This past August, I was fortunate enough to co-facilitate a session of the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) program’s Becoming Readers Institute. Unlike other RLTA sessions, the Becoming Readers Institute (BRI) is not designed to explicitly teach transferable skills or strategies into the classroom. While professional development is important for supporting students, a BRI facilitator provides the space for teachers to discuss a novel as readers rather than as instructors. Over two days, teachers participate by considering their own feelings and thought processes while reading, listening and responding to each other’s perspectives, and connecting to their own identities as readers.
Building the Virtual Space Together
For my co-facilitator and I, our top priority was setting up a space that felt conducive for honest sharing and earnest listening. This was especially important when hosting the session on Zoom, an unconventional environment for BRI. One important way to build our BRI community (as any teacher would tell you) was to set up norms for discussion together as a group. The novel we were discussing, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, contains themes that are currently playing out on a national scale, including racial and class power dynamics involved with incarceration and injustice. Our group established norms to respect other perspectives and to encourage empathy and engagement. The participating teachers did a great job listening attentively while also prompting each other to speak with vulnerability.
To explore the book’s themes more fully, the BRI design team equipped us with question prompts videos, and articles. However, the teachers’ curiosity and reflection guided our discussions, and it was exciting to help facilitate these fruitful conversations between so many passionate individuals. Their thoughtfulness made our jobs as facilitators relatively easy: tracking time, posing questions to the bigger group, and then following along as teachers weighed in and spoke directly between each other. Over the two sessions we also gathered feedback, which led to more small group conversations on day two per request of the group. As a facilitator, it’s important to be willing to make adjustments to the format, since everyone learns and feels motivated to participate in a variety of ways.
Teachers Leading the Way with Engagement
One additional part of the workshop that I really appreciated was the read-aloud and the conversation that followed. Often, teachers utilize read-alouds to model reading fluency, focus on specific skills or strategies, or to immerse students in a story as a group. I read the children’s book, Missing Daddy by Mariame Kaba. In the text, a child shares how they feel having an incarcerated parent. The group had an in-depth discussion regarding whether they would read the story to their own kids, their students, or only in specific circumstances for children going through that experience. There were multiple perspectives to explore, and that led to a fuller discussion around the effects certain books may explicitly or implicitly have on children’s perceptions of the world.
Facilitating a BRI workshop was a wonderful experience thanks to the people that make RLTA worthwhile: the teachers. CPS teachers lead many RLTA workshops, and it’s clear from BRI that they are all leaders at collaborating and learning together. I am grateful for the opportunity to help provide that space and learn from the best, and I look forward to hearing about their successes with their students this school year.