Where do we sit? We sit side-by-side, carefully listening. The way we look at the student, a spark of intent in our eyes, leaning in naturally, gives the student the sense that for the next few minutes he has our undivided attention. It says to the reader that we have only one purpose--to listen. It is a stunning act, sitting next to a young reader, waiting to be amazed? It's like Anne Sullivan writing, "My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil's mind, and behold, all things are changed!" And, who knows a reader might just trust himself a bit more if we choose to move in and listen--at just the right time." (Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop, page 153).
I used this quote (from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller) to describe the power of sitting next to a reader... discovering the joy they bring to their reading lives if we just listen to their thinking. If we learn to confer, and confer well, we can see that "light of understanding" in all of our students. Change happens. If we learn to listen, it's an amazing gift.
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I've loved Helen Keller's story since I saw The Miracle Worker when I was young; has anyone captured them better than Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke? In fact, I played James Keller in our school production of the play in high school. There's something about Helen's life that fascinates me.
That's why I was excited to add Doreen Rappaport's book, Helen's Big World, to my collection. And, who doesn't love illustrations by Matt Tavares; marvelous and detailed. I love Doreen Rappaport's ability to "determine important ideas" and then weave them into beautifully written text that captures so eloquently the lives of her subjects. This book is no exception. She covers Helen's life from infancy to that moment at the water pump we've come to recognize as the breakthrough into Helen's world. There's a simplicity to Rappaport's words that envelope the complicated world of a brilliant mind. Anne Sullivan recognized Helen's potential and her love for Helen is revealed across time. Knowing that Helen was able to overcome her own disabilities adds to the richness of this piece. I appreciate how Ms. Rappaport weaves Helen's own words into the text.
In the classroom, I love using books about Helen Keller to engage students in the concept of "strengthening stamina and endurance." Her drive, her interest in injustice and activism, her ability to face adversity... all because of an unknown illness that left her blind and mute at the age of 18 months. It's a story that amazes me every time I read it. We all know what happens when a wise teacher is able to engage and support the gifts of even the most reticent learner.
Another wonderful book I found at NCTE is Anne Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. It's a brilliant graphic novel by Joseph Lambert. Lambert, too, puts a new twist on the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. The darkness and light of his illustrations are mesmerizing.
This text focuses on the lives of both Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller as they work to discover their own lives, paralleling Helen's struggles in the Keller home and Annie's in helping Helen learn. It focuses on the struggles Helen had at the Perkins Institution when she was accused of plagarism. It covers new territory, something that's not often explored in stories of Helen's and Annie's relationship. Because it's a graphic novel, it requires close reading and lots of inferring. I found the "Panel Discussions" in the back of the text compelling and thought-provoking. In fact, I spent time rereading the text after reading the discussion.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart - one of my favorite Helen Keller quotes. And, adding these two books to my growing collection of books about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan reminds me that learning about a subject you find intriguing never ends. Thanks to Doreen Rappaport and Joseph Lambert for their brilliance.