“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” -Malala
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Books are potent things.
I’ve written that sentence dozens of times, weaving it into blog posts, magazine articles I’ve been asked to write, and Sparks in the Dark, my forthcoming book with Todd Nesloney. I’ve scribbled it inside almost every notebook I’ve kept as a language arts teacher, a small sentence that houses so much truth and understanding. As students have fallen in love with books and have developed reading identities, the sentence has glimmered with new meaning, for me and my students. It’s beautiful to behold.
There is a frightening narrative unfolding at this moment, one that advocates arming teachers in response to the horrific school shootings across the country. I propose a completely different, less violent option: arm teachers with books. I have witnessed the mesmerizing power that books have over my students. When they read something they love, they want to talk about it and write about. They also want to act, to do something in response to the things they read. I have watched students become social justice warriors. Armed with the beautiful ideas from books they read, my students want to seek change in their world, using their reading lives as ammunition. Most recently, one of my students humbled me because he proved to me that a strong reading life is a loaded gun, and with it, we have a chance to change others.
His name is Dane. When he entered my class in late August, I could sense his negative stance toward reading and writing. I am not inclined to appreciate reading and writing, he seemed to say with his posture, comments, and the honest answers he provided on his interest inventory. His perspective about language arts, especially a reading and writing workshop, was anything but positive, but I persisted.
In late October, I watched his attitude transform. I book-talked Dear Martin by Nic Stone, a gripping novel about social justice and the racial disparity that exists in our country. I read part of the book aloud, and Dane, who usually slouched in his seat during book talks, held onto every word I read from the book. His interest was piqued. He approached me during independent reading and asked if he could read the book, stating that he wanted a book where the main character looked like him and understood his experience. “Of course you can read it,” I said, smiling and secretly wanting to give him a giant hug. I was elated. I had refused to give up on him, and as a result, I had finally reached him.
After reading Dear Martin, he read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The March Trilogy by John Lewis, and When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds. Reading conferences with him were incisive and pleasant, and by January, he was writing in his notebook about big ideas and themes. Our conversations about author’s craft encouraged him to write poems much like Jason Reynolds’s poetry. I became inspired by his writing and ideas, and when I would leaf through his notebook, reading what he had written, I found myself nudging him further in his writing. “Tell me more,” I would write in the margins, knowing that stories and poems and letters had layers that more writing would unearth. Dane had fallen in love with words and reading. But his attitude and posture on this one day seemed to be telling me a completely different story.
During independent reading, his eyes were averted from the page, sharply focused on the blank space in front of him. With his right hand he twisted ringlets of his hair, and with his left hand, he fanned the pages of his book. I approached him. “Dane,” I said, “is everything ok?” “Yes, sir,” he responded. For a moment his eyes returned to the page, but almost immediately he resumed the same distant stare, focusing on empty space, mind anywhere but class. I didn’t press the issue.
When independent reading ended, I asked everyone to get their writing notebooks out and turn so they could see the board at the front of the room. Langston Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America and Andra Day’s Rise Up were the pieces of writing we would focus on for our quick write and discussion before students began using them as ways to see intertextual relationships with their independent reading. Dane turned so he could see the board, but once he saw the poem and song, he smiled and turned back around. There was definitely an issue, but I wasn’t sure what had prompted the lack of participation. I had not seen a negative attitude from him in quite some time. Where was the writer, the reader, the poet?
During the quick write, I decided to read over shoulders as opposed to writing with my students. I needed to figure out what was going on, confident that Dane’s writing would give me a window into his mind. When I looked at his work, I could tell that he was dutifully working in his notebook, but there was no joy. When I approached his group, he did not look up from his notebook, but as I turned to walk away, he said, “Mr. Crowder, can I talk to you after class?”
“Sure,” I said. “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah, well, I just need to talk with you about a social justice issue.”
“I’ll be happy to talk to you,” I said.
