Much of our thinking about literacy and effective instruction keys on the abstract analysis of research data and on the experiential insights derived from classroom practicum. The importance of these approaches cannot be denied, but they hardly exhaust the relevant perspectives. Literacy is also, at root, something deeply felt, something that informs, sustains, and, indeed, transforms identity and personality.
In this vein, attendees at IRA’s upcoming Chicago Convention (April 29 to May 2) will get to hear a very special keynote address that opens the Second General Session. Dr. Steven Layne, children’s book author and literacy professor at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, will deliver an inspirational cri de coeur that derives in large part from a harrowing personal odyssey. Entitled Balcony People: Teachers Make the Difference, Layne’s address will challenge his audience to take stock of what teachers have given them, and to pay forward an important debt of gratitude.
Stricken Down, Put on Life Support
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a serious autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. Guillain-Barre causes muscle weakness that can manifest itself in an ascending level of paralysis. For most people, the syndrome is something remote, a medical fact many are not at all familiar with. But not Steve Layne.
Sometime in late 2004 Steve contracted Guillain-Barre. At the time, he was the president of the Illinois Reading Council, an IRA affiliate. The disease struck with a vengeance. Steve was suddenly paralyzed from the neck down. He lost the ability to move, to eat, to speak. He was placed in intensive care and on life support for over two months.
Steve remembers lying there, being conscious of people and equipment moving about him, but otherwise unable to communicate. Yet, while he grappled with the pangs of his predicament something extraordinary began to happen in the world around him.
A Little Dunkirk
Students of history will forever recall Churchill’s “finest hour” speech. It seems that the Illinois Reading Council and the IRA community at large felt a similar call to arms, in this case rallying to help their ailing colleague and his family. Steve’s voice softens with emotion as he recounts this little Dunkirk.
“All of a sudden people started stopping by the house to drop off food and money. Folks I knew from work came by to babysit so that my wife Debbie could come to the hospital and visit me. Small fundraisers were held to help my family defray expenses. There was always a person at the side of my bed, even throughout the night, so that if I woke up I wouldn't be alone. So many people were offering to help that Debbie set up a blog to keep everyone coordinated.”
It took two and a half more months in a rehabilitation hospital before Steve was able to reacquire the ability to speak and walk. During his long road back, he had ample time for reflection, and was overwhelmed by the generosity his illness had occasioned. “Extreme frailty reminds us that we are not alone,” he says, looking back. “Nobody loves like teachers.” Steve thought long and hard about the many ways teachers and teaching colleagues had helped him from as far back as when he was a child.
He also recalled an inspirational book he had once read called Balcony People. Written by Joyce Landorf Heatherly, this classic calls individuals to remember those people in the “balconies” of their lives who were always there to encourage, nurture, and cheer on. With that thought in mind, all of the creative elements in Steve’s spirit began to stir, and a powerful message took form.
From San Antonio to Toronto
Steve made it to the 2005 IRA Convention in San Antonio, albeit in a wheelchair. He made good on his conference commitments and enjoyed catching up with friends and well-wishers. Moreover, a number of IRA connections, including former executive director Alan Farstrup, encouraged Steve to attend IRA’s International Leadership Conference later that summer.
Preparing for this event, Steve put his heart and soul into composing what is now referred to as his “balcony speech.” In this address, he speaks directly to the qualities of “balcony people,” and why teachers fit the category so naturally. Those who were in attendance in Toronto, and saw Steve helped up the steps to the podium, and heard him speak, have never forgotten the moment for something enduring and indelible was imparted.
Arlene Pennie, Executive Director of the Illinois Reading Council, remembers the impact Steve’s presentation made. “This energizing speech motivated me to reflect on all of the people, including teachers, who have influenced so many of my life decisions.” Brenda Overturf, a current member of the IRA Board, was also in the audience. “Steve’s message about the power of teaching in his own life so inspired me that I literally could not stop thinking about it. I heard ‘Balcony People’ again after I invited Steve to present it at the Kentucky Reading Association conference, and again, it made me laugh, cry, and think about amazing ways that teachers change lives.”
