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Opinion

Column: The Whiteboard Jungle: Reflecting on life lessons contained in literature

At the end of the school year, I often struggle finding an appropriate way to sum up all the work with the students.

Thanks to my son’s seventh-grade English teacher at Muir Middle School in Burbank, Lynn Rothacher, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head.

At the end of the course, Ms. Rothacher passed out a handout titled “Life Lessons from the Literature We’ve Read This Year,” a brilliant idea that crystallizes all the important literary works students studied on a single page.

The lesson to “open your heart (and your pocketbook) to others” derives from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

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This inspired me to create a similar document as a way to say “goodbye” to my 10th-grade students. In addition to listing the life lessons and the works, I added a quote from each piece of literature that supported the lesson.

First, I modeled an example. For Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one lesson is to be tolerant of those different from you: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Next, I had my students come up with their own lessons and quotes for the other works including Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address.”

After they shared and presented these, I had them write reflections. What they had to say made the previous 179 days of school with its ups and downs all worthwhile.

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Following are some of the written reflections:

“This is my favorite thing we’ve done the whole school year. I feel like at school, the place we’re supposed to be preparing for the real world, we’re never really taught life lessons.”

“I love these quotes so much I plan on keeping them with me because I feel that they can be seen at any point in life and give hope, or inspire you to do certain things. Reading them really made me reflect on life.”

“With these lessons and morals in mind, we can make ourselves better people and influence others to become better also.”

“This creates more of a long-lasting positive impact than anything else we could have done. This activity reminds us of all that can be taken from literature.”

“School is not great on covering how to apply our knowledge in the real world. This class had a purpose. Now I know the importance of literature, and I am more aware of life.”

“This is something that will stick with us throughout the rest of our lives. We probably won’t remember the technical aspects of literature as well as the life lessons they provide.”

“I have gained an immense understanding of human nature as a result of these pieces of literature, and I know, for a fact, that I will never forget any of the life lessons. I feel like I know how to be a better person and hope others do as well.”

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“This shows us why we spent countless hours reading and understanding these books. It puts all our work into perspective and makes it worthwhile. In this class, I’ve learned the most about myself and what kind of person I am.”

“Talking about this definitely has an emotional element to it. You don’t realize in the midst of reading, annotating, analyzing and taking tests on these works that they’ve actually been specially chosen to teach you things that aren’t required by the school.”

“I loved doing this. It made me explode with happiness and excitement. No one really notices the meaning of why we read the books we read and why our teachers assign these books. This lesson really opened my eyes.”

Even after nearly 30 years in the classroom, I am still learning new ideas. Thank you, Ms. Rothacher.

BRIAN CROSBY is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at www.brian-crosby.com.


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