Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reading Our Way to Empathy

A Reading Hug
Last week I had the great pleasure and opportunity to work with middle school students in the Clifton, NJ schools. My assignment was to model an instructional design for teachers based on a lesson structure suggested by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, from their outstanding book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013). The students were engaged and winning in their approach to the work. The text for the lesson was Gary Soto's poem Oranges.

By Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighed down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December.  Frost crackling
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came over pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge.  I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore.  We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted-
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth.  I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, for a distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making fire in my hands.

Following Probst and Beers suggested lesson structure, I first read the poem aloud to the students, then had them read it silently and independently, marking the text with an x or ? at points of confusion, discovery, interest or wonder. Next, I asked the students to read the poem again, this time trying to turn those marks into questions. I then collected their questions on chart paper in the front of the room. Several students had a similar question about one key point in this narrative poem. 

I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

Some of the students asked, "Why did the boy put the orange on the counter next to the nickel?" Others asked, "Why did the lady let him have the candy?" Still others asked, "What did the lady know it was 'all about'?" All great questions. All questions at the heart of understanding the poem. As we discussed these questions, it became clear to me that the students had no schema for what had transpired here. One young man offered that this could not really happen. We had talked about how the poem was based on a memory of the poet's youth and took place in a long ago time when candy cost a dime. The kids could understand that, but the kindness of the clerk's actions eluded them. I finally asked the vocal young man what would happen if he went into the drug store and tried to pay for a dollar candy bar with 75 cents and an orange. His reply, "They would kick my butt right on out of the store?" The rest of the class nodded and murmured in agreement.

So I suggested to the students that we look at the rest of the line "the lady's eyes met mine, and held them, knowing very well what it was all about." I asked the students to "turn and talk" to see if they could discover what it was "all about." After a minute or two, two students raised their hands and simultaneously shouted, "Maybe she remembered when she went on a first date!"

"What do the rest of you think?" Most felt that this was the mostly likely explanation for the clerk's actions, but several still said that was not believable. We took off into a discussion of times when others have shown us a kindness that was unexpected.

Upon reflecting on the lesson, many things ran through my head, not the least of which was the concern that the world had changed so much for these school children that a simple act of kindness from a store clerk was outside of their experience or comprehension. The other thought was that we need poetry and good literature more than ever, because reading poetry and stories can help us vicariously experience empathy and perhaps come to value and practice it in our own lives.

In fact, there is research to support just such a notion. New School of Social Research researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano published a widely read study in the journal Science, which found that reading literary fiction made people more sensitive to the emotions of others. The results could not be replicated for genre fiction (mystery, horror) or non-fiction. The study has its critics, of course, including University of Pennsylvania professor of linguistics, Mark Liberman who found the conclusions wildly overstated. Overstated or not, the argument for a central role for literature and poetry in developing empathy is pretty compelling. What Kidd and Emanuele found was that it was the specific characteristic of "gaps" in literary fiction that allow readers to see themselves in the other characters. Filling in gaps aids in developing empathy. Poetry shares with literary fiction the need for the reader to fill in gaps. In poetry, as in literary fiction, the reader joins the author as co-author of the text in a what Louise Rosenblatt has called the literary transaction.

Why does this matter? The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has rather notoriously called for a greater emphasis on the reading of non-fiction from the earliest years of school. In many ways this makes sense. As kids advance in school and college and work life they will be required to read more and more non-fiction. This CCSS edict, however, has been misunderstood by many to be some sort of mandate to move away from the full exploration of literature and poetry in the classroom. Also, the current mania for standardized tests and "evidence-based" test questions are driving some away from a literature rich curriculum. None other than the leader of the development of the highly regarded Massachusetts state standards, Sandra Stotsky, sees this as a problem.  

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

So let's go back to Oranges for a minute. It is clear to me that the students were able to fill in the "gap" in the narrative and discover that the lady understood what the boy was going through because she had once been young and on a first date. The kids were showing themselves able to view something through another's eyes. They were developing empathy. They were becoming critical readers. It was truly a joy to be present to watch this happen.

As my former mentor, Professor Leland B. Jacobs, used to say, "Give children literature!" Give them literature indeed.

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