Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Power of a Book

A book can hold our heart within its pages; words weaved in such beautiful and sincere patterns that we carry them with us long after we’ve closed the back cover. Books shape us. They have power.

After reading Bridget Fernandes’ most recent blog entry at Books for Tanzania, I spent some time reminiscing about the first books that I remember reading, not those that were read to me, but the ones I first learned to read on my own. My husband recalls that at an early age his favorite color was purple because the first book he remembers reading was The Adventures of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Personally, I was obsessed with feet after learning to read Dr. Seuss’ Foot Book to my younger sister. I grew up in a reading household. Sunday afternoons were spent lying on my belly with the Record Eagle sprawled across the living room floor, trying to read words that I had no understanding of because I wanted to read the newspaper like my father. I would beg my mother to take my sister and me to the library because I had devoured the five books that I had just checked out three days earlier. While my classmates got money for good report cards, I knew I had the better deal because my good grades got me a new book from the Scholastic book order forms that were sent home with us every other month in elementary school. I loved the days that we got those order forms. I would wait until I got home to slowly pour over the pages, circling the books that I would either ask to order or later check out from the library. I was a book eater. When my mom showed me her collection of old Nancy Drew books, their bindings gathering dust on the shelves in my grandparents' home, I started reading them to be like her. I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. When the new series started, I couldn’t wait for the day that our local library got the latest copy. I was usually the first one to check it out. I was a bibliophile. One of my favorite memories is of the day that I received my first bookcase because it meant that I had books to fill it. I still have that bookcase.

Today, my home is filled with books. I have more books than my bookcases can hold. New and used, hard copies and paperbacks spill from nearly every shelf in nearly every room in my home. In fact, after moving just a few short weeks ago, my friends cursed this very fact, having helped move heavy box after box of books up and down flights of stairs. Most of books were picked up at various used bookstores but have yet to be read. I have a personal library of untouched novels, memoirs, and poetry books. But like Ms. Fernandes mentions in her blog entry, I take this luxury for granted. Where I used to devour three or more books a week throughout my school days, today I find I read less than 10 novels a year. Instead, I let myself be distracted by the routines of daily living. I forget how fortunate I am to have grown up with books.

Because I learned to read early, because reading my valued in my household, I grew up valuing education. I never questioned if I would go to college, only where. Although this is also true for many of the students I currently have in class, we are the exceptions. Over 9 million people in the world cannot read. If you own a book, you are richer than over three-quarters of the world’s population. We are the fortune few. Therefore, we bear a responsibility to help those who do not have access to books. When a person learns to read, he or she gains access to the shared stories of this world. Books grant access to the history of cultures and the stories of people. There is power in reading. A book is perhaps the most powerful and meaningful gift that can be shared. And unfortunately, our society seems to take this gift for granted.

So, this fall my students will have an opportunity to give back. There’s a book drop off box in my classroom for any students, parents, staff, and community members that would like to help Ms. Fernandes in her efforts to send books to Tanzania. One small book, the one that has been sitting on your shelf for the past three years untouched, could open up the world for a young person.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

This I Believe

I scrapped the generic getting-to-know-you games this year. I’ll talk about the syllabus and classroom rules in a few days. Instead, I started my first day of classes prepping students for their first essay. Yes, I’m that English teacher that assigns students homework on the first day.

It dawned on me not long ago that so much of what I teach in the World Literatures curriculum revolves around belief – what do others believe and why, what do I believe and why, what do my students believe and why. It is our beliefs that often separate us. Pick up any newspaper or scroll through the headlines on the BBC News site and you will find it riddled with international strife, civil wars, and conflict. Whether it is over land rights, religious convictions, or attitudes about women, children, marriage, what have you – our world seems to be unraveling over differences between various belief systems. Unfortunately, if this is all students learn from a World Literatures class, they walk out of the classroom as global observers not participants, their us versus them attitude intact. Isn’t it interesting what people in India believe, but what does that have to do with me? So this year, I wanted to find a way to start out my classes by presenting students with an idea we come back to throughout the course - although our beliefs may be different, we are all connected regardless of culture by the same basic desires, fears, and needs. It’s all a matter of perspective. I wanted students to begin to question what it is that makes us human. Yes, a tall order for the first day of class. Luckily, National Public Radio came to my rescue.

I look forward to the Monday broadcasts of All Things Considered because that’s when I hear the weekly essay segment “This I Believe,” a portion of the program where listeners both famous and not are invited to share their essays on a core belief. I find myself in tears most Monday afternoons, either because the essays are so clearly from the heart or because the essayist has me laughing a bit too hard for my Monday afternoon drive home. I’ve been listening to the essays since they began broadcasting them a few years ago, so I’m not really sure why it took me so long to make the connection. To help students explore the beliefs of others, they must first explore their own beliefs! And that’s where I started today.

As the students came in, I had a line of yellow tape dividing the room in half, a seeming separation mark. I handed out a questionnaire asking students to consider a whether they agreed or disagreed with 15 statements. People can change. Life is fair. It is always better to tell the truth. And then I clicked on my overhead projector to show a copy of Martha Collins’ poem “Lines,” at first only showing the title and asked the students –what do lines do? They separate. They divide. They box us in and segregate us. And then I read them the poem…
"Lines" By Martha Collins
Draw a line. Write a line. There.
Stay in line, hold the line, a glance
between the lines is fine but don't
turn corners, cross, cut in, go over
or out, between two points of no
return's a line of flight, between
two points of view's a line of vision.
But a line of thought is rarely
straight, an open line's no party
line, however fine your point.
A line of fire communicates, but drop
your weapons and drop your line,
consider the shortest distance from x
to y, let x be me, let y be you.

What else do lines do? They connect us. Although our beliefs may be different, they come from a similar place. Beliefs are like lines. If we take just our first impression of the line, it divides us. But when we take the time to examine the line, our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, we will see that they also connect us.

Each student took a place on that taped line on my classroom floor. If they disagreed with the statement, they took a step back. If they agreed, they took a step forward. We spent the first day of class talking about our beliefs. Tomorrow, they will begin writing their own essays for the “This I Believe” program.

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