Paying It Forward
A major theme for Steve is the notion of “paying it forward,” the idea that insight, learning, and loving care ripple into expanding rings that affect more people than any of us can realize. In his case, the impulse was awakened by his illness and the trials of his recovery. “I want to give others the things that fed me,” he says, and his mission of promoting lifelong literacy is one of the ways he does that.
Other opportunities to pay forward have been more dramatic. Once a teacher contacted Steve to explain that her ninth grade basketball star had succumbed to Guillain-Barre. She also said that she needed Steve to come to the hospital to visit. “When,” Steve asked? “Tonight,” she replied. Steve was off in a flash. The student was wheeled in to see him, and they passed the time sharing stories. As Steve observes, “when you meet someone who has lived through the same thing, it’s easier to find confidence. It’s what you can share that makes hope burn inside.”
Of course, reading itself is an experience that sustains, and Steve now puts all of his professional drive into coaching teachers on how to impart a lifelong reading habit. It may be that in times of stress and trial, something uplifting that has been absorbed through reading will turn out to be a source of strength. As for the necessary pedagogy, this goal lays heavy stress on stimulating students’ motivation.
Among other strategies Steve recommends in his best-selling book Igniting a Passion for Reading is the administration of an “interest inventory” to really discern students’ personal interests. This is the knowledge that teachers need to select truly engaging titles and text options for individual pupils. Steve will refer to this book during his keynote.
When asked if the general lack of a “lifelong” perspective in literacy instruction reflects a surprising myopia on the part of teachers, Steve will emphatically disagree. “It’s not the teachers who are short sighted; it’s the education system, which never places sufficient emphasis on affective values such as engagement, attitude, motivation, and interest.” Without this emphasis, Steve explains, methods courses in teacher prep programs teach the skill but not the will. While he acknowledges that the Common Core State Standards contain a lot of good things, Steve points out that they do not address the affective elements of reading at all.
The Third Hardy Boy
Do affective elements really matter? They certainly did to Steve, who can relate his reading experience from the earliest years of school. Miss Hickory, the 1947 Newbery Award winner by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, is the first book he remembers. “I couldn’t breathe while listening to this story, which my teacher read aloud. I immediately fell in love with the book and with my teacher.”
Steve also spent a lot of time reading about the adventures of Henry Huggins, who, along with Beezus and Ramona, was a memorable creation of Beverly Cleary. From there it was on to Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, and the amazing encounter with Homer’s infamous donut machine.
As Steve got older, mysteries absorbed him. He read so many Hardy Boys stories that he used to describe himself as Frank and Joe’s long lost brother. Later on he would become passionate about Agatha Christie and also delve into science fiction. All of this reading helped form Steve’s personality and spur his deepest creative impulses.
He loved writing as a child, and took a greater interest in it after a teacher entered a piece of his writing in a competition. Steve ended up winning county and state awards. His doctoral dissertation won research awards, but the professional work of a full-time literacy researcher is admittedly not his passion.
Writing for Young Readers
“I wanted to do something different,” Steve says looking back. “I have always been fascinated by people who get overlooked. I taught class in various grade levels and even directed a high school choir. I was always trying to see how far left and right I could go.”
He found his release in authorship. He started with picture books, including Love the Baby, Share with Brother, and his newest book, Stay with Sister, all of which he teamed on with illustrator Ard Hoyt.
Ard is one of Steve’s “balcony people.” Ard had other projects underway when Steve came up with the idea for Love the Baby. So he asked Steve to hold on the project until he could join it, and Steve told him “I’m waiting for you.” Three days later Guillain-Barre struck and Steve was on life support. A month after that, a handmade card came to the hospital from Ard. It simply read, “Let me quote a hero of mine. I don’t care how long it takes; I’m waiting for you.” This personal commitment from a friend was a powerful motivation for Steve to recover, coming at a time when his spirit and mood were especially low.
Steve has also authored three mystery thrillers for teens and young adults, This Side of Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Mergers. Steve will touch on some of his books during his Chicago keynote. This is an opportunity that Layne fans won’t want to miss!
The IRA 57th Annual Convention will be held in Chicago from April 29 to May 2, 2012. Visit www.iraconvention.org for more information.
This article is reprinted from the April/May 2012 issue of Reading Today, the International Reading Association's bimonthly member magazine. Members: click here to read the issue. Nonmembers: join now!