The Power of Reading

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by | May 1, 2020

Last night in bed, I was looking over my Facebook feed and saw another great post from A Mighty Girl. I love seeing and reading what they put out on social media and then sharing that with my friends online. Through their posts, I have learned the stories of powerful women that I might otherwise never have known. Young women like Sybil Ludington–the 16 year old girl who rode all night to alert militia forces in NY and CT that the British were coming on April 26, 1777, much like Paul Revere. A Mighty Girl is a website and store dedicated to smart, confident, and courageous girls. Their post last night was celebrating 90 years of Nancy Drew. It pointed out how the Nancy Drew books were criticized for their depictions of girls who did not follow the rules or fit within the norms and standards for girls and women in the 1930’s when they were written. For women then and since then, and for me, Nancy Drew was a role model. Those stories contributed to my love of reading and mysteries and my sense of self. Through her character, I imagined myself as a strong and smart young woman—driving my convertible car, solving problems, sleuthing, and outsmarting the criminals.  

When I was young, I spent many hours reading and imagining myself among new people and in new places. I imagined new possibilities for my life and found new options for my future. While we didn’t own a large collection of books or have the money to buy them, my mother often brought me to the public library downtown to check out books. I will never forget those trips to the library and long afternoons spent browsing the shelves and picking out my favorites for that week. I would usually get back in the car with a stack of books so big that I could barely see over them, and I couldn’t wait to get home to start reading. Today, I understand what a privilege it was to learn to read and to have access to books in a free public library.

I have also been privileged to be able to go to school and complete my Ph.D. in Language & Literacy Education. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to attend school for so many years and study literacy. In general, people agree that literacy is the ability to read and write. What I learned through my years of study and research is that literacy is far more than these particular skills and therefore wields much more power in the world. 

For me, literacy is plural, a collection of practices that allow us to engage with, understand, and act upon our world. Literacy practices are meaning making activities; they empower us and provide us with opportunities for agency. Literacies are linked to identities and life possibilities. Paulo Freire explained that reading, as a literacy practice, is inextricably and dynamically tied to our lives. He said, “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.” He went on to explain that reading texts and social contexts allow us to write, rewrite, and transform our lives and our worlds. As Toni Morrison said, “Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.” And, Frederick Douglass powerfully said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Many of the students and families at GVP had to leave any books they owned behind as they were being resettled. They could bring with them only what would fit in a backpack. Some of them never owned a book before coming to GVP, had never been to a library, or never learned to read, even in their first language. According to the 2010 Global Education Report from UNESCO, women still far outnumber men in rates of illiteracy and learning opportunities for girls and young women are still “severely” limited, especially at the secondary level when girls reach adolescence. Many of the students at GVP and their mothers have had limited access to formal schooling and to books. However, I would argue that they are not illiterate. In fact, they have been “reading the world” as Freire suggested, and have managed to navigate the complexities of resettlement, care for themselves and their families, and create a new home here in the US–all of which require engaging in literacy practices and understanding texts of all kinds. Nevertheless, limited print and text literacy is a barrier to gaining social mobility and power here in the United States. Paulo Freire (1987) said, “literacy becomes a meaningful construct to the degree that it is viewed as a set of practices that functions to either empower or disempower people” (p. 141). In this way, literacies are tightly tied to social justice and equity. 

At GVP, our Intensive English Language and Literacy program is at the core of our academic work. We recognize that access to English and to literacies of different kinds will open minds and doors and empower students. We believe that reading is powerful and empowering. Malala Yousafzai recognized this as she said, “I have challenged myself that I will read thousands of books and I will empower myself with knowledge.”  So, at GVP we are committed to supporting our students as empowered literacy learners and readers. 

Back when I was an English teacher at GVP between 2010-2012, we had a little donated library in our main office space. The library was made up of 6 white bookshelves strategically placed around a little round table. The books were a hodgepodge that included lots of kids’ picture books, old and out-of-date encyclopedias and reference books, and some well-worn books for teens. The library was well-used but hardly accessible or relatable for all of our students. It’s hard for many people in the US to immediately grasp what it means to be a teenager struggling to read at a Pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten level and to feel forced to read books for young children. GVP students are determined to learn to read in English and to gain the language and literacy they need to get into and through high school. They know that they have to learn quickly and that reading will be fundamental to their ability to function in high school and in the world. They are sometimes ashamed and embarrassed by their lack of reading fluency and by the easy books they have to read. It is our job to help alleviate some of the negative feelings that they have around learning to read by making sure they have access to books that don’t look like “baby” books and deal with subjects that are important to them, their lives, and to their continued academic learning.

With generous support from our donors and friends, in the years since we have been able to build a beautiful and much bigger library at GVP. When Decatur Presbyterian Churchrenovated and helped us update our school in 2017, they expanded the library space for us. We now have nearly 10,000 books in our library. They are carefully leveled and labeled by our amazing volunteer librarians Ms. Jane and Ms. Vicky, and all of our books have barcodes for our online circulation system. Now we can look up, check out, and reserve books and teach students about how libraries work.

There are books at all levels and on almost every topic at GVP. We have books that even a brand new beginner can master. No student will be able to say that she cannot read at GVP. Many of the books have strong and powerful female characters, like Nancy Drew, and we have many biographies of famous women. We have been working to create a multicultural library that reflects the diversity of our students. It has taken a long time, too long, for books to be inclusive and reflective of the diversity of our nation. We are intentionally building a library that includes books that have strong and courageous women, women of color, refugee families, and people of all faiths and backgrounds reflected on the pages. 

For the past five summers, we have held a summer book club for our students. We have staff, students, siblings, alumnae, mentors, and volunteers all meeting together at the library for reconnecting, reading, fun activities, and snacks. As teachers, we know that it is important for our students to continue to read and have access to books over the summer. They need to keep practicing and growing so that they are ready for high school reading. This summer, in light of the pandemic, we will not be meeting in person for our GVP book club, passing out books, and sharing stories or hugs. But we will be reading and connecting online. In addition to our beautiful school library, we now have a number of online reading programs available for our students, so they can continue to read at home. I don’t know when the public libraries will reopen or when students will be back at school. So for now, we are thankful that we can provide ongoing access to books online. 

For a few years now, I have been running a Dr. Amy Reading Challenge during our major breaks from school. I call the program–She reads. She leads. It has been lots of fun for me to share my own love of reading with students and encourage them to engage in reading outside of school. We allow students to check out and take home all the books they want for the break and collect all kinds of donated prizes to give students as incentives for participation. They record all the pages and hours they read, and we recognize and honor all of those who take part in the challenge. This week, I had a student write me a chat and ask if we could please deliver books from our GVP library for her to read. I felt awful having to tell her no. I explained that none of us are there at school right now and that we cannot deliver books to only one student and not all of the others. So, we have been brainstorming ideas for deliveries this month and throughout the summer and thinking about alternatives, too, like magazine subscriptions for our families. 

That Facebook post from A Mighty Girl included this insightful comment from writer Theodore Jefferson in a tribute to Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene. He writes, “Agency. It is that which forms the foundation for any hero’s ability to save the day. In America, agency for teenage girls in literature made its debut in 1930 in the person of Nancy Drew.” Today, I am grateful for authors who take risks, for access to books, for strong female characters and role models, and for the possibilities and opportunities that reading opened to me. Now and always, GVP remains committed to doing all that we can to support our students as they learn to read in English so that they can powerfully read and write their own stories.