The following post is written by teacher of teachers, author, and education entrepreneur Pam Allyn. This post is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.
“Modern education pays little attention to inner values and yet our basic human nature is compassionate. We need to incorporate compassion and warm-heartedness into the modern education system to make it more holistic.”
— The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is calling us to place compassion and warm-heartedness at the center of our teaching and learning. In 2010, I was visiting a classroom in the South Bronx, New York. While I was reading, I noticed a little boy smiling hugely at me as I finished the book. He leaned forward and whispered, “I wish we could do this every day.” I wondered why this wasn’t happening every day, and as it turned out, the teacher felt there was not enough time in the day for the pleasurable read alouds her children loved. We all together pledged then and there to do whatever we could to make sure we were advocating for the power of the read aloud as a central part of a school day. The read aloud is a compassion-building, warm-heartedness-building tool. The relationship between reader, text, and listener is profound and can be deeply sacred. The story blooms in the air, creating around it a sense of safety and well-being. The children feel nourished by the sound of the reading voice; also, they are learning to listen in a different way. The listening is absorption. It is coming into them as story itself: a profound way to receive a gift.
On that day in 2010, my colleagues and I at LitWorld created “World Read Aloud Day,” which was just celebrated on February 1 by millions of people all across the world. It is the greatest example of the power of friendship, love, and collaboration I have ever experienced. No matter where people live, no matter what their daily lives are like, stopping to hear the voice of another, to be united by the power of story, is a universal experience. While we devote a day to raising awareness about the importance of reading aloud, it is something we should be doing every day of the year.
As we enter further into 2018, it’s easy to feel unsure of what we can do to cultivate peace and compassion in our world. While the voices calling for peace, kindness, and compassion may seem quieter than others, we can show our children that theirs are the voices with the most lasting power. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the arc of the moral universe being long but always bending toward justice. Sometimes we cannot see immediate benefits to slowing down our time with children, and to accompanying them in a tender journey, but in this way of compassion-building through literacy we can change the world. Our classrooms can serve as examples of safe spaces for growing compassionate young voices that can and will transform the way we solve problems, making our world more whole and “holistic,” as the Dalai Lama has said.
Teaching compassion gives children the skills they need to translate their ideas into action. Recent research on teaching best practices agrees that social-emotional learning is an essential component in improving the literacy skills of students across all age groups. A 2011 meta-analysis of 82 social and emotional studies by researchers affiliated with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning found that “participants performed about 13 percentage points higher in grades and standardized test scores than their peers.”
And it is the children themselves who tell us best how important these learning forms truly are. Our children express their delight for the story heard and the story told. They express their love of writing their own stories in response to those texts, of living like authors: living aloud in the world. The importance of the read aloud is that it passes urgency in the form of tenderness along: it says creating the safe space is the one thing that matters most. The importance of the read aloud is in the fact that the tender stories can get told, that a story of a spider saving a pig, or a little boy loving the snow, are worthy stories, worthy of loving and worth saving and cherishing and living by, as a step along the pathway to justice for all.
Let us claim 2018 as the Year of Compassion and Warm-Heartedness. Here are some texts for read alouds that can inspire us in that direction.
- Read Naomi Shihab Nye’s classic poem “The Words Under the Words”:
“My grandmother’s days are made of bread/
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.”
Slow down your conversation and make it about close observations your children have of the lives they live and the kindness inside the details.
- Read Carmen Agra Deedy’s The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! and laugh over the silliness while at the same time becoming inspired together about the power of raising one’s voice.
- Read That Is My Dream! A Picture Book of Langston Hughes’s “Dream Variation” and live between the spaces of hope and despair, of history and today, of the child and the world. Have the conversations around this read aloud that will lead you somewhere deep with your students, with Hughes as our guide and bard; have the difficult conversations that will lead to hope and consciousness.
- Read Love by Matt de la Peña, a journey to explain this all-encompassing emotion that drives our daily lives; no matter who we are or where we live, our universal experience joins us. Let the truth and authentic power of love itself wash over you and your students. Don’t be afraid to be real. Let compassion and warm-heartedness rule the earth. You can watch a recording Matt made of himself reading the book on World Read Aloud Day.
 Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405–432.