Lower School Grade 1 Teacher Silvana Gili has always loved reading. Her academic career began in Brazil, where she earned a bachelor’s in English and Portuguese languages. The daughter of a Catalan immigrant, Silvana obtained her master’s in Spain, having lived and taught in both Barcelona and Madrid. She has recently earned a PhD in literature, delving into the intricate relationship between illustration and text in picture books.
In this issue of the Graded Gazette, Silvana discusses how she incorporates the transformative power of literature into her teaching practice, lessons learned working for the Olympic Committee in Barcelona, and her favorite things about teaching first graders.
You recently earned a PhD in literature from Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. Tell us about your thesis.
I had been exploring the relationship between illustration and text in picture books and how they work together to make meaning. I noticed that some marginalized groups were underrepresented in children's and young adult books. I also observed that, even though the majority of people today live in cities, few of the stories were set in metropolitan areas. I decided to look at the visual and verbal representation of urban characters and the cities themselves in 21st-century Brazilian picture books. I also looked at the interactions between these characters. I found that while there are some titles that attempt to illustrate the realities of our contemporary society, there are still very few picture books that focus on characters representing diverse social groups.
How do you incorporate literature into your teaching practice at Graded?
Literature is so many things. It is the expression and craft of an artist, a social commentary, and a sum, or synthesis, of one's experiences. It is also a refuge and a source of pleasure or discomfort. Children's literature researcher Rudine Sims Bishop says that books are windows ‘offering views of [different] worlds.’ They are ‘mirrors’ through which ‘we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience’ and sliding glass doors ‘that we can walk through in imagination to become a part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.’
Literature is an important part of any program that aims to develop critical readers and thinkers, so I try to incorporate a variety of texts, authors, and genres into our daily experiences in first grade. Aside from periods of time each day in which students can freely explore and enjoy our high-quality classroom library, reading independently or sharing with friends, I also use books to expose children to rich language patterns and vocabulary, expressive illustrations, and elaborate narratives that foster the development of deeper, critical thinking. We enjoy the stories, laugh (or yawn), try to figure out what the text says, discuss, think again, and compare our different ways to make sense of what we read. Literature offers us a safe space to compare different opinions and points of view, so my goal is to ensure that students have as many opportunities as possible to look through windows, see themselves in mirrors, and walk through multiple sliding glass doors.
If you had to pick, what would be your three favorite children’s books?
This is too hard! I will share the three that come to mind today, but I honestly can't say these will always be my three favorites. Having said that, I think Where the Wild Things Are, written by Maurice Sendak back in the 1960s, will probably always make it to my top three favorite picture books. It always surprises me how such a short story can pack so many feelings and situations into its thirty-some pages: rebelliousness, fear, pride, fun, adventure, exploration, friendship, parental love… and so much more.
Bárbaro (The Little Barbarian, in the English version), written by São Paulo author Renato Moriconi, is a wordless picture book that tells the story of a fearless warrior who faces the most terrifying challenges. Mounted on his black horse, he bravely fights monsters, arrows, and fire, overcoming all dangers ahead. Only one being makes the warrior tremble... The book has a surprising ending, which I am certainly not going to share!
I've recently become acquainted with books written by Korean author Baek Heena. Unfortunately, not all of her books have been translated into English or Portuguese, but I had a chance to read The Bath Fairy, which is a beautiful story about a little girl who meets an old bath fairy when she goes to the public bath house with her mother. This story was inspired by a Korean folktale, and it celebrates the friendship born between the young girl and the old lady fairy.
Why did you decide to pursue your master's degree in Spain?
Quite literally, because I read a book. Back in 2005, I came across Andar Entre Livros: a leitura literária na escola, a work by Teresa Colomer. Everything she wrote about literature in schools resonated with me. I decided to look for her other books and articles and discovered that she was the designer and coordinator of a master's program in children's literature at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). At the time, this was one of the only programs of its kind, and because it was a low-residency program, I decided to apply. My master's program was one of my most significant learning experiences, and I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to interact with and learn from so many children's literature experts—specialists from throughout Europe and Latin America. My classmates, too, were a diverse group. I had the chance to learn alongside classroom teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, and editors from all over the world.
