How many times in the last few years have we heard that STEM education is the fast-pass to a steady gig? Education and parenting circles advise that since kids will have careers that we’ve never heard of, we need to prepare them technologically. While I do appreciate a true inquiry-based experience, when students ask questions, design experiments, and solve their own problems, I can’t help but feel a little cool amidst the STEM fever. Even if we add in the A of the Arts to turn STEM into STEAM, this integrated model still neglects the importance of literature, and I just can’t align with a model that leaves out great books.
I was an early reader, picking it up from Sesame Street and the Disney book-club stories my parents read to me. I remember my first chapter book, a paperback copy of Charlotte’s Web that I worked through on my own, laboring through the tricky words to land in the hayloft on Arable’s farm, lost in the story. From the first page, when Fern’s heart was bursting with fury and love over Wilbur the runt pig, I connected with the emotion of the book, which matched the complications and confusions of my own heart and mind. Great books help us feel less alone. They tie us to our shared humanity, a tie that would serve us well to remember in the current climate of our country.
The Common Core standards-based movement puts a greater emphasis on the use of informational text, or non-fiction reading, than ever before; combine mandated standards with the STEM trend and we see literature sinking to the bottom of schools’ priority lists. I'm not the only one that feels this way: English teacher and Musings from the Middle School blogger Jenna Smith shared her thoughts with me about the importance of keeping great books in the classroom. She said, “Literature offers windows into the human experience. Books provide kids the opportunity to develop empathy for others, courage to handle life’s hard balls, and wisdom to navigate incredible obstacles.” Appreciation of our shared human condition can connect people from otherwise disparate worlds. Deep empathy for others is nearly inevitable when we have deep knowledge of their story.
When I reread books from my childhood I realize why I think the way I do, why I am the way I am: without realizing it, I modeled many of my choices after Pippi’s adventurous spirit, Heidi’s adaptability, Nancy’s commitment, Fern’s fierce love. How else could I have secured such mega mentors in my little life? You just can’t get that type of learning from a LEGO kit: I’m convinced there is no better way for parents and teachers to teach empathy to kids than through literature.
Teachers should not need to choose between literature and following the curriculum. Great books should be revered in every classroom, especially when we use them to engage students emotionally in their own learning. Jenna told me what she believes to be the most important reason to keep great books at the center of instruction. She said, “They validate kids’ most personal experiences by putting a hand on their shoulder and whispering, “You? Me too. Let me show you how this is gonna turn out…” Literature allows our kids to feel seen and accepted in the classroom: this sense of belonging at school is absolutely critical for kids to invest in their own potential and persist through difficult tasks. When books are used to connect, they can be the most authentic tool we have to incorporate social-emotional learning in the classroom.
Fredrick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you are forever free.” While great STEM programs offer opportunities for designing and problem solving, they could be even more meaningful if they incorporated heart, humanitarianism, and literature into their frameworks. Giving kids access to great books is a powerful act of equity - especially when we provide books that give voice to every child’s story.
Jones, S. M. & Kahn, J. The evidence base for how we learn: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development. (The Aspen Institute, 2017).
Jenna Smith’s site: http://musingsfromthemiddleschool.blogspot.com/