During the 88th Saturday Reunion Weekend at Teacher’s College in NYC (3/28/15), author and educator Kylene Beers delivered three professional development sessions based on Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, a book she co-authored with Bob Probst. Each session was overflowing with standing room only crowds.
During the afternoon keynote in the Nave of Riverside Church, she delivered her beliefs, and every one of the 2,100 seats was filled.
She opened her address with a historical connection between literacy and power by referring first to the notion that years ago a signature was all that was necessary to prove a person literate. Exploiting this belief were those in power who prepared and wrote contracts, becoming wealthy at the expense of those who could only sign their names with an “X”.
“Literacy in this country has always been tied to wealth.” Beers explained adding, “With literacy comes power, and with power comes great privilege.”
This was the theme of her keynote, that in this age of communication and messaging, literacy equals power and privilege.
Moving to the present and the communication and messaging skills necessary for the 21st Century, Beers justified improving literacy skills to operate on digital platforms as one way to empower students, but she called into question the practice of prevention by some school districts.
“When schools say they do not want to have students develop a digital footprint,” she cautioned, “they limit their students access to that kind of power.”
Continuing to argue for the empowered students, Beers directed the audience’s attention to making learning relevant for students remarking, “There is a problem if everything is assigned by me!” By letting students choose what they want to read, she suggested that teachers can make learning relevant for the student. Employing choice to encourage more reading, however, contrasts to the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards that students read fewer texts in order to read “closer.”
“Why fewer?” she asked the crowd of educators, “when the single best predictor is of success is volume of reading. One book for six weeks will never be as helpful as six books in six weeks.”
Teachers must let the students choose what they want to read, Beers argued, raising her voice:
“Damn the Lexiles ! The best book is the one the kid chooses to read… [a student’s] ‘want-ability’ is more important than readability.”
And what should students read? Beers asked the crowd.
“In the 21st Century, the most important role that literature plays is in developing student values such as compassion and empathy,” she contended. “Brain research shows we get to that compassion best through the teaching of literature.”
Beers called attention to recent disturbing headline events that had students marginalize others: racist chants made by a fraternity, and a teenager’s suicide due to bullying.
It is the role of literature, she explained, to give the reader the experience being the outsider, the marginalized. Reading and learning from literature gives students an understanding of others and an opportunity to lead “literate lives measured by decency, civility, respect, compassion, and, at the very least, ethical behavior.”
Coming to the end of the keynote, Beers saved her scorn for the answer-driven test preparation and testing that dominates schools today:
“A curriculum built on test prep might raise scores, but it will fail to raise curiosity, creativity, and compassion.”
Beers castigated the limits of “bubbled” answers by pointing out that deep thinking never begins with an answer. In connecting back to the role of literature in education she added, “Ethics and compassion are not so easily bubbled.”
As a final invocation Beers reiterated her belief in teachers, those who have met the challenges in order to encourage all students and who never needed a mandate to leave no child behind:
“Success is not found in a test; great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow!”
The crowd erupted into applause paying tribute to Kylene Beers, an leader in education whose strong voice reverberated in the cathedral and whose equally strong beliefs reverberated with their own.