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Guest Post: Finding Their Brilliance

by Rose Cappelli

In Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful novel in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, the author talks about being compared in school to her older sister, Odella, who was “brilliant.” But school is difficult for Jacqueline, so soon the teachers

“…remember that I am the other Woodson
and begin searching for brilliance
at another desk.” (p. 220).

Jacqueline loves stories, and she quickly discovers that by reading the words of a story over and over again, that story eventually becomes lodged in her memory and becomes part of her. So when she is asked to read aloud to the class, she doesn’t need the book, and amazes her teacher and classmates by reciting a whole story from memory. 

“How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again.

Brilliant! my teacher says, smiling.
Jackie, that was absolutely beautiful.

And I know now…words are my brilliance.” (p. 247-248)

browngirldreamingThe passages from Brown Girl Dreaming remind us of the importance not only of looking for the strengths in all of our students, but of helping students succeed by leading them to find their own strength or skill or “brilliance.” Recently I heard author/illustrator Peter Catalanotto speak about a teacher who encouraged him to write by letting him draw, a brilliance she recognized in him. Without that recognition, the world may have been robbed of such wonderful books as Matthew A.B.C. and Emily’s Art, among others.

How can we discover the brilliance that resides in our classrooms and use it to guide our students? We probably all know students who are great spellers, or who can easily solve Math problems. Our students know them, too. They become the class experts who serve as resources to others. But how can we use the strengths we discover in students to help them become better writers? Perhaps we need to take time to think about the underlying skills of the brilliance we have observed and show our students how that brilliance or skill can be transferred to writing. For example, we might realize that the student who is great at solving Math problems does so because she can easily break things down into smaller sequential parts. We could point out that organization in writing often requires breaking a large idea into smaller parts. The student who is great at telling a story but who seems lost on how to begin to transfer that story to paper might benefit from “pretend in-the-air” writing as he talks to better understand that writing is talk written down.

I have known writers who are good at crafting detailed and enticing beginnings, but who fall short when it comes to endings. If we can help those writers identify the skills they used to start the piece (rich detail, use of specific nouns, etc.) we can perhaps help them use the same skills to craft a more satisfying ending. We can help them find and use their brilliance.

Of course, it all boils down to the importance of us as teachers engaging in careful conferring so that we really get to know our students – their strengths, their weaknesses, their needs. Sometimes we might just catch a glimpse of an emerging brilliance – something the writer himself is just beginning to do without perhaps even realizing it. That is when we must step in to explain and guide and encourage that budding brilliance to grow so that it transfers to other places in the text and other pieces of writing. That is what we must do before we start to search for brilliance at another desk as Jacqueline’s teacher did.

In Brown Girl Dreaming, when Jacqueline’s brother stands on the school stage and sings in a voice no one knew he had, Jacqueline remarks,

“Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden
like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe
waiting to be discovered.” (p. 233)

What brilliance will you discover in your students this week, and how will you help them use it?

Reference: Woodson, Jacqueline. 2014. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin.

Rose Cappelli is a 1996 PAWLP Fellow. She is the co-author with Lynne Dorfman of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts. You can read more of her reflections about teaching and living in her blog entries at, or follow her on Twitter at @RoseCappelli.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jesse Reick #


    Thank you so much for sharing this novel. Brown Girl Dreaming is definitely a text that should be considered in all young adult literature classrooms. It is essential for students to be aware that each and every individual is capable of discovering what his/her “brilliance” is. Whether it is in the English setting, the science classroom, or out on the football field, students should be aware that it is up to them to take control of their own education and strive for greatness in doing so. As you in stated in the post, “Perhaps we need to take time to think about the underlying skills of the brilliance we have observed and show our students how that brilliance or skill can be transferred to writing.” Indeed, it is our duty as teachers to bring out the skills that each student acquires, and we can only hope that we can guide students to transform their skills in a positive and beneficial manner.

    I look forward to reading this text! Thanks again for your thoughtful response to the novel.


    February 4, 2016
  2. janiceewing #

    Rose, this post is a thought-provoking expansion of an amazing book! Woodson’s story and the way she tells it are so beautifully intertwined. I love the quote that you started with, about her teacher looking for brilliance at another desk, and the way you brought it back to our helping all our students to find their brilliance. Your specific ideas and examples for using conferring as a vehicle for this are so helpful as well. Thank you!


    January 30, 2016
  3. Rita Sorrentino #

    Rose, I am rereading Brown Girl Dreaming, and taking time to appreciate how Woodson’s vignettes highlight significant literacy moments. Her memories of loving words, being excited about a new composition book, and experiencing the joy of a new pencil speak to our efforts to create spaces where words can live forever and worlds can be explored. Thanks for your suggestions to continue supporting our students in developing their writing potential. Indeed, there are many small gifts from the universe waiting to be discovered!


    January 29, 2016
  4. I love that you turned to a piece of MG/YA literature for a lesson to teach by. Recently, I have been reading MG/YA books with protagonists who write to see if I can pick up ideas similar to what you shared…maybe a future blog post for me, with a nod back to this one! But if anyone is looking for a beautiful MG novel with a brilliant portrayal of the importance of writing, find “The Color of My Words” by Lynn Joseph.


    January 27, 2016

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