In Walter Dean Myers' young adult novel, Monster, sixteen year old Steve Harmon, imprisoned for allegedly being involved in a robbery and murder, contemplates his place in the world after a fellow inmates asserts that everyone in the prison is just a criminal trying "to act good." Steve, who has suddenly found himself in a setting very unlike the one he is used to comments on the thought:
In a way he was right, at least about me. I want to look like a good person. I want
to feel like I'm a good person because I believe I am. But being in here with these guys
makes it hard to think about yourself as being different. (62)
Steve, like so many of my students, is trying to find a way to allow his better self, his characteristics that make him an individual, show in a world where others look and act the same. In fact, although Myers' novel serves as a sort of timeline of Steve's experience throughout his trial, Monster really is about the young protagonist's plight to break free from stereotypes and allow his true self to emerge. As I read Monster, I wondered how many of my students find themselves in the same sort of struggle that Steve finds himself in.
Literature always serves as a means for readers to read themselves, making us think and feel, making us human as we see in the fictional, in the created, a glimmer of ourselves, a glimmer of our own struggles. Personally, it took me years really to understand that literature was calling to me, reaching out to me as artists work through their characters and their stories, the idiosyncrasies of life that we all encounter on a daily basis. An author of literature becomes a sort of big brother or big sister to his or her audience, offering suggestions, raising questions, helping us to grow and understand ourselves and others. Through their writing, authors hold our hands, offer us advice and guidance, and challenge us to face difficult things and make hard choices. Whitman sings a "Song to Myself," which actually turns out to be a song of ourselves as the author uses his verse to explore who we are and what our place is in this complicated world. Holden Caufield struggles to fit in or not fit in, fumbling his way through the streets of New York, looking for answers, holding us close by his side. Langston Hughes struggles to find his America in a land where many felt betrayed. The narrator of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner takes us with him as he runs to survive, runs to escape, runs because he has to. Over and over in countless stories and stanzas, we the audience, the struggling masses, are invited to take the journey with one who we hope can lead us to learn more about ourselves, more about life as he or she lives out his or her own struggles in the pages before us.
One of the reasons that I believe arts magnet schools are so effective in our public school system is that it takes a village to raise a child, and in an arts magnet school the authors and artists introduced to students become teachers once again. Students need a vehicle to help them maneuver through the adolescent years. While some students turn to sports or music literature is also a means to help our children to navigate the rough seas. Students only need to read the first lines of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," to find a hint as to the power of the reading and writing of literature as a support and as a guiding light. At my school, Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, artists and academic teachers work side by side to provide students with all the tools available in order to help students find their way to their own identities.
Middle school years are the years when students make discoveries about themselves. In what is often both a confusing and a painful time of life, students find themselves challenging all their learned and taught beliefs. Middle school students need help in sorting out their beliefs, ideas, and preconceived notions. Students need to use all means available to them in order to make fair judgments about themselves and others. Literature will be one of the vehicles that students can use in order to find themselves. Every time I prepare a unit for my seventh and eighth grade language arts classes, I keep the dilemma of this age in mind. I believe, and I think that most middle school teachers will agree, that just as important as teaching the reading and writing and arithmetic, is the teaching of life skills: the teaching of communication, the teaching of cooperation, the teaching of manners, the teaching of tolerance, the teaching of reflection, and the teaching of dealing with confusion and change.
In creating this unit, Reading Characters, Reading Ourselves, I will utilize seminar material not only to help students make discoveries during these difficult years, but also to provide a fun and educational way for students to prepare themselves for real learning through literature. Through journal writing, writing workshop, and techniques such as "beat the author," students will make connections to the literature and bring the richness of literature into their own lives. The unit will give not only give students another way to assess and explore literature, but will also serve as a tool to their own self discovery, while challenging the stereotypes and beliefs that they too often take as truths.