I think the first Patricia Polacco book I ever read was Pink and Say (1994), but I can’t be certain. I do know that Chicken Sunday was in the literature anthology my school adopted in 1996. At once I knew Patricia Polacco was a master storyteller whose books conveyed important themes through stories of intergenerational and multicultural friendship and caring. These themes evoked compassion and allowed readers to see “the other” in themselves.
At the 88th Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, held yesterday, teachers from across the country braved swirling snow and freezing temperatures to hear Patricia Polacco deliver the opening keynote. She told us that “the greatest heroes in our counry are classroom teachers.” She shared the story of her hero, George Felker, the real Mr. Falker. Mr. Felker was the first teacher to recognize Patricia’s dyslexia and was instrumental in getting her the help she needed to learn to read. Polacco described him as a man who was “beautiful in his heart.”
Polacco also shared the story of The Keeping Quilt. I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience moved to tears as Patricia told of her great-grandmother, Anna, who left the Ukraine as a small child. The dress and headscarf, or babushka, she wore eventually became part of the keeping quilt. Anna’s mother sewed the quilt so that when Anna felt homesick she could “just touch the quilt, and you’ll keep home” in your heart.
Hearts were the thread running through Polacco’s speech. She thanked the thousands of teachers filling Riverside Church for devoting “our lives to educating the minds and hearts of others.” In closing, Polacco told us that she was proud to “walk this earth” with us, and that she holds our hearts in her good keeping.
Kylene Beers’s closing keynote, “What Matters Most,” was the perfect bookend to Polacco’s opening address. Kylene began by talking about how literacy is about power and privilege. She went on to say that “power is the ability to reach someone with your message” and that “power is about being connected.” What connects us better than stories? Stories like The Keeping Quilt and Dear Mr. Falker.
Beers also told us that “we must have more compassion” and that we “get to compassion best and easiest through the teaching of literature.” Brain research supports this, as well as the role of literature in creating empathy, something that is sorely lacking in our society today. “The humanities should humanize us,” Beers said, and the best way to achieve this is to read. Children should read widely and read books of their choosing, because “want-ability will always be more important that readability.” Children should read widely because through literature “we learn how to navigate our lives by navigating the lives of others.”
With characters as diverse as a slave and soldier of the Civil War, Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and everyday African-American kids, Patricia Polacco has given us literature that enables us to, as Kylene Beers put it, “become what we are not.” Great teachers will share these books with their students because they will help children become curious, creative, and compassionate. They will share them because “great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow.”
Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for making the Saturday Reunion possible, and thank you to Patricia Polacco and Kylene Beers for your confidence, faith, and above all, your words of inspiration.
Thank you also to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.