Why is literacy important? (A lesson from 2020)

Literacy, diversity and empathy

As far as books go, 2020 has turned into Margaret Wild’s ‘The Sloth Who Came to Stay.’

You know the picture story book about the busy family forced to adjust their habit of rushing through life when they reluctantly acquire a slow-paced pet sloth?

You see, just as happens in Wild’s thought-provoking book, the main characters of 2020 (you and I) have realised that we’ve been so busy creating documentation, reducing reading and writing strategies to checklists and adding more and more to our instructional plates, that we’d started to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Of the WHY for literacy instruction.

  • Why do our students need to learn about all these reading and writing strategies?
  • Why is it critical that we prioritise reading, writing, speaking and listening in our classrooms, our budgets and our PD schedules?

Why IS literacy important?

“You can’t have democracy without literacy.”

Dr Pedro Noguera

Yes, literacy is THAT important!

This 2020 sloth is reminding us that the WHY for literacy is so much more than the short-term goals we’ve found ourselves focusing on: the reading levels, the NAPLAN data, the year 12 scores.

The real WHY for Literacy is about creating a more just and equitable society for all.

It’s the reason we got into teaching in the first place: to make a difference in this world!

Living in Melbourne’s lockdown (and witnessing the Black Lives Matters uprising) has reminded me that our current and future society requires adults who can empathise with others and who can make choices about their actions based on the greater good of all.

Our world needs citizens who can THINK and ACT empathetically.

And this is where literacy comes in…

Developing empathy

I recently listened to Archie Roach’s incredible autobiography, Tell me Why, on Audible.

It changed me.

I learnt so much about Archie, the Stolen Generations, addiction, the struggles of aboriginal people in white Australia, and about strength, true love and the power of music.

I’m a better person for having read his book.

You see, that’s the power of books.

It’s the power of the written word and the read word.

It’s the power of literacy.

Recent debates attest to a persistent belief in the power of the written word to influence the thought and actions of readers in general and children in particular.

Bishop, 1999

Reading Archie Roach’s book gave me the opportunity to step inside someone else’s world and learn about their experiences and perspectives.

And, according to Theresa Wiseman’s (1996) research on empathy, this has provided me with the opportunity to develop my skills in the four defining features of empathy:

  1. See the world as other’s see it– identify other’s perspective and recognise it as their truth
  2. Understand another’s current feelings– understand their emotions and feelings (which requires being in touch with our own)
  3. Remain non-judgmental– as judging their situation discounts the experience
  4. Communicate the understanding– empathy is feeling ‘with’ people.

Empathy—or the ability to understand others’ feelings and needs—is also the foundation of a safe, caring, and inclusive learning climate. Students with high levels of empathy display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, and better communication skills (Jones et al., 2014). Empathy reduces aggression, boosts prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg, Eggum, & DiGiunta, 2010) and may be our best antidote to bullying and racism (Santos et al., 2011).

Cited in Borba, 2018

Diversity in Texts

30 years ago, Dr Rudine Sims Bishop developed the concept of books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors and urged teachers to ensure their libraries and book selections enabled every child to see themselves reflected in texts as well as learn about others in texts.

At last year’s International Literacy Association’s Annual Conference, Chad Everett cautioned teachers from creating a bookshelves in their libraries labelled ‘diverse texts’ as this created an immediate ‘othering’ of minority and/or underrepresented groups in society.

He challenged us to think: Diverse for who and from what?

‘Every book is on a diversity continuum for that reader; It’s not the book that’s diverse, it’s the reader’s experience that they bring to that book.’

Everett, 2019

In my recent interview with Australian Children’s author Nat Amoore, I asked her about the role of diversity in her texts (because both of her terrific middle grade novels are rich with diversity). Here’s what she had to say:

“The world of my books needs to reflect the world I live in; and my world is diverse! This is a beautiful part of what makes my personal world so rich and it would be ridiculous for my book world not to be as beautiful.”

Nat Amoore, 2020

2020 is challenging us to think about who’s in our classrooms and who’s in our texts:

  • Do your classroom and school libraries, your read-aloud and mentor texts completely reflect the ‘beautiful richness’ of the diverse world we live in?
  • Do all of your students have the ability to access texts that act as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors for them?
  • Does your own personal bookshelf need a diversity audit?

Accessing diversity promoting texts

Accessing texts that act as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors is only the first step in developing the empathetic thinkers our society needs.

In a future post I’ll look at the importance of taking students beyond surface comprehension strategies to deepen their thinking about texts and further develop their empathy.

In the meantime, here are some resources that may be useful in helping you access diversity promoting texts:

Empathy leads to caring, altruism, and compassion. Seeing things from another’s perspective breaks down biased stereotypes, and so breeds tolerance and acceptance of differences. These capacities are ever more called on in our increasingly pluralistic society, allowing people to live together in mutual respect and creating the possibility of productive public discourse. These are the basic parts of democracy.

Goleman, 1996

How are you accessing and using diverse texts? How are you developing empathy in your students? Share your thoughts in the comments below or over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.


References

  • Bishop, R. (1999). This issue. Theory Into Practice38(3), 118-119. doi: 10.1080/00405849909543842
  • Borba, M. (2018). Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy. Educational Leadership76(2), 22-28.
  • Everett, C. (2019). Equity Through Empathy. Presentation, International Literacy Association Conference, New Orleans.
  • Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal Of Advanced Nursing23(6), 1162-1167. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1996.12213.x
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