And he went back to his notebook. For the remainder of class, he worked in his notebook, hardly speaking to the others in his group, intensely focused on the page in front of him. He was writing, but it was with purpose. Glancing over his shoulder as surreptitiously as possible, I noticed him working on Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America, writing his thoughts, and the personal connections he had made, around the poem, which he had pasted in his notebook. He was filling the page with vigor and attentiveness, channeling his ideas onto the lines, a mind consumed with something that had precipitated today’s class. He loved writing, but today he was on a mission. I was curious and worried.
Class ended, students packed up their belongings and ushered out of my room. Dane walked to the front of the room and stood in front of me, seemingly searching for the right words. “So, something happened,” he said. “I just need to get it off my chest.”
“What’s up?” I asked, concern, I’m sure, apparent in my voice.
And he told me. He explained how earlier that morning at breakfast, a fellow 7th grader had approached him and said “What up, n——!” Repulsed at her language, he asked her to stop, but in reply, she commented that “y’all people say it all the time so why can’t I say it?” His attempts at explaining appropriate language were insufficient. Out of spite, she began saying it just to seek retaliation, wanting him to become angered. “But I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to be the bigger person.”
As the day went on, his thinking sought the memory of the incident, dragging it to the forefront of his mind. By the time he reached language arts, and he saw that we were reading a poem by Langston Hughes, the experience from earlier that day was burdensome. And so he wanted to talk to me, the person who had suggested he read Dear Martin, the book that ignited his reading life. “I knew you’d understand,” he said.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dane continued. “Maybe I just needed to get it off my chest.” He started to leave, but I stopped him.
“Dane, do you remember what Justyce did?”
He smiled at me, recognizing the main character from Dear Martin. “Yeah.”
“Do you think that would help?”
“Are you telling me I need to write to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?”
“I’m not telling you to do anything, Dane. But do you think writing to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks or Malcom X or John Lewis would help?”
He smiled at me and nodded. “I know what I want to tell him. Thanks, Mr. C. Can I have a note to my next class?”
I wrote him a note and watched him leave my room. The following morning he brought me the letter he had penned, written with conviction to MLK, Jr. There was a rich authenticity to his letter: there was a significant audience, as well as a beautiful purpose. “I showed it to my mom this morning, Mr. C. She sat down at the kitchen table and cried.” When he walked away, so did I.
I really do not know how to start, so I’m going to just jump right into it.
So it’s Black History Month, and I’m being really cautious. Some, not all, but some people are saying mean things. I feel like people are running over us. Well, not all people, but some. I want to put an end to this.
I wanna protest. Not sure if I can but I really want to.
Ok, so there was this girl who used the “N” word when she spoke to me this morning. I was so mad because then other people started using it. I felt like it got out of hand. I’m still angry. I really don’t know what to do. I just felt like I should come to you. I want to speak out. I want to say something but I don’t want to say something that will hurt someone. Or get me in trouble.
Maybe this will help.
Thank you so much,
Since writing his first letter to MLK, Jr., Dane’s writing has found a courage and intensity that it did not have before. He has written more letters to MLK, Jr., and they have become deeply honest, probing at issues he is trying his best to understand and overcome. But more importantly, Dane connected with a book and used it to leverage his feelings, ideas, and reactions. This is a social justice move, a civic action that all students need to participate in, and students like Dane are leading the way.
In a time when politicians and other leaders are advocating for arming teachers with guns, I am advocating for a completely different way to arm us. Give us books, ones that will change our students lives, give them a renewed purpose, and encourage them to crusade for change within their country and world. When students like Dane are moved by books and use them as sources of strength and resilience, I am emboldened by their noble act. Books are powerful things. And they change us.
Arm me with books, with gorgeous, riveting prose that will engage students in reading and civic action. Arm me with books, with lyrical poetry, inspiring imagery, and explorations of the human condition that expose all that is good, evil, and noble in this world. Books are potent, and with them, I can arm my students. Dane could have chosen a different strategy to deal with his anger, but he chose to use Nic Stone’s novel as a guide, as a mentor. A solitary book changed him and gave him a way to rise above the ignorance. I want this for all of my students.
Arm me with books. Because the pen is mightier than the sword.
And books will change hearts and minds.