Sunday, February 25, 2018

Armed with Books

Let's get this out of the way up front. Arming teachers with guns is a stupid idea. It is such a stupid idea, it gives stupid a bad name. A number of my blogging colleagues have addressed the issue eloquently and if you want to read some great explanations you could read Peter Greene here, or Mitchell Robinson here, or Arthur Goldstein here.

But in the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Parkland, FL, I don't want to talk any more about guns in the classroom. I want to arm teachers with the single greatest weapon society has against evil. It is the traditional weapon that teachers have been wielding  since the very first teacher penned the very first lesson plan. That weapon is the book.

Before you roll your eyes at my naiveté, give me a chance to explain. The written word is the human race's number one defense against ignorance. The written word provides us with the documentary evidence of who we are and where we have come from. The written word allows us access to the thinking of all the greatest minds of all the civilizations that have come before us. The written word allows us to share all our great stories and to invent new great stories. The written word is what makes us human. It is what separates us from all other species. If being human means anything at all, it means that we can continuously improve and if we can indeed continuously improve, it is the written word that will help us some day achieve a world where children do not have to enter school looking for the best place to duck and cover.

Books have the power to make us better human beings. When a teacher shares a great book with a classroom of children, that teacher has brought the world a little closer to the ideal of the peaceful, inclusive, loving world we all desire. This is not mere idle speculation or wishful thinking; the research bears this out. A study done by Castano & Kidd for The New School of Research in 2013 found that reading literary fiction improves readers' "theory of mind." Theory of mind is defined as "the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (Science, 2013). In other words, reading literary fiction helps human beings develop empathy.

And what the world that today's school child encounters needs more than anything else is empathy, that great ability to see the world through another's eyes, to seek to understand different perspectives and to seek to resolve conflict without devolving into enemy camps as seems to be what has happened to our current political system.

In many ways my world view was formed by books. Two authors in particular resonated with me as a young reader and I can still point to the genesis of my current pragmatic progressive philosophy from the reading of two great American authors that I encountered in high school: John Steinbeck and James Baldwin. From Steinbeck I learned that attention must be paid to the plight of all Americans and that it was our responsibility to look out for and protect each other through joint action to insure that all people get a fair shot at a decent life. From Baldwin I learned about the pernicious impact that prejudice has on the mind and heart of the individual, and how that prejudice kills the soul not just of the oppressed, but of the oppressor. These lessons run through everything I have tried to be and do as a teacher and as a citizen.

And so it can be, must be, for our students. Reading great works brings us closer together as a society. Books must be the teacher's weapon of choice.

Here is a list of books for leading children to a more empathetic theory of mind. Special thanks to Cindy Mershon for suggesting a number of these titles.

Picture Books

Angel Child, Dragon Child, by Michele Maria Surat, illustrated by Vo Dinh Mai
A young immigrant from Vietnam and an angry classmate come to understand each other through listening and learning.

The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Children overcome the prejudice of their parents by crossing to the other side of the fence.

The Name Jar, by Yanksook Choi
Unhei learns that her best possible name is her very own name.

Wilfred Gordon MacDonald, Partridge, by Mem Fox
Wilfrid learns great life lessons through his visits to a nursing home.

Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting
A homeless boy living in an airport terminal with his dad finds hope when a trapped bird finds its way to freedom.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Friends comes in all shapes, sorts, and sizes.

Amos and Boris, by William Steig
A mouse and a whale form an unlikely friendship.

Tight Times, by Barbara Shook Hazen
A small boy, who is not allowed to have a dog because of his family's money problems, rescues a starving kitten.

For Young Readers

Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White
The classic story of a very special friendship.

The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig
No one ever seems to notice Brian or include in in group activities until a new kid comes to school.

Stepping on the Cracks, by Mary Downing Hahn
During World War II, Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with the neighborhood bully, Gordy.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
A young girl's kindness and compassion overcome bullying.

Each Little Bird That Sings, by Deborah Wiles
Comfort Snowberger learns that life is full of surprises and surprises herself in learning how to deal with them.

Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
What do you do when a dog you believe is being mistreated runs away and comes to you?

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool
Two boys, both lonely and feeling out of place, form a bond while on a quest on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit
Because no one should escape elementary school without reading this great classic.

For Young Adults

Children of the River, by Linda Crew
A young Cambodian immigrant struggles to fit in in her adopted home in Oregon.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
An unlikely pair of friends form an unshakeable bond out of their mutual loneliness and alienation.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
An abused and isolated teen learns to speak up for herself and achieves a bit of vindication.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
We the people, black and white, desperately need each other here if we are to become the nation we aspire to be. Non-fiction.

Want more book ideas? Try Pernille Ripp's list here. Or you could try Sunshime and Hurricane's list here.  And Michele Borba has a list including books for older readers here.