Or, like a webcam, they invite the reader to become a voyeur and witness the intimate details of a character’s life.
Or, better yet, perhaps literature is like a J.J. Abrams’ flick, providing an escape from reality by hurling readers into someone else’s problem for a spell.
Perhaps it is like a museum, introducing readers to knowledge of a far flung landscape or foregone era.
Or none of the above, or a smidgeon of them all, or even something entirely different. Perhaps quality writing is a teacher. Or perhaps not. Perhaps, it is just fun. (Though sometimes it is a toil, as I saw Faulkner as an undergrad.)
The magic and lure of literature is that it is as diverse as the kids we teach and the lives we lead. Even a single volume can mean myriad things to separate people. Take Elie Wiesel’s landmark Night, for example. Millions of readers have woven threads from its narrative into their lives. Yet, while there are many similarities between people’s reactions to it, no two are exactly alike. (And some are disparately polar.)
We all take something a little different away. And thank goodness for that.
Well-constructed literature can, like a prism, bend the light of experience to reveal the kaleidoscope of colors that make up real life. As readers we see the spectrum of ideas, concepts, and connections in the hue of our own knowledge or past experience.
When we share reflections with others, though, we enrich not only our insights into the reading; we expand our ability to relate to the world, ourselves, and ultimately each other. In this way, we transcend the story being told by cultivating empathy, tolerance, and understanding.
For these reasons (among many others), literature can be one of the most valuable assets for teachers seeking to provide relevant, meaningful, and personalized learning opportunities. The collection of thoughts, memories, feelings, and understandings (or assumptions) students bring with them stand to shape how other students see the world. At the best of times, their perspectives and reactions can transform the learning environment, making it more collaborative, constructive, and cohesive.
More than that though, reading quality works offer a safe forum for opening discussions about tough topics. Students of all ages grapple with somewhat universal topics – insecurity, social dynamics, tough choices, home troubles, racism, fairness, misunderstandings, and antagonism, among many others. As characters wrestle with these issues, the astute teacher can draw out those themes without calling out or embarrassing students.
While the outcomes of such student connections with literature and each other are less quantifiable than some highfalutin politician might like, those connections lay the groundwork for a lifelong love of reading. And for me, that’s okay. I want students eager to dive into our next chapter book, to get lost in the story, and to find something of themselves in the text.
Or, perhaps, down the road, a bit of the book in them, in whatever form it may take.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Joseph Kavelier is on the ice and troubled, and I can’t wait to escape back to him.
Special thanks to guest blogger Jason Flom for his contribution to the Prestwick Cafe Blog.
More about Jason Flom - Sustained by coffee and fueled by students' passions, Jason teaches 5th grade at Cornerstone Learning Community (a private school with a public mission) in Tallahassee, FL. While earning his bachelors and masters degrees in education at the University of Florida he found that a curriculum driven by student interests resulted in less behavior problems, both for himself and for his students.
In several years of working in the outdoor/environmental education industry with such organizations as The Mountain Institute and North Carolina Outward Bound School, he learned that experience is the quickest route to student success. These days he works to combine these two philosophies toward empowering students to apply skills and knowledge in service learning projects. In his 9 years of classroom teaching, his students have averaged over 100 hours of community service per year per student. His favorite part of teaching continues to be getting paid to get schooled.