if it doesn’t take place in person? I guess alongside of that is the idea of how can you use a read aloud in a virtual setting, not in a face to face?

JoEllen:  So, that's a great question. I mean, I hope that we're back in our classrooms and we're back face to face. Even in the situations where kids are using Zoom, not everyone has the opportunity to be learning in that way. So, they may not have that opportunity for the face to face. If that is what we're dealing with in the future, and in a perfect world everybody's able to have the face to face time, I think it's essential now more than ever that we have that check in, just for that human contact and for a sense of humanity. Books and stories help build humanity, even.

JoEllen:   So, rather than having any other goal then, we're going to be together to enjoy a story, to reflect together, to share our connections, our concerns, and our cares. That's actually a piece or another framework that I try to use so that, again, it helps teachers because I know that I'm working in the classroom all the time with kids, and sometimes if we can just give them a structure to follow and then let them run with it, it's nice to start off with something and then say, "Okay. Where is this taking you?"

JoEllen:    So, a simple idea like that, when kids come together and we share a book, and just giving the time, and if they don't have an opportunity to speak at that moment, to reflect back in writing, to keep track in their notebooks, to draw, to sketch, to write a poem. I was with a class this week where we were looking at some poetry because we were talking about our anxieties and fears. I actually paired the text with a Wonderopolis worry about anxiety. I don't know if you've seen that. I used the text Lena's Shoes Are Nervous because it's a silly story.

JoEllen: I was specifically talking to kids about how we all have dilemmas, and this happens to be a first day dilemma, which would be a perfect example for the beginning of the school year. At any point in the year we have nerves and we have anxiety. Just the whole spectrum of emotions that exists for kids. So, this was by Keith Calabrese and Juana Medina. Juana Medina is also an award winning illustrator. So, in this book, she recognizes that she's really nervous about ... She's excited to start school, and in a playful way when she goes downstairs, when she's talking about being excited, she hesitates. They say, "Why are you hesitating?" She's like, "I'm fine. My shoes are nervous," which is, again, humorous way to address really complex emotions and feelings.

JoEllen:  So, I talk to kids about that, because there are kids and adults, myself included, who are feeling tremendous anxiety with what's going on with COVID. So, kids are turning that into some poetry right now and some artwork and drawing. Just because we had that opportunity through a story to start at a really simple way, and then to let our emotions grow, I think that's the power to using read alouds.

Nate:   It's so interesting, is we're talking about something that can be, potentially, a major downer. Talking about anxiety and fear and all these negative emotions, but what comes across is how much joy you bring to it. I think it's fantastic that you're able to present this in such a positive way to kids, that it helps, maybe, acknowledge that everyone feels this way.

JoEllen:   Yeah. Thank you for saying that. This was another book that I just used recently. My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood by Tameka Fryer Brown. In this book, he's dealing with sibling issues, which is why I used this recently, because some of our students are home with multiple siblings and dealing with all of that. So, it really looks at the range of emotions and feelings we have and our moods. When he's feeling good, it's one color, which, again, the reader writes the story. It's another great conversation to have with kids. What are those colors and those emotions that are evoked for you from those colors?

JoEllen:  When he's feeling bothered or teased by his brothers, he's in a gray kind of mood. So, kids were then talking about that. I had a really interesting conversation with a student who said blue was a color that he associated with being joyful and happy. There was a bit of an argument that ensued because his classmate said she was really fearful of blue, because she had a horrible experience in the ocean when she was younger. So, for her, blue gave her the sense of terror because she was envisioning ocean waves. I think those are the kinds of things that build our community, when kids can share not just their joys but their hardships.

JoEllen: I think that's been said before so many times, that our community is not just about our joys but it's about our hardships. Sharing those emotions and feelings, and really giving insight to one another, I think, is an opportunity, as well.

Nate:   It's the idea that you can have this great discussion about different perspectives.

JoEllen:    Absolutely.

Nate:   It's two people discussing what the color blue represents for them. So, it's really this healthy way to, maybe, learn to negotiate with one another and to accept each other's perspectives, or at least try to understand them.

JoEllen: Yeah.

Nate: Yeah.

JoEllen:   Absolutely. There's another book that does that. I can't help it.

