It’s No Surprise: Books Teach Life Lessons by Lee Ann Spillane
“Stories define us and nourish us–intellectually, emotionally–
stories teach us to be human.” – Linda Reif, NCTE 2014
Stories stay with us. Memorable characters teach us lessons that we carry into our own lives. Because I believe in the power of reading, I make time for independent reading in my high school classroom. Students can read much more on their own than I could ever “teach” them. Twice a year I ask students to formally reflect on the books they have read. Sometimes, I write individualized essay questions that ask students to synthesize several texts. Sometimes, I ask students to evaluate themselves by responding to open-ended questions, a process I adapted from Linda Reif. My favorite question to ask student readers is to describe the most important life lesson they discovered in books.
It is a question I have asked for more than a decade. Students answers continue to inspire me, so this Sunday, I want to share the surprises my students gave me when they wrote about lessons they learned from books.
From Harry Potter, Jasmine learned about living a passion-driven life. She writes, “The most important life lesson I learned came from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I learned that it is more beneficial to have fun and do what will make you happy in life than to spend your life doing something you aren’t passionate about.” Some of us spend our entire lives learning that lesson.
Amy learned a lesson about friendship from Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. She writes, “The most important life lesson that I discovered in a book is that true friends will always be at your side. I learned this lesson in the Percy Jackson books that I have read. …This lesson is important to me because in our society you may not know who your real friends are. Some people may just be friends with you in order to get something.” We’ve all experienced the heartbreak of this realization. As a parent, I know that the sooner my child realizes this, the more resilient he will be.
When I find myself questioning what books students choose to read (based on someone else’s idea of grade-level appropriateness or complexity), I think about students who return again and again to Hogwarts or to Camp Half-Blood. I think about Jackie and her passion for dancing and Anna and her developing vision of friendship and character.
Alicia’s lesson broke my heart. She wrote about a mother’s love and the book Bounce by Natasha Friend. She said,
“I, too, lost my mother at a young age and did not get to know her well. But the short time I did, I knew she loved me. Once my father started dating again, I was angry…I did not want my mother to be replaced. However, when I read this book, my mind-set changed. I decided that these new girlfriends would not replace my mother, but they would just simply add on to the love my mother gave me.”
I was stunned when I read Alicia’s response. Her compassionate and difficult decision is one I carry with me.
Students choose to read all sorts of books during our reading year together. Essi wanted to challenge herself. She set her sights on Tolstoy and read Anna Karenina the fall of her sophomore year. I watched her tuck into the tome during our daily reading workshop and I wondered what she was getting out of it.
We talked about the book and the characters occasionally as I made conferring rounds around the class. I didn’t want to push too hard or come across as a quiz master with questions. She learned about forgiveness and resignation and the complexities of each. She writes:
“When Dolly forgives Stiva after he continues being a womanizer, it leaves us as the readers to wonder whether forgiveness can be compromised and in Dolly’s case it seems more like resignation than forgiving. Yet Tolstoy makes it very clear throughout the novel that its just as important to forgive yourself than it is to forgive others.”
Friendship, love, forgiveness, these are the lessons that matter most to me as a parent. These are the lessons I hope to give kids by giving them the time and space to choose their own books to read. Aaron’s lesson is the one that I remembered nearly word for word. What Aaron wrote last year strengthens my resolve when I find myself questioning the amount of time I let students read in class.
Aaron read Openly Straight fresh out of the ALAN box last fall. He didn’t have much to say about it in December, but on his year-end evaluation in May, he wrote:
“The biggest life lesson that I learned by far this year is that it is perfectly normal and fine to be gay…This is really important to me because it is a giant and central part of my life. Without this book, my life would still be one where I live in secret, supressed of even the right to love. But because of it, that is not the case.”
His story, his lesson gives me hope for youth and our future.
I shared Aaron’s story with Bill Konigsberg at the ALAN conference this year. I got another copy of Openly Straight signed for Aaron at the conference. I got to give it to him today.
I told Aaron how what he’d written months ago has stuck with me. And I told him that his honest voice showed great courage. That moment with Aaron was the high point of my teaching week. Books help me do right by the students in my room.
When I think about reading workshop in my own classroom and its value, I come back to the lessons kids learn from the books they choose to read. It’s no surprise. Books teach life lessons. Readers know this is true. Books help kids form identities and confirm values, no high-stakes test does that. Books build a bridge between experience, imagination and emotion, no amount of mandated progress monitoring does that.Time we spend reading is time we invest in ourselves and each other.
As Sarah Addison Allen wrote in The Peach Keeper, “Every life needs a little space. It leaves room for good things to enter it.” Giving students time and choice in the titles they read creates such space for the good things to enter: empathy, compassion, forgiveness and best of all, love.
Lee Ann Spillane has taught high school English for twenty years and currently teaches tenth and eleventh graders in Orlando, Florida. A wizard activist and dedicated Nerdfighter, she is a passionate about reading and writing with teens. Her transmedia professional book Reading Amplified: Digital Tools that Engage Students in Words, Books and Ideas is available from Stenhouse. Find her online at http://laspillane.org and on Twitter as @spillarke.