Help Students Grasp Literacy’s Power & Hope

Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life 
By Kylene Beers and Bob Probst
(Scholastic, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Katie Durkin

The attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 stunned our nation. Teachers were called to action to help students understand, reflect, and grapple with this event.

If Kylene Beers and Bob Probst were still writing their new book, Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life, I’m sure they would have discussed how these events, and those that preceded and followed it, were connected with the power of reading.

Dividing their book into three parts – Change, Power, and Hope, the widely respected literacy educators continue sharing their expertise with teachers about how reading and writing can mold students into their future selves.

Using examples from their past practices and school visits, Beers and Probst center their discussion on the power of reading and writing and how “…our discussion as a nation needs to be about how reading and writing can offer students the power to change themselves and perhaps the world around them” (p. 9).

Part One: Change focuses on how reading and writing bring about change in our world. By teaching students how we can use these “tools of literacy,” we are empowering them to change themselves, their communities and the world (p. 9). Beers and Probst ask teachers to think about the ways we can change our thinking on how we teach reading.

One chapter is dedicated to an anecdote about a school visit where they encountered a student, Lily, a beginning reader. Lily was able to demonstrate her ability to read well, even speaking aloud many of her internal thoughts about the story. But when she mispronounced a fictitious word, she was chastised by a coach, stating she was not ready to read the book.

Beers and Probst use this example, and others, to ask an important question: “What if our first vision of reading is that reading empowers children to become all they can be so they can forge a better life for themselves, their community, and their democracy?” (p. 54)

This one example shows how Beers and Probst saw the need for change within a system to rethink how the system views reading practices and skills. Change must start with the teacher, the school, and the community, recognizing the power of literacy and how we can support students to use their literacy skills to enact positive change.

Part Two: Power begins with examples from our nation’s history on how white people attempted to keep the power of literacy, and education, to themselves, denying Black Americans, First Nations people, and Latino-Americans the privilege of this power.

These conversations, and many others, may cause discomfort, but Beers and Probst argue this discomfort is necessary to understanding that a teacher’s goal should be “to help students think about significant issues, possibly change themselves, and perhaps even become activists who help others evolve and grow” (p.79).

Books are tools that can help students ask these tough questions in order to think about how they change themselves and their world, and we must push students to read rigorous texts and study issues that matter to them.

Part Three: Hope brings the ideas of the previous two sections together by providing strategies teachers can use to empower students to recognize how they can use the power of literacy to create positive change. This hope for the future also depends on whether and how teachers can change themselves.

Beers and Probst discuss independent readers, answering 10 important questions about how this reading functions for our students. These questions range from answering how many minutes students should read a day to how many books a teacher should have in his/her classroom.

The authors discuss choice, reluctant readers, censorship, and barriers that may exist for teachers when making time for independent reading, all while offering solutions for teachers to use when faced with these obstacles. They offer the revised “BHHD” strategy, first introduced in their book, Disrupting Thinking, where students are asked:

  1. “What’s in the book?
  2. What’s in your head?
  3. What’s in your heart?
  4. What will you do now?” (p. 178)

By adding the last question, this strategy asks students to think about how they are empowered by their reading and how this work may inspire them to change themselves and the world.

In the final chapter, Forging Ahead, Beers and Probst name young adults who have used literacy to create change and challenge inequities in both smaller and larger communities. They provide examples and models for students, but also for teachers, to begin to change how literacy functions within the microcosm of the classroom.

Beers and Probst end with a call to action: “You, our nation’s teachers, have the power to help students become empowered readers and thinkers. You can help each student forge his or her life through reading. And so again, dear teachers, we turn to you” (p. 193).

Reasons for reading Forged by Reading

I highly recommend this book for any teacher who would like to reflect upon and better understand the power of literacy. The many insights from these professionals, as well as ready-to-use strategies, can help teachers think about how reading and writing relate to change, power, and hope.

For me, this book affirmed much of my pedagogy and my teaching practices, but it also helped me to understand that the work of a teacher is never done. Similar to our students, we must continually learn and read and reflect in order to empower ourselves and the current and future young people in our professional care.

Through this book, I appreciate how I can be empowered by reading. I am empowered to make change for my students because of Beers and Probst’s words and continue to model and forge a future, using the tools of literacy, for myself and my students.

Katie Durkin (@kmerz610) has been teaching English Language Arts to middle school students for a decade and currently teaches 7th grade Reading Workshop at public Middlebrook School in Wilton, Connecticut.

Katie is a zealous reader of middle grades and young adult books and enjoys sharing her love and passion for reading with her students. She is a doctoral student at Northeastern University studying the impact of classroom libraries on middle school students’ reading engagement. She is the 2020 recipient of the Edwyna Wheadon Postgraduate Training Scholarship from the National Council of Teachers of English.

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