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July 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 10

Reading for the World

How can we make social responsibility a vital part of our classrooms? The answer could be as close as the nearest book.

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When I was on a recent visit to a Chicago Public School, a teacher stopped me in the hallway and raved about the young adult novel Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, which I had recommended. She beamed, "Even my toughest boys loved it! They're like, 'When are we gonna get to read another book like that?'" Well, there are many more books like that. We are living in an extraordinary time for children's and young adult literature. Never before has the quality, scope, and relevance of books available for teachers to use with their students been as good as it is right now, and many of these excellent books can be helpful tools for teaching not just reading skills, but also social responsibility.
Books written for children and young adults—fiction, nonfiction, picture books, poetry, short stories, and graphic novels—can be a lens through which students explore important topics and questions about the human condition, social problems, and the world. They can also be mirrors for students to examine those issues within themselves and their communities. If dialogue and debate are central to a healthy democracy, then they are essential in a classroom teaching social responsibility. Books offer endless opportunities to engage children of all ages in discussion. As good readers, students can engage in their own internal dialogue with books, and the ideas inside books can nurture discussion and debate throughout a classroom.

Investing the Imagination

Too often, social responsibility is simply equated with citizenship education, but living a life of social responsibility involves much more than merely being a good citizen. I like Sheldon Berman's (1997) concise definition of social responsibility: "personal investment in the well-being of people and the planet" (p. 15). This definition implies a great deal more than merely obeying the laws and voting in presidential elections every four years. The phrase "personal investment" means that we care about the world, from the local to the global, and that we take actions to make it a better place.
We can add to this Maxine Greene's (1995) notion of teaching "social imagination," which she defines as "the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, and in our schools" (p. 5). This is a bold idea to teach inside our classrooms, and one perfectly suited to the integration of teaching social responsibility and reading books. Because books nurture our imagination, what better way could there be to integrate social responsibility into our lessons?
Books enable teachers to weave lessons in social responsibility into their regular curriculum. For example, a teacher can help students with their literacy skills by reading aloud the picture book Wangari's Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter. This book is about Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the "Green Belt Movement." Reading about the African women who planted millions of trees will open up opportunities to explore issues of poverty, peace, compassion, the environment, life in Africa, and other topics.

Immersed in Stories

It's impossible to care for the world and act in ways that help heal the planet if we don't know what is happening in the world, or even our own communities and nation. This means our schools should be immersing students—from kindergarten to high school—in current events. Although teaching with newspapers and other authentic sources is perfect for this, books make current events human and accessible by wrapping them into a good story. When reading the novel Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi, you are inside the New Orleans Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. The nonfiction book Our Stories, Our Songs by Deborah Ellis is filled with the voices of children living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie immerses readers in the current plight plaguing so many American Indian reservations.
Just as knowledge of what is happening in the world today is central to practicing social responsibility, a good understanding of the past is essential to really understanding the present and making decisions for the future. Books make history come alive in ways that a social studies textbook cannot.
For teaching social responsibility, there is more "truth" in a good work of historical fiction than there is in a 600-page history textbook. Read The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence, and you are inside the horrifying trench warfare of World War I. The picture book Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles tells a simple story of two boys—one black and the other white—on the day the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. See my list of <XREF TARGET="goodbooks">Good Books for Teaching Social Responsibility</XREF>for a sampling of additional books that can stimulate discussion of important social and historical issues.
Teaching for social responsibility through books will not happen by magic. Teachers must explicitly pull out themes and issues of social responsibility for their students to explore through discussion, writing, and inquiry-based projects. We cannot be shy about teaching social responsibility; the health and well-being of our world depends on it.

The Administrator's Role

School administrators must support teachers by deliberately encouraging teaching for social responsibility at every grade level and across the curriculum. This must be considered as important as any other school subject. And no matter how good and creative teachers are, they cannot teach with books they don't have, so administrators must devote significant money to the purchase of books. Compared to textbooks and other programmatic material, literature is a bargain. A $20,000 investment would buy more than 4,000 books from a discount distributor.
With all the pressure to increase test scores, it would be refreshing for administrators to devote some time to inspiring teachers to teach important content that is not on standardized tests. Imagine gathering your faculty and asking questions like these: Why do children go to school? Why do people read? What roles and responsibilities do schools have in a democracy?
There are many good answers to these questions. But one answer that gets little attention in our society is that schools are supposed to help make our democracy thrive and empower and motivate people to make a better world. Engaging children and young adults with good books is one dynamic way of making that vision a reality.

Berman, S. (1997). Children's social consciousness and the development of social responsibility. Albany: SUNY Press.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Steven Wolk has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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