Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension

by Mary Howard

On May 3, 2018, we (me, Fran McVeigh, Jenn Hayhurst and Amy Brennan) were delighted when Sara Ahmed graced our #G2Great chat stage as first-time guest host. Educators everywhere admire Sara Ahmed, so collective excitement was high. From the moment our #G2Great family settled in for a conversation around Sara’s exquisite new book Twitter style, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, the virtual swarm of passionate tweets began to literally flash across our #G2Great chat screen at warp speed.

I first began following Sara’s amazing work in 2015 when she joyfully burst into my professional view in a remarkable collaboration with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels: Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Since then, I find myself soaking in her brilliance and heart through social media, webinars or even face-to-face meetings at NCTE and ILA. Sara brings a lovely mix of humility, humanity and wisdom to all she does so it is always an honor just to be in her presence.

As soon as I received Sara’s book, I flipped back the cover and began reading. It didn’t take long to understand why Terrence J. Roberts used the word “gift” three times in his foreword. Sara’s dedication to this profession transforms the words “Being the Change” from a title on the cover of a book into a profound commitment that takes shape through her sense of urgency writing. This spirit is evident from the haunting opening story of her father to Sara’s words of hope for the future tucked lovingly into each lesson she so beautifully crafted in the company of her students so that teachers can bring them to life in their own classrooms. Yes, I can’t think of a more appropriate descriptor than “gift.”

Whenever it’s my fortunate turn to write our #G2Great chat reflection, I usually gather tweets as a springboard for my thinking. But no matter how many times I perused each of our inspiring chat tweets, I kept wondering if my gathering approach could possibly do a topic of this magnitude justice. I did, however, find myself returning to one tweet exchange between Sara and Tricia Ebarvia since it felt so reflective of the underlying message of Sara’s beautiful book.

The idea of giving our whole self by assuming an open listening stance really struck me. Sara modeled this stance across the entire chat. Even though she joined us on a very early Bangkok morning, she was completely present in each chat moment as she enthusiastically engaged in appreciative dialogue with everyone. I was inspired by Sara’s admission that she is not always successful at open listening and as I contemplated being the change as a work in progress, I turned to Sara’s definition of social comprehension:

This topic felt so big that I struggled to find a direction for this post, a struggle that continued as I flew home the night after the chat. And then it happened in the quiet solitude of the night sky! Without warning, one of the most amazing and humbling experiences of my life flashed into mind and the direction of this post came into view. I wasn’t sure how looking back would translate on paper but I loved the idea that Sara was part of this looking back. The experience is still fresh almost two years later, so heeding the beckoning of a lingering memory seemed important. While my memory of actual event was clear, I’m grateful to my far younger and thus far better ‘rememberer’ friend, Justin Dolci, for jogging my date and place memory).

The experience I am going to share invited me put it in writing, so this is a personal reflection of social comprehension from an insider’s view. Therefore, I will be taking some liberties with this post by setting my sights on an adult perspective. I believe that we cannot be our truest best selves for children until we become our truest best selves for ourselves first. The promise for Being the Change begins within each of us and so the work starts by gazing into a reflective mirror as we ponder the misconceptions that may be thwarting this important work ahead. I am suggesting that being the change resides within each of us and therefore we must have a laser focus on ourselves before we can have a lasting impact on our children, I’m going to do this by looking back so that I can look forward.

In July of 2016, I attended the International Literacy (ILA) Annual Conference in Boston, MA. Shortly after the conference began, an electric energy spread across the conference halls when we heard that Sara Ahmed and Cornelius Minor would be hosting an impromtu session for ILA attendees to engage in dialogue around recent tragic shootings. Brett Whitmarsh interviewed Sara and Cornelius the day before the event in this Heinemann video: When the World Hands You Curriculum.  Sara explains the impetus for this session:

“We’re coming to a place now where people are asking more questions than they are coming with answers and that’s a tremendous spot for learning – for growth. I think creating a space where people can listen, where people can talk and just lean in and say they don’t know is really important.”

I knew I had to be part of this essential “not knowing” conversation since it certainly fit the way I was feeling about the world. On July 20, 2016, I rushed with friends to the small gathering room and we made our way to the front row. The room quickly filled to capacity and as I looked around, I saw both familiar and new faces (Kwame Alexander even sat on the floor at the back of the room). As soon as Cornelius said his first words, a quiet hush fell on the room as often happens when people choose to come together to emotionally connect with others even though we may be strangers. I listened intently to the remarkable initial discussion and then it happened…

Cornelius opened the stage to anyone who wanted to share their stories for the group. Heartfelt personal reflections of struggle, pain, and loss were recounted as quiet sobs reverberated across the room. The raw human emotion was palpable, and each story lovingly reached out and touch anyone lucky enough to be in its path. I listened to each story as tears fell down my cheek, feeling pure gratitude to be in that moment in the presence of such courage. Yet I still vividly recall conflicting emotions washing over me. On one hand I felt humbled that strangers would trust this little old woman from Tulsa Oklahoma with their heart, confident that it would be received in love!

But at the same time I felt an odd sense of shame I couldn’t shake. Suddenly I had an overwhelming desire to stand up and thank these brave educators for sharing their lives with me. I wanted to walk across that room and hug those who spoke as well as those who listened. But what caught me by surprise was the nagging sense that I needed to apologize. I am still struggling even now to understand that odd mix of gratitude and guilt in a small love-fueled room in Boston. I didn’t know what I wanted to say but suddenly I felt like a coward for not saying something. After all, how could I sit in silence and fail to return their gift of courage? I still feel the shame that held me back from standing bravely beside these beautiful courageous humans and express how I felt in that powerful moment, believing that my story would seem so small.

