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May 1, 2023

Seeking Social Learning in Children’s Literature

A few years back, I kept a weekly appointment with twenty-some-odd kids who loved to read and write stories. The unpaid assignment promised job-hungry grad students a gold star on their curriculum vitae. But the gig ended up giving me an asset much more precious than résumé fodder. In fact, my time at that elementary school reaffirmed the reality that words and stories provide educators with a vehicle to teach kindness, cultural sensitivity, and a bevy of vital social–emotional competencies.

Kurt Vonnegut broached this subject when he wrote, “Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being.” If that soundbite stretched further, no doubt we’d hear the author highlight how good stories reveal the most impactful ways we can soften the hardships of those around us. Kids’ books accomplish this feat in the deftest manner, showing us how social intelligence isn’t so much a default personality trait. It’s an active virtue, kindness. It can be taught and learned.

Confessions of a Story Man

Here’s the truth: When I became an elementary school’s creative writing teacher, I knew diddlysquat about children’s literature. Nor did I have a grasp on the psychology of its audience, for that matter. I understood so little about young persons’ social and academic needs that my most immediate concern centered on how to wash swear words from my HBO-adjacent word bank. (For the record, on the drive to school, I exorcised the cursing demon by singing four-letter litanies to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.)

On the first day, my teacher bag weighed heavy with copies of Fernando Sorrentino’s “There’s a Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella,” a flash fiction piece perfect for teaching conflict, escalation, resolution, and the ways characters make decisions and evolve in light of their circumstances. Yes, I planned this lesson, which I had used with college freshmen, under the presumption that third and fourth graders would jive with the pedagogy. These youngsters stood ready to learn about narrative structure vis-à-vis absurdist humor — I felt certain of it. At least, my jaded brain allowed for such ignorance.

Soon, I discovered what the kiddos really needed to glean from their ELA lessons — and it had nothing to do with the intricacies of narrative craft. When I arrived with a veneer of professionalism and a voice box emptied of vulgarity, I met a teacher whose classes I’d be part of for the next three years.

“Hi. You must be Story Man. I’m Ms. Lottie.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, ha, sorry. John, right?”

“Yes, hi. Nice to meet you.”

“The university only gave us your name yesterday, but we told the kids they were getting a creative writing teacher. They’ve been talking about Story Man for weeks.”

As I peeked around the doorframe, the kids sat inside the trance of silent reading time. Terrified, I stood in front of a couple dozen kids lazing about in a stark and suspicious quiet, all of them immersed in books. Then, one of them looked up. Lakshmi, who sported a winter cap despite the 80-degree heat, sprang like electricity from her beanbag chair. She pressed R. L. Stine’s The Haunted Mask into my hand, as if she wanted the text to seep into my bloodstream.

“Mr. Story Man, have you read this? Will you talk about it with us?”

I had read it, actually. When I was a third grader like Lakshmi, I sat in a dark room with a flashlight scrolling over Stine’s story about a girl who wears a ghoulish mask that becomes her face, a kid-appropriate metaphor about the perils of fitting in. In elementary school, I dug stories and believed in the power of imagination. I still did. We read a few chapters and chatted about what happened. Needless to say, I never got around to that hard-nosed lesson on conflict and narrative structure.

The Diversity Advantage

During my time there, I worked with a bouquet of immigrants, persons of color, and a few kids growing up amid devastating poverty. Given the school’s proximity to campus, many students had professors for parents, which created not only diversity, but also cultural awareness. The kids’ station amid liberal academia meant that most of them read scads of books thanks to their folks’ loving influence. To that end, the mythical Story Man’s arrival meant something special. In learning how to write, they would go from spectators to creators, active participants in the literature they loved.

And what magic did that library contain? Their most beloved books featured diverse characters who looked like them or mirrored their experiences in some way. Even if the protagonist didn’t share the readers’ skin color or background, the story focused on a person who reminded them of their peers.

The classroom’s status as a multicultural microcosm meant the kids enjoyed a distinct intellectual advantage. The children shared their favorite authors, learned about unfamiliar holidays, and discovered that human goodness requires everyone to keep learning. In this way, the classroom diversity banished solipsism before it took hold.

Of course, not every child enjoys such favorable circumstances. For kids living in ethnocentric isolation, by no fault of their own, books provide an escape hatch from the insensitivity that can develop due to lack of exposure. In the past few years, we’ve watched the country become tangled in a web of apathy and disdain for those who represent otherness, so much so that the notion of teaching the facts of American history has become a divisive issue in public education policy.

