In my reading classes last week and today, I’ve been introducing Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge. In short, the challenge encourages kids to read books outside their comfort zones–read about someone whose life is different from yours, or about a topic you wouldn’t normally read about, or a book in a format you don’t typically read.
Like most lessons, this one has sometimes been successful, with kids talking about a wide range of books and really tapping into the concept of empathy gained from reading, and sometimes a bit flat. Although I think the kids have all appreciated the Comfort Zone comic, which is brilliant!
In one class, the conversation veered away from books and really became more about living without walls. The boys wanted to talk about people they had met who they hadn’t understood at first. After one kid said something about someone seeming ordinary, another kid said, “There’s no such thing as ordinary.” (I love it when statements like that come from the kids!) We talked about books, and we talked about people. We talked about autism, gender identity, criminal behavior, disabilities, survival–all through the lens of empathy and trying to understand others by putting ourselves in their shoes.
This is powerful stuff, friends, when you hear it coming out of the mouths of children. It’s messy sometimes–they might say something that makes you gasp a bit in shock as they try to articulate something that is, at its heart, an attempt to figure out this whole humanity thing, but oh wow, it’s not there yet. They might laugh at something you wish they would cry at. They are fumbling their way along. What they are doing, as 5th and 6th graders, is really starting to see that the world they experience is just a tiny sliver of all that is out there. They are curious about the rest of it, but also a bit scared. Who wouldn’t be? There is some crazy stuff out there.
And so what a gift books are! They can show us that wider world while we are safe in our homes and schools. Wake us up to different experiences, and hopefully awaken our empathy and our ability to be a positive force for change.