November 9th by Donalyn Miller
Yesterday, we celebrated our oldest daughter Celeste’s birthday by going to lunch at Red Robin, then watching the Trolls movie. The movie was cheesy, but cute and heartwarming. My oldest granddaughter, Emma, and I sat next to each other. We discussed how much we liked the felt, yarn, and stitch textures in the animations. We whisper sang the pop songs we knew. At one point, Emma slipped her hand into mine and I squeezed her fingers in a silent “I love you.” I caught myself staring at her while she watched the movie. I’m overwhelmed by how much I love her, sometimes. I feel the smooth-edged settled love I have for Celeste and the sharp newer love I have for my grandchildren at the same time.
My grandchildren remind me that love is our greatest legacy and I carry both the power and responsibility of it.
Emma’s not an extension of me or her mother or anyone. She’s a complex person all on her own. She adores animals of all kinds, and our pets flock to her. She enjoys swimming and kicking a soccer ball around the backyard, but she wants someone to join her. She loves reading Who Was? and Deckawoo Drive books, but she dislikes math. She’s curious about the world and asks a lot of questions. She’s smart and she needs you to know it. She’s sweet to her little sister, Lila, who follows her everywhere. She hates bullies, but she can be intolerant of other kids. She’s afraid of the dark and our giant cat, Misty, who clawed her badly once.
Emma’s a worrier, but she’s optimistic. She’s anxious a lot. She feels the whole world and sometimes I see the burden of it in her eyes.
Our mundane Saturday ritual of lunch and a movie was just what we needed this weekend. Personally, I needed to walk away from the Internet and cable news. I am sick of election coverage and worried sick about our country and sickened by the hate and vitriol I see online these days. On Tuesday night (Please, Lord, let it be settled on Tuesday.), we will know the results of one of the most divisive and ugly Presidential campaigns in our lifetimes. We are bruised and bloody from it.
On Wednesday morning, Americans will wake up and wonder what comes next.
How can we heal our battered country? Will we ever love each other? How can we prevent this turmoil from happening again? How can we improve the lives of everyone and build a stronger global family together? How can we celebrate our shared humanity and abolish hate, violence, fear, and injustice in our world?
Throughout the campaign, I have been thinking about the role literacy plays in creating an educated, engaged, informed, and participatory citizenry. It seems many American adults lack critical literacy skills and foundational knowledge of how our government works. Misinformation and social tribalism dominate national discourse. We benefit from the free exchange of information online without understanding its limitations and pitfalls. We disavow research and logic in favor of conspiracy theories and entertainment. We sacrifice respect and decency for power and suspicion. I don’t know if we can fix it, but we have to try.
Pandora left us a shred of hope. Find that dusty box on your closet shelf. We need it.
Because we live in service to young people, we know they represent the best hope we have for something better. How can we, as educators and family members and artists and Americans, improve our world and help our children reach their full promise as citizens and human beings? I don’t have answers, but I need to believe we can find our better selves.
In moments of despair, I’ve been making a list of actionable steps. Each item on this list deserves a blog post of its own and further discussion. I hope you will add to this list and engage in constructive dialogue with others about what we can do. No matter what happens on November 8th, we will still be citizens together on November 9th. Let’s get to work.
Actions for Raising Literate, Informed, Engaged, Participatory Citizens (a starter list)
Ensure children have meaningful book access all year long. We recognize the power that reading has to improve academic, professional, and social outcomes, but too many of our children live in book deserts with limited access to books at school and home. We must guarantee that every child has access to books that s/he can read and has interest in reading.
Increase the availability and use of diverse texts. Wide reading fosters empathy and awareness of people with different perspectives and circumstances than our own. Reading and discussing books representing a range of human experiences opens our minds and hearts to the challenges and triumphs of other people and reinforces our shared humanity. Buy, read, share, and promote books from diverse authors and illustrators.
Hire librarians. Librarians are information and reading advisory specialists who add inestimable value to our communities. During the economic downturn of the past decade, many schools have cut librarians or compromised their roles with additional responsibilities outside of the library. Degreed librarians are knowledgeable, trained educators who can teach our children the information literacy, digital citizenship, and text evaluation skills they need. Our children must learn about online privacy, copyright laws, evaluating the credibility of sources, and the difference between a Google search and research. Librarians also know how to locate resources, curate a collection, and match children with books.
Teach children how to read, evaluate, present, and write rhetorical arguments. Political speeches, newspaper editorials, propaganda, interviews, and advertisements employ techniques designed to shape our beliefs and provoke response. Teaching young people how to critically examine information for bias, perspective, agenda, and purpose, fosters critical thinking and understanding of how information can be used to manipulate us.
Teach children about our struggle for civil rights and liberties, including our voting rights. Since our nation was founded, we have fought and debated what it means to be a citizen and how to best apply the Bill of Rights to ensure every American citizen has equal rights and freedoms. Our children are America’s future voters, freedom fighters, and policymakers. Teaching children about the men and women who fought (and continue to fight) for our fundamental freedoms and the role of government in defining and protecting these rights ensures that our democracy will be actively defended and remain vital.
Examine our relationships with technology and social media. Continuous access to information and conversations through online platforms provides us lifelong learning and connection with others, but there’s a cost. We can act impulsively online—jumping into Twitter wars, posting snarky comments, and intimidating or shaming people who disagree with us. We care too much about our online lives and often invest too much energy feeding our personas or engaging with strangers. For the sake of our interpersonal relationships and our mental and physical health, we must strike a balance between our personal lives and our public online lives.
Engage children in community service. Participatory citizens understand that communities work when we all pitch in to help one another, and working to improve our local communities increases our awareness of the challenges and needs of our neighbors. Research volunteer and service learning opportunities in your local area and invest your time and money supporting community-based initiatives. Children grow into their roles as caretakers and helpers through active participation in service.
Model kindness, empathy, and inclusivity in our home and school communities. We are not born to hate. We learn cruelty, exclusion, and how to shame people for their differences and beliefs. Children watch how we interact with each other and develop their moral and ethical compass from our examples. Kids recognize our hypocrisy when we emphasize moral values, but still talk trash about our neighbors.
What else can we do? Share your ideas. Supporting each other can start here and now. My granddaughter worries a lot about the world. I need to tell her that it will be OK. We can make it better for all of our children together.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp), and created she the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.