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The Big Fresh September 15, 2018 Inviting the Stranger In

Brenda Power

Good things happen when you meet strangers.

                                                                                      Yo-Yo Ma

In her new book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker writes about the importance of the “stranger” in invigorating and shaking up groups that get together often. She explains:

The power of the stranger lies in what they bring out in us. With strangers, there is a temporary re-ordering of a balancing act that each of us is constantly attempting: between our past selves and our future selves, between who we have been and who we are becoming.

The most unusual gathering I ever hosted was a conference on reading Stephen King’s work over two decades ago.  King launched the conference with an evening keynote about his writing process (it was seed writing that eventually turned into his classic memoir On Writing). The next day, there were highbrow presentations by scholars who came from as far away as Scotland to “deconstruct” the experience of reading a King novel. There were teachers who shared anecdotes and practical tips about using King’s work in classrooms. And there were even blue-collar parents who came from the surrounding towns with their teens to talk about their shared love of horror stories.

I remember talking to one father who said, “My 14-year-old daughter and I argue about everything. The only thing we can agree on is that these novels are wonderful. And that’s something, when you do more fighting than talking.”

Decades later, that conference remains one of the few professional events I’ve been to that was designed to bring strangers together. There is a difference between not knowing someone and someone being a stranger. I go to professional gatherings all the time with teachers. There may be thousands of people in the convention center I’ve never met. But they aren’t strangers — I will not be surprised at what books they are reading, what challenges at their school are vexing them, or what their hopes and dreams are for students. We aren’t strangers — we’re just comrades who haven’t met yet.

What would it look like for you to embrace the presence of strangers in your classroom, to consciously seek out guests for whom our jargon would spark confusion? What would it mean to bring in not just a speaker for PD, but a group of people from the local center working with refugees and immigrants for a dinner to talk about integrating English language learners and their families into schools? When the gathering is small, and the groups of strangers are equal in size, the conversations and insights can be powerful.

As an introvert, my skin itches when I walk into a meeting where I don’t know anyone and i’m not sure of the norms. Yet I’m almost always grateful for the experience afterward, if only because I’ve proven to myself that I value learning over comfort.  You don’t have to travel far to be a stranger in a strange land, or to find visitors who are not experienced or comfortable in your school or community. You just have to step a little off the paths you travel every day.

This week we explore some fresh takes on history and biography. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Brenda Power
Founder, Choice Literacy


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Franki Sibberson shares strategies for incorporating more nonfiction into read-aloud times throughout the day:


Mark Levine finds his middle school students are appalled by some of the cultural differences from times gone by, and shares how he fosters more understanding:


Adele Jeunette has suggestions for new narrative nonfiction titles to integrate into your classroom library:


Check out our new online courses on reaching out to families led by Jennifer Schwanke and understanding English language learners with Stella Villalba starting soon. Each self-paced class includes screencasts, videos, articles, and three-month memberships to Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy. You can learn more here:



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A heavy sigh from a student is a cue to Shari Frost that he has heard the same Martin Luther King picture book biography one too many times in February. She shares her top picture book picks for expanding children's awareness of black history all year long:


In this week's video, Christy Rush-Levine confers with Omar, who is reading The Rock and the River.  The book is a fictional account of a tumultuous time in civil rights history, considering protests through a child's eyes:


Stella Villalba shares some of her favorite new picture book bIographies for bringing history to life for young learners, with a focus on perseverance:


Mark Levine finds Russell Freedman book clubs are a great way for his middle school students to deepen understanding of history and empathize with young people who lived through previous eras:


In an encore video from a fifth-grade classroom, Aimee Buckner guides students in a notetaking process to help them understand the qualities of nonfiction narrative writing:


That's all for this week!

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Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.