It’s a sadly arduous task to educate the adults who choose willful ignorance as their default setting. Kids, on the other hand, stand at a different vantage point in life. No community is a monolith, but the overwhelming majority of children believe in the pricelessness of human life. Their intrinsic empathy draws them toward stories that show how otherness is an opportunity to learn and a cause for celebration. In reading these tales and talking about what they mean, our students earn social learning points that stick with them as they wade into the more uncertain waters of adulthood.

Here are some children’s books that accomplish that mission.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

School systems thrive or underperform, at least in part, in light of their allotted funding. It’s the bitter truth about public education. A school’s zip code determines whether it has access to technology, teaching supplies, additional paraeducators, and amenities for students who struggle. As we move from one neighborhood to the next, from one school building to another, poverty vanishes and reappears.

Last Stop on Market Street takes readers on this very trip. Through CJ’s eyes, readers see a diverse coalition of working-class people, musicians, individuals with disabilities, and even an aspiring lepidopterist — all of them of different ethnicities and socioeconomic positions. The narrative unravels with young CJ asking his grandmother one question after another, never shying away from the ramifications of trickle-down economics. While she satiates his inquisitive nature, the child learns that a happy, meaningful life means harnessing empathy, exhibiting generosity, and tapping into imagination.

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

In the teaching world, inclusion is paramount but painstaking. With an onslaught of competing commitments, making sure all kids feel welcomed and involved in spite of their abilities becomes a difficult endeavor. On the flip side, we must never lose sight of the social–emotional toll the lack of inclusivity takes on students.

In The Invisible Boy, Trudy Ludwig gives young readers a candid account of the heavy feelings that happen when a child gets left out. Brian is a quiet, introspective kid who wants to be part of the classroom community, though his peers often neglect to invite him to birthday parties or group projects. The book teaches your students how we must be active in our kindness and seek out opportunities to help others enjoy a positive image of themselves.

These Hands by Margaret H. Mason

Race-based inequity continues to exist. Its effects cast a heavy pall over our most precious institutions. Teachers and admins see the ramifications every day, and the problem does not end in school hallways. These Hands is a children’s book written in epistle form, wherein a grandfather uncovers the truth about the turmoil he experienced working in a bread factory during the mid-20th century.

In rhythmic verses, he tells his grandson about his hands, how he can use them to tie a bowline knot, play the piano, or throw a curveball. But institutionalized racism forbade him from using those hands to bake bread. The higher-ups told factory workers no family would touch those loaves if a Black person handled the dough. This injustice meant that workers had to use their hands in another way: to sign petitions, protest injustice, and join together to correct a societal ill. The book finds roots in historical events, from which we continue to experience a ripple effect.

Words Provide the Building Blocks of Kindness

In his fable “The Tongues,” Aesop describes the preparation of two banquets, one prepared from the finest ingredients and another comprised of the worst. The first meal showcases dishes made solely from tongues. As the organ of language, this ingredient gives us reason, truth, conversation, connection, love, and everything that makes life a cherished event. The second meal consists of the same organ, though the recipe called for the foulest ingredients. Aesop describes the irony by explaining that the tongue also provides a pathway to lies, fights, and hurtful words, a trap door that gives way to cruelty and pain.

Therein lies the crux of how teaching children’s literature creates opportunities for sustainable social learning. Words matter. Words matter a ton. In the aforementioned books, the stories show how the language we employ means we make a conscious choice: We either lift a person out of pain, or we create more of it. These stories give us case studies on how to engineer a softer, more welcoming world.

Before I started teaching kids creative writing, I found myself in a rat-race stage of my career. Though I adored language, I lost sight of the reason why most of us fall so profoundly in love with the stories words create. (You know, the empathy, the understanding, the social growth. All that human condition jazz.) Instead, I spent nights writing with a myopic focus, scribbling with a publish-or-perish mentality that turned the creation of literature into a robotic process. It took that plucky group of elementary kids to reverse this cold, mechanical ritual. In sharing their most beloved books, they reasserted the function of language and literature and why we teach it.

All this time later, as many of them are gearing up to ascend the college steps, I feel grateful to those eight-year-olds for showing me how to teach and reminding me how to write. In teaching language, we’re really instilling kindness.

Editor’s Note: This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Language Magazine.

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