The Missouri Reader Vol. 40, Issue 3 - Page 10

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " Mem Fox

Character development is a new initiative in the whirlwind of change we educators experience every day. This article is a reminder that using quality literature in the classroom develops character and builds empathy, while at the same time it grows students’ reading, writing, listening, and speaking competence.

Literature Touches Readers’ Lives

In my experience, reading can be an antidote to the poison of bullying, self-absorption and victim-mindedness. Through reading, people can feel empathy, think in more complex patterns rather than in simple dichotomies, and experience vicariously events like the Holocaust. In short, reading can make people better.

Our own classrooms confirm that literature impacts students. I recall reading aloud Amelia’s Road to a class of third graders. This tender story is about migrant laborers who yearn for a home place. When I finished reading, I caught a glimpse of a tough little third grade girl scrubbing away her tears. I remember a seventh grader who galloped up to me in the hallway and said that he could so relate to Richard D’Ambrosio’s No Language but a Cry, a story of a severely abused girl.

Literature Builds Moral Intelligence

Michelle Borba in her book Building Moral Intelligence claims that children need the following virtues: empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness. Literature teaches these values. In the picture book Worry Stone by Marianna Dengler the grandmother feels such empathy for the sad little boy that she gives him two precious gifts—a story and a worry stone. Dengler’s theme and Borba’s virtue are the same—empathy, feeling someone else’s pain, and then responding.

Award-winning author Madeleine L’Engle claims that literature assures readers that good people can overcome obstacles. She sums up her own reasons for reading: “I read to become more than I could be. It’s in the story that we find the truth of what it means to be human, and what our calling is as human beings” (1993).

Teaching Milkweed in a Readers’ Workshop

Milkweed, a novel by Jerry Spinelli, has the power to move students’ hearts, thwart bullying, and grow students’ literacy competence. Set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, this novel teaches the universal themes of love, empathy and heroism in the face of human suffering caused by prejudice and violence. The Holocaust is experienced through the eyes of a young orphan boy, Stopthief, aka Misha, who is befriended and saved by Uri. Misha smuggles food inside the ghetto for Janina and witnesses unimaginable scenes of brutality. Misha survives and is finally healed years later when his granddaughter gives him a new name, Poppydoodle, and love.

Milkweed is best taught as a whole class read or in small reading groups; therefore, each student needs a copy of the book. The teacher draws mini-lessons from the novel to use at the beginning of each reading period. After the mini-lesson, students read the designated chapters either silently or in pairs for students who need more support. After reading, students write in their journals about personal connections to the themes. Sometimes, the teacher engages students in discussion, thus, weaving reading, writing, speaking and listening standards into the unit.

At the outset of a new class novel, the following are several mini-lessons that set the stage and provide teaching charts to be used throughout the unit. First, the teacher facilitates comprehension by building context.

The teacher might say: “Newbery Medalist

Building Empathy through Reading to Change the World

Table One