Brooke Joseph is a graduate student in education at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She has a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and Social Sciences with a concentration in Sociology and Elementary Education.
In a recent interview with Professor Robert P. Waxler, co-founder of the Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL) program, I focused on finding out how CLTL changes lives. Three themes emerged from this interview: Putting Yourself in the Story, Becoming Friends with Characters, and Breaking Down Stereotypes.
Putting Yourself in the Story
Reading and writing can change people’s lives by helping individuals to focus and increase their awareness through self-reflection. Waxler explained that when you are reading a good piece of literature, you often put yourself in the story and empathize with characters. Even though during the CLTL sessions everyone is reading the same story, each individual will read the story in a different manner. Therefore, when the story is discussed, the characters are seen from opposing angles and people “begin to understand that stories, like our lives, are richly textured possibilities.”
Although stories do not offer definitive solutions to people, they do “raise profound questions about our lives. And as long as we continue to ask important questions, we are doing something worthwhile with our lives.” Waxler says reading the right stories helps us to “pursue our identity as if we are on a journey through life;” by “expanding our perceptions, offering new experiences and deepening our thinking, stories move us and they make us self-reflective. They offer us questions, and then the stories give us the opportunity to pursue answers to those questions.”
Becoming Friends with Characters
Dr. Waxler also gave an example of how a particular character can change people’s lives. When people are reading they allow the characters to become a part of their lives; characters in the stories “become our friends. Their voices are embedded in our hearts.” For example, take Santiago from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea novel. Even though Santiago does not catch a fish for weeks, he continues to wake up every morning to “fight the good fight; his endurance is admirable.”
After reading OLD MAN AND THE SEA, one CLTL participant claimed, “in essence, Santiago saved my life.” The CLTL student had been thinking about going back to his old neighborhood and returning to drugs. But then he thought of what Santiago had endured, and decided not to take the turn back to his old neighborhood. Santiago was a friend in his heart, inspiring him that day.
Breaking Down Stereotypes
Another way that CLTL changes lives is by changing people’s perspectives, and, more specifically, breaking down stereotypes. Perhaps this is best illustrated through a passage from Waxler’s 2008 essay in the Journal of the Modern Language Association:
It is interesting to witness, through CLTL, court officers (judges, probation officers, lawyers) and criminal offenders sitting around a long wooden table in a seminar room talking together about a story they have read. Customarily the criminal offenders at first see the judges, in this context, as the officials in the dark robes who employed the harsh language of judgment to rule over them, and the judges often see the criminal offenders through the other side of that lens, as marginal characters in need of discipline—if not punishment, at least rehabilitation. The offenders agree, recognizing themselves defined in the narrow prison of such perception.
CLTL facilitates a breaking down of stereotypes, and the participants around the table take on new identities as they discuss the literature before, As Dr. Waxler says, “stories evoke stories, and through that process stories can help build a democratic community.”
At the end of our interview, I told Professor Waxler I teach second grade and I asked him for any suggestions that he might have for ways that I could engage students. He suggested that stories can be magical and this is what young children know and love. These magical stories offer imaginative possibilities for the children. My challenge as a second grade teacher is to make sure that my students never “lose that sense of enchantment.” That is a challenge worth pursuing!