A while ago, I wrote about how my students were learning to see themselves reflected in the books that they were reading. We referred to this concept as using books as mirrors. The kids did an incredible job with this concept and just yesterday I read a students’ reading journal entry where she wrote that she saw herself reflected in the character of her book who was getting bullied. She wrote that seeing herself reflected in this character helped her to understand that this character was not just feeling sad and hurt, but she was also feeling embarrassed that this was happening and that helped her to understand why this character was not reaching out to adults for help. So. Powerful.
As the kids were starting to provide evidence that they really understand and were able to apply the concept of using books as mirrors to their independent reading, we began to move on to a new concept. Books can also serve as windows into people’s lives who are different than our own. At first, I thought that this concept might not be quite as powerful. Once again, my students proved just how wrong I was.
We started with a discussion about the book Stars in the Darkness by Barbara Joosse. I read this book every year with my students because it is a powerful story of a young child whose brother becomes wrapped up in a gang. The whole story is told through the younger brother’s eyes. It always leads to powerful discussion, but never quite like this year. This year, we stopped to talk about how this book could help us to better understand the lives of people who are in gangs and the lives of people who grow up in a world surrounded by gangs and violence.
You see, my students live in a very white, very wealthy suburb and so many of them see the world of “the city” as one completely different than the one that they live in and it creates this awful separation in their minds and an awful “us” and “them” kind of thinking. And I have never been able to have the kind of conversations that I really want and they really need. Until this week. After reading the book, I asked the kids what this book can help us to understand about the lives of people who live in an environment like the one described in this book. And the most incredible conversation unfolded. And before I knew it kids were saying things like, “It is easier for people who live where we live to make the choice to not join gangs because we don’t know what it’s like to not have enough food to feed our families. And we don’t know what it is like to walk outside of our houses and be afraid that if we don’t have some kind of protection, we, and the people we love, are going to get hurt.” It was incredible. And then one of my girls said something that almost made me cry. She said, “When people feel like they have no power, they will do things that we might not agree with because it is the only way that they have to make themselves feel powerful.” Using this text as a window into the lives of real people helped these kids to think about our world in a much more critical and meaningful way.
We then continued with the books Hannah is My Name by Belle Young and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting. These books allowed us to see into the worlds of new immigrants to America. Again, the conversations that occurred were powerful and there were so many lessons learned that went way beyond making these kids just better readers. Yes, these conversations taught the students a new way to pay attention to what they are reading AND they also taught the students a new way to pay attention to the people in this world and attempt to understand other people’s lives and always lead with empathy.
The work that I would like to begin next is to apply this same concept to non-fiction texts, especially current events articles in the newspaper. I am eager to see what follows when I present the kids with an article about the violence that occurs daily in parts of the city of Chicago. And I am eager to read articles about the current immigration situation. I wonder if they will read these articles differently, after reading a text about gangs as a window to understanding the lives of the people in those gangs and after reading books about immigrants as a window to understand the lives of immigrants. I wonder if we can have discussions that do not focus on the bad choices “they” make, but instead focus on understanding the lives of people who are in a situation that it is hard for us to understand. I wonder if we can have discussions that see immigrants as human beings who are doing whatever they can to make their own lives, and the lives, of their children better instead of seeing immigrants as people who are trying to take things that they don’t deserve from a country that doesn’t belong to them. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we, as adults, started to read texts in this way. What changes would our world start to see? In what ways would we better understand each other and be able to lead with empathy?