Ten of Abby’s Best Moments at Literature for All of Us
by Abby Harris-Ridker
This is my last week working at Literature for All of Us and I’m feeling so very thankful for my four and a half years here. I have learned so much from my students. I have learned what it means to use trauma-informed facilitation techniques, and to create space which allows participants to connect, share, reframe their experience, and heal. I have experienced groups where students love to read and groups where they are on their phones the whole time; groups where participants open up right away and groups where they need several months before personal stories start to come out. LFAOU opens worlds by opening books for our students, but it has been a life-changing privilege for me to learn from my students, hear their stories, and witness their lives. In June, I will start the Chicago Teacher Residency with Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). This is a student-teaching and master’s degree program where I will become certified to teach elementary education. I know that I will take all that I learned from my time as a Book Group Leader into my future classrooms.
So here are 10 great moments from my time at LFAOU, in no particular order. And I know that there are definitely more than 10!
- One of my students at Chicago Women in Trades thanked me and LFAOU for changing her life through book group. She said that before book group she would keep people at an arm’s length and was uncomfortable expressing her feelings. At the beginning of the group, she was tentative and closed off. During our final sessions, she began to share more of herself and said that she felt that book group allowed her to open up because “it’s the first time I’ve felt like I have a real family.”
- I love watching students become the best ambassadors for book group. When two of my students at Campos who had been in group for three years introduced book group to the new participants, they described it exactly as I would, sharing how meaningful group was for them and why they knew others would love group. These students shared with the group that they don’t usually open up with people, but because of book group they learned that they both have children, they both have had trouble with school and family, and they both tend to resist sharing their personal stories. They discovered commonalities, they built a friendship of support and honesty because of what they shared and learned in book group.
- I led a family literacy night at Campos and my students brought their children for a read-aloud, art activities, and snacks. When I passed out The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, my student’s two-year-old was giddy with excitement. I had the chance to witness mother and daughter sharing a beautiful moment of bonding over the joy of books.
- During my second to last group at Sullivan High School, we read If They Came for Us by Fatimah Asghar. Students who had been reserved throughout the first 4 months of group, suddenly started sharing personal stories of trauma. This poetry is very personal and shares vivid descriptions of Partition and tragedies that have affected Asghar’s life. It was amazing to see that, by building community for four months, we had created a safe space for students to share, listen, and connect when this poetry stirred up memories and powerful feelings.
- Every year I take students on retreats to Michigan, and for many it’s their first time away from Chicago. During the closing circle for a group of women from Sinclair High School, one participant shared that she was thankful to be surrounded by “nature and the sounds of birds, instead of gunshots and sirens.”
- At Curt’s Cafe we read Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon and a participant connected so deeply to the characters that she tearfully shared that she rarely got to see her father and uncle, both of whom are incarcerated. She also told us that she had recently been suspended from school because she punched another girl. She explained that she is just so mad about everything going on with her father and uncle that she didn’t know where else to put her anger. I thanked her for being able to articulate her feelings to the group, but she felt that she still didn’t know where to put these strong emotions. The other members of the group listened intently, allowing her to grieve. They gave her advice about how to handle this situation, encouraging her to remember that she is strong and independent.
- During a Second Chance retreat, we opened up our time together in Michigan with a quote about journeys. The quote inspired the students to tell personal stories of abuse, anger, depression, and loneliness. One student shared her history of abuse in her home and what it had been like to just get through each day. A second student responded that she had a similar experience. Her voice cracked as she explained that she used to find the first student frustratingly loud and aggressive, but said, “Now I respect you.” The two women looked at each other with tears in their eyes.
- At the end of this Second Chance retreat, a student said to the book group leaders, “You guys made me realize that what has happened to me isn’t the end of the world.” Another student said, “I feel hope now. I feel more at peace.”
- At Simpson I was surprised to encounter a lot of homophobia when I brought in the children’s book King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland about a prince who is supposed to find a spouse and chooses a prince instead of the expected princess. When the students first saw the book, several exclaimed that they would not take the book home to their children, that it was not something they wanted their children to see. We discussed how to talk to children about topics that may feel challenging and why it’s important to teach children from a young age that love is love. After reading the book and an article, the students agreed that they now had language to talk to their children about LGBTQ people. And they each took their book home with them to read to their children.
- At Chicago Women In Trades, very few of my students felt confident enough to write poetry on their own, so I asked them to create a group poem that represented all of their voices. People who hadn’t seen themselves as having a voice worth sharing, now saw themselves as writers, storytellers, and leaders. Here’s the poem my group wrote during our final session at CWIT.
Yes We Can
Yes we can create a safe environment
Yes we can create change in the world
Yes we can break down barriers
Yes we can stand in unity
Yes we can rise to the top
Yes we can build a liberated community
Yes we can speak our minds when we need to
Yes we can pave the way for others
Since we can, you can too