JoEllen: So, Daniel's Good Night by Micha Archer. She's the author and illustrator. This is a book that's from Nancy Paulsen Books. Daniel has another book that teachers may be familiar with. It's fabulous. That's called Daniel Finds A Poem, and it's all about perspective, as well, because he walks through the park and he asks these animals to describe what is poetry, which is so fabulous. There's a great literacy connection there so that kids can then write poetry and use each of those examples.

JoEllen:   See? I get excited about layering these things. So, she, the author and illustrator, built on that same concept in this book, where Daniel walks through his neighborhood. Every neighbor that he meets, he asks them, "What is a good day?" Have a good day, and what does a good day look like? They explain what their good day looks like, which is so powerful because, again, that's what I want kids to walk away with, understanding that we're not all the same. Some of us are not all having good days, and even when we are, it doesn't have to be the same, because we're not the same.

Nate: Right.

JoEllen:    Having appreciation and understanding for one another is probably a better way to say it. I got excited about the story.

Nate:  That's all right. That's awesome. Great. This is so fun.I really, really like the idea that you wrote, "We learn best when we feel we're safe, happy, and loved."

JoEllen:  That can make me a little sad right now because we're not all having that experience, some of our students. I don't want to make this about what's happening right now in the world, but, for kids to go to school, for some students, that is the best part of their day. So, to know that right now that's not happening for so many students, it could make me emotional. I think that's why it's our responsibility to make our time together with our kids the very best part of the day. That only happens through understanding kids with this depth and knowledge of who they are, what their identities mean for them, their strengths, their challenges, their likes. That goes far beyond just academics.

JoEllen:  It's knowing the whole person. I think that's so essential and so important. Empowering kids, kids to see their own strengths, and to view things that shift their mindset themselves. Using read alouds in this way, it's a virtuous cycle, because every time we read aloud, we get to understand one another better, understand something about the world better. In the book, I do say, and I'm heavily influenced with this idea of the head, the heart, and the hands.

JoEllen: So, when you read something, whether you've experienced it personally or not, you have new knowledge. That new knowledge and understanding impacts your feelings. Your feelings and your emotions and your empathetic nature to something that you've read about or that you've experienced yourself, or you've now seen someone else experience, and, hopefully, the whole reason that this matters, I believe, is that it impacts hands and what kids are doing and saying and their actions with one another.

JoEllen:    I think we have to read, reflect, and research the possibilities in every text and the possibilities in every student. When we do that, we're not just investing in books, we're investing in kids. I think that's really essential. That's the investment that's ageless and priceless. So, if you go back to your initial question about how is it difficult for some teachers, how is it impossible to not do this? I'm saying that wrong. You know what I mean?

Nate:   It's a bit like how can you afford not to do this?

JoEllen:  You can't afford not to do this. Even when people say, "Is it about this book," it's not about this book. I've said this before. If you have one book that you can go back to again and again in this way, to go deeper, to build on this idea of community, agency, respect, empowerment, and not just my ideas. All ideas about this that's inherent to educating the whole child and being aware of that. I think that's an investment that is priceless. It's not about purchasing. It's looking online, finding resources, going to the publisher's, using Libby or OverDrive. I'm constantly downloading books so that if I don't have them at my fingertips, I can share them virtually with kids or in a whiteboard in a classroom experience. We have to find the ways to go beyond thinking about spending money.

JoEllen:   Teachers will, because of the inherent nature of teachers, will spend their own money on books, but they shouldn't have to because access to books is so important. So, if we can be, maybe, part of the conversations about being intentional and purposeful in the choices that we make, and being part of that conversation for what gets purchased ... That's one of the things when you asked me about the book list, I feel like we have to beware book lists that are just given to us, or just created without the thought and intention behind what's going on in the world, or who's telling that story, or who's in our room.

Nate: Yeah, and that’s something you suggest in the book—having a BYOB session with several teachers, where you're all bringing books and you're sharing them and you're trying to figure out, working together, how to create a library that addresses all the things that we feel are important to us, that we need to transmit to our kids?"

JoEllen: No. You were going to say that expanding on perspective and point of view and getting kids to be critical readers, writers, and thinkers is the heart of all of this, whether you're talking about early childhood through kids in high school. They have to start thinking this way, or continue to think this way from early childhood through high school so that they can go out into the world and, hopefully, become better humans because of it. I think that's part of our responsibility as educators. If this is a tool that can help teachers do that, to extend the learning beyond just a reading lesson or just a writing lesson, then I will be so proud and so grateful to continue to hear their stories and to learn from those experiences.