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Celebrating World Teachers’ Day: Literacies of Vulnerability

by Spencer Salas |

On October 5th, UNESCO celebrated World Teachers’ Day 2022 with the theme of teachers transforming education around the globe! In honor of the celebration, I want to share a memory of my fourth-grade year at Old Creek Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, USA and what Mrs. Dahlstrom taught us about reading. It goes like this:

Friday Afternoon Read-Alouds

Mrs. Dahlstrom was one of the older teachers at the school (at least in my 9-year old eyes), with white curly hair. She was very prim and proper, and she never raised her voice. Otherwise, I don’t remember all that much about fourth grade except that every Friday afternoon, Mrs. Dahlstrom would sit the class down and read aloud to us for about an hour. We’d just listen. The next Friday, she’d pick up where she left off—and again the Friday next, until, chapter by chapter, we finished whatever book she had selected.

Friday afternoons were special. We ended the week clamoring for more of the story because Mrs. Dahlstrom read aloud to us as only an elementary school teacher could—taking on the voices of the characters and the tonality of the narrative. She made books come alive.

That year, she read Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows—a 1961 children’s novel about a young boy, Billy Coleman, growing up in Oklahoma’s Ozark Mountains. Billy works for two years to save enough money to buy two Redbone Hound puppies. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann. He trains the scent hounds’ sensitive noses to trail raccoons in the forest. Billy enters the dogs in a series of hunting contests, and, together, they win championship after championship.

[Spoiler alert!] In the final chapters, during a night-hunt, the dogs and Billy are attacked by a mountain lion. Old Dan is badly wounded defending Billy, and Old Dan dies the next morning. A few days later, Little Ann dies too—broken hearted. Billy buries the two dogs in the forest where a red fern grows, marking their their graves.

Here’s what I remember most:

As she turned the last page, Mrs. Dahlstrom wept.

We were stunned.

Vulnerability and Reading

Where the Red Fern Grows wasn’t particularly culturally relevant—to me, at least. I had never been to the Ozarks. I had never gone hunting. I didn’t know what a Redbone Hound was. Mrs. Dahlstrom made the book relevant through the emotions she channeled. Across the chapters, Mrs. Dahlstrom alternatively laughed, was anxious or relieved or delighted or overcome with sadness—and we were too.

Literacy research has worked to catalogue what proficient readers do when they take up a text. Understanding those behaviors can inform reading-strategy pedagogies. But reading is also an act of making meaning of the world we live in. When we read, we make connections between what we’re reading, other texts we’ve read (words), and our lived experiences (worlds). We ask questions, make predictions, and connect with the text visually, physically, emotionally, and existentially.

Mrs. Dahlstrom was modeling something we don’t always think about or make time for with the stressors surrounding the ways we assess and gauge literacy achievement in K–12 schools. For a brief moment, we saw her vulnerability and realized the power of a story that could bring a grown-up to tears. She transformed reading into an emotional experience.

Thinking about World Teachers’ Day and teachers transforming education in their daily practice, here are two parting questions:

  • Who’s a teacher that grew the way you read or changed your perception of reading or of yourself as a reader?
  • How has your memory of that teacher shaped your understanding of literacy and of literacy instruction?

Happy World Teachers Day to the many educators transforming the world one read-aloud at a time!

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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