Of Books and Humanity

“What we need is a curriculum that invites students to answer the essential questions we all ask, one that is a transformative experience, and allows students to become storytellers, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, reporters, critics, designers, and travelers.” -Jim Burke

“Empathy, stronger than sympathy, connects to the reader at a deep emotional level. Something in the book has happened to the reader as well; thus, a relationship is made, one that can be sustained book by book.” -Teri Lesesne

I have read widely and passionately for most of my life and as a result, I speak, think, teach, and write in terms of books.  The narratives echo deep within me, and for every situation, there is a character or quote that comes to mind.  These artifacts of ink and paper are more than stories, and any reader who has spent time dwelling in the world of a book knows its power. When I discuss books with my students, I reference themes that connect them to the stories and the characters. I hope they will see each book as a microcosm of the world, containing the lessons that will prepare them for life.  But sometimes I forget that the lessons in books are for adults, too.                    

Rage emanated from all sides during the turbulence of the national election.  Like all Americans, I was bombarded with toxic language on a daily basis, encountering words that had no other purpose than to destroy.  To counteract the negativity, I focused on The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead that is nothing short of masterful.  Whitehead uses the Underground Railroad as a metaphor, taking us on a journey with Cora, the protagonist, as she struggles to find her way north.  Her adventure is breathtaking, yet heartrending; as an African-American woman, she chances capture from her owner, but her resilience leads her onward.  Upon finishing the novel, I turned to my notebook, and as I wrote, I found myself thinking and writing in terms of humanity, of shared experiences.  Historical events have shaped who we are, how we think, and how we will affect change now and in the future.  The pieces of our past are threads that weave us together, as citizens, into the fabric of the world.  I read and wrote about Cora’s journey, and I celebrated her resilience in the face of adversity; but, I failed to exhibit the same qualities I so happily applauded.  Whitehead’s microcosm was a world I wanted to disappear into, but the wisdom of the narrative taught me a lesson in spite of the fictional escape I so desperately wanted.        

As a teacher, I am responsible for expanding the minds of my students.  These are the individuals whose future tasks will include participation in civic duties, such as voting and engaging in global conversations.  The toxic language used at the national level, including the voices that raised in support of narrow mindedness, revealed an overall absence of empathy, a hallmark of an unhealthy reading life.  The National Assessment for Adult Literacy, in 2003, found that 11 million Americans lacked basic literacy.  In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that in a 12-month span, 27 percent of adults reported that they had not read a single book.  The United States Census Bureau claims that 318.9 million people currently inhabit our country, meaning that in 2015, 86.1 million people did not read a single book. I find those statistics frightening, and I fear future reports where the population of readers becomes marginalized by growing numbers of non-readers in our country.  Paltry reading diets deny us journeys through time, adventures through distant lands, and chance encounters with gorgeous cultures and different faces.  The 27 percent of people who did not read denied themselves any exposure to our heterogeneous world.  For 12 months, they declined opportunities to see the world differently, to resolve their questions or uncertainties about life, and they relegated themselves to a single viewpoint of life.   

As an English teacher, I am responsible for representing the beautiful threads of diversity through literature, writing, and conversation.  Ignoring the hateful language that children are exposed to through news sources and social media does them no favors, and it is hypocritical of me to suggest they seek to understand humanity if I am not responding with counteractions against the vile language at the national level. Books are resonating, powerful things, and right now, at this exact moment in our teaching lives, our students need to read to develop a sense of humanity.  I’m not asking them to read just so they can understand another culture.  More than anything, I want them to realize that their lens is just a fragment of the larger world.  Our curriculum, guiding questions, and goals must all be linked to giving students opportunities to function cognitively as inquirers.  They should always be asking questions about the world in which they live, and the books they read should help them answer those questions. The more we read, the more connected we are to the rest of the world and we begin to see how similar we really are.  Limiting our reading experiences to one story of humanity, one viewpoint, limits our scope and forces us into cognitive confinement.  I would not have applauded Cora if my idea of the world was formed from a single story of humanity.  My empathy, gleaned from a healthy reading life, enabled me to celebrate her resilience and fear for her life.  If we do not read widely and passionately, we will fail to defend democracy and to condemn the pure acid of hate speeches and racial epithets. Ignorance will isolate us from the exquisite community that comes from passionate reading.          

I have started a Voices for Humanity board in my classroom.  Anytime a student notices a sentence, phrase, or passage that reflects a different culture, idea, or way of thinking, I ask them to write it on the board.  This gives students a visual representation of the diversity and humanity that exists within the books they are reading, connecting them to the larger community of our world.  My students seek justice and they celebrate the resilience of characters they meet in their books; they want to see good triumph in the end.  As they journey through school, developing a book love that extends far beyond this year, I hope they will remember the Voices for Humanity board in my classroom and remember the words that were written across it.  I hope they remember that I filled my classroom with books that reflected as much of humanity as possible, that in my library lived thousands of people who represented life beyond our school, that my class transformed their ideas about reading, and books gave them opportunities to be historians, travelers, thinkers, and philosophers, that each book was a mighty heartbeat of the world, and that they had a chance to hear that heartbeat before they left my class.

I know there are other teachers out there who believe in the power of good books.  There is a distinct joy that comes from a voluminous, healthy reading life, one that counteracts the hostility that is present in our world.  I believe we teachers, the ones who understand the potent quality of books, can impact change in our world by inviting our students into a sustained reading life that is rich with perspectives and experiences.  Let us use books to counteract the ignominious deeds and words of those around us.  Let us lead our students to a love of reading by bringing them to literature that reflects truth.  I am confident that our passion for reading will inspire our students to experience books with the ardent intensity that we do.  

Give them books.

Show them humanity.

And in the end, good with triumph.

T

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