How did you get involved in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona? What did you do, and what did you learn?
I had recently moved to Barcelona when a friend of a friend told me the Olympic Games Organizing Committee was hiring and encouraged me to apply. They were looking for multilingual candidates, and I believe that is why I was hired. My job working for the department that organized the Paralympic Games was to assign housing to the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). Because my office functioned like a hotel reception desk, I lived in the Olympic Village for almost two months. It was quite extraordinary to experience life in the village. When the athletes arrived, everything changed. All of a sudden, I felt like I was different. We often view people with physical or intellectual challenges as being outside the norm, rarely reflecting upon the obstacles they encounter. Interacting with people with a range of disabilities was eye-opening and taught me about both others and myself.
Having taught a wide range of students—from kindergarten through university—what are the common threads when it comes to learning?
This is an impossible question to answer in just a few lines. These are a few things that I believe: learning happens when people feel safe, secure, and valued. It happens when people realize that there are different ways to go about completing a task or solving a problem and that their thoughts, ideas, and opinions can be expressed in different ways. Learning happens when people believe that what they are doing is important and meaningful. They learn when they figure out that every little piece of what they do contributes to their own understanding of and representation in the world. They learn when they are actively engaged in the process. People learn by doing. Learning also happens when there is someone willing to listen, think together, ask questions, discuss, and listen again. Human beings tend to shy away from challenges that feel too big to tackle and too impossible to handle. That is why I believe having learning partners is essential. When we share challenges, we understand we are not alone. It may sound cliché, but the saying ‘two heads think better than one’ holds true. Thinking and working together makes everyone better independent learners.
What is your favorite part about teaching first grade?
The wonderment. First-graders are all about that. They begin each day with so much to share and ask; they are perpetually curious. Every single day, there are so many stories, so many discoveries! It is also magical to watch their transformation over the course of the year. Most first-graders start out just beginning to figure out the mechanics of sounding out words and making sense of text. When they leave first grade, they are reading simple chapter books and writing paragraphs. They start out by trying to understand simple patterns in numbers, and by June, they are solving multi-step problems and handling three-digit numbers. The passion they show for each discovery, for each new piece of information, is immense. Their observation skills are outstanding. They can find the most interesting things around them, and every single thing becomes marvelous in their eyes – a bug, a leaf, a spider web, a stick. First-graders love to share what they see, what they do, and what they want to know. Their questions are very interesting, and they always want to find out more. I wish first grade lasted for at least two or three years!
What do you love about travel? What are some of your favorite destinations, and what is on your bucket list?
I love everything about traveling: the planning, the anticipation, the discoveries, the memories made. I love looking out the window of a car and watching the landscape as it changes, the surprises that come with a bend in the road, and the unexpected. There are moments in which all I want is to be close to the ocean, and there are other moments when I long for hills and different landscapes. I enjoy being close to nature, but there is so much beauty in cities as well, both big and small. What often excites me most about planning a new trip is the prospect of reuniting with a friend at the destination or thinking about savoring delicious local cuisines. One of the most amazing places I have recently visited was the Serrania de Hornocal (14 Colored Mountains) of northeastern Argentina, specifically the region around the lovely towns of Purmamarca, Cachi, and Cafayate. Another memorable trip was to the stunning region of Empordà in Catalonia, with medieval towns at the foot of the Pyrenees (Peratallada, Púbol, Pals) and charming ocean villages filled with surrealist art (Cadaqués, Begur). The historical towns in Minas Gerais were also an unforgettable experience. In addition to the well-known Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, and Diamantina; Sabará, Caeté, Catas Altas, and others are also enchanting with their Brazilian Baroque architecture and gorgeous hills and waterfalls. In short, the whole world can fit on my bucket list, and I hope that I get to explore as much of it as possible.