But as I write this now, I wonder if feeling connected in that room was what I was meant to do – or perhaps it was all I knew to do at that time. I wish I could have been brave in that moment, but maybe sharing how I felt wouldn’t have been so brave after all. I had never experienced this kind of unselfish giving but looking back I think I was looking from a loving lens but also from a selfish one. Forgive the double negative, but I felt ashamed that I could not NOT be a 68-year old white heterosexual woman born in the U.S.A. into a middle-class family with loving parents who shielded me from world terrors and close-knit siblings who continue to wrap protective arms around me. Somehow, gratitude and shame intermingled as I felt conflicting desire to express my love for everyone in that room while also wanting to apologize for who I am.

Others have written about this amazing experience far more eloquently than I am able to do in this emotion-laden moment including Julieanne Harmatz and Carol Varsalona. But I am grateful to Sara for giving me the words to be able to relive this from another perspective in a moment I will hold dear for the rest of my life. I am ready to acknowledge the guilt of that moment but also to let go and celebrate this opportunity to have lived it and see only the blessing of that lovely moment.

You see these beautiful humans showed me that we must learn to be open listeners even if the lesson took awhile to reach me. These caring strangers who surrounded me taught me far greater lessons than speaking up would have done at that moment. Maybe choosing not to stand up to share my voice was not the point. Maybe it was about being sitting quietly with an open heart so that I could truly bring my whole self to the experience. I’m not sure why it took two years to understand this lesson, but I am grateful for the opportunity to relive that moment from a new way of seeing. The love I felt for everyone in that room in Boston is as real to me now as it was in 2016.

As I write this, I am reminded of Sara’s beautiful message: Doing the work of social comprehension erodes the boundaries between “us” and “them.”  I hope I wasn’t inadvertently doing that since eroding the boundaries requires us to acknowledge the thinking that resides deep within that can blur those boundaries. So I am standing up here and now sharing my heart through my fingers on a keyboard and using that experience as a learning opportunity. Looking back is a lovely reminder that all of our stories matter, regardless of who we are or what we look like or what experiences we can or cannot bring to the conversation. What I do know now and what I want to remember is that feeling of love for strangers who crossed paths and thus hearts so long ago. Maybe deep love and appreciation for others is what social comprehension is all about. I’d like to believe that relationships are the undergirder of this process.

In her book, Sara’s resounding message comes through loud and clear that “kids are our curriculum.” It seems to me as this flood of memories hovers over me that the world really did hand me a curriculum in that moment. And when the world does so as it certainly is doing these days, we can be moved to broaden our scope by making our work with students the impetus that has potential to change not only how we view our schools but how we view ourselves, others and the world around us – and how we CHOOSE to interact with each of them in a way that will leave a positive mark in this world. I’d like to believe that the next time I feel compelled to share my heart willingly with gratitude, I would choose not to let my whiteness stand in the way of being brave. This seems so important since I’m not sure that I can bring my whole self to children unless I can bring my whole self to adults. Suddenly this work seems so much more expansive and ever so critical!

In Being the Change Sara reminds us what I find comforting at this moment:

I am comforted by the idea that we can make the world a better place in our own way even when we are not even sure how to begin. This beautiful book is our heart guide as we embrace social comprehension and the ever so relevant transparent conversations that are essential to that process. Without even knowing it, Sara helped me to understand that if we’re willing to engage in open listening and to bring to each experience a compassionate heart as an observer of the world… well then the stories that others so lovingly bring into our lives could fill our hearts and minds with the fuel that could implore us respect the identities that we all bring to this world. I now understand that every story has value – even my own!

On the morning of our #G2Great chat, Sara wrote me an email that I captured in this message below:

Well I can assure you that your remarkable book will bring your hope to life, Sara. We are so grateful to you for making this world a better place and we will each find our own way to “Be the Change” alongside you. And I am grateful to you for allowing me to see this experience in a whole new light. ❤

More Links for Being the Change


Official Being the Change Podcast (interview):

Sara reading a story about her father from Being the Change:

Sara Ahmed, Cornelius Minor, and Sonia Cherry-Paul podcast: Dismantling Racism in Education:


Terrence J. Roberts (Little Rock Nine) foreword from Being the Change

What is Social Comprehension in The Classroom (video of Sara):

Kristi Mraz on Being the Change

5 thoughts on “Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension”

  1. I second that, Smokey!


    The uncertainty, the not knowing, the whole idea of learning and growing, and active listening. Really listening. Sara does do this well. She is an active listener. And yet, she wants more for herself, for us, and for our students. It is up to all of us.

    Mary, This “I am suggesting here that our being the change resides within each of us and therefore we must have a laser focus on ourselves before we can have a lasting impact on our children. . .” is the key. We have to figure out “SOME” of this for ourselves, before we can have that “lasting impact’ and that’s the journey of “Being the Change”. What a great post with such a personal reflection.

    Thank you, Sara, for this book to help us continue on (or begin) our own personal journeys to social comprehension! <3

  2. I love that you took this blog post opportunity to relate a personal story that connects to all of us. Too often we ruminate over what we should have said in a conversation, but it is in listening that we are empowered. Hard lessons to learn. I am saving this book for my summer reading. I feel it will impact the way I start my next year.

  3. What a thorough reflection on the book, your experiences in the past with Sara, and the messages you gleaned from this book. Our Morning Meeting went long today as we discussed the upcoming election here in Malaysia, which students would be fasting for Ramadan, and how/why various religions fast. We “ran late”, but these kids had something to share.
    I can’t wait to get my hands on this book when I visit the US this summer!

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