Use of children's books
Dr. Naomi Shmuel
Students and adults in general are used to academic learning based on lectures, academic texts and intellectual exercises in which emotions are rarely directly addressed or meant to be a part of the learning process. And yet there are many issues relating to personal and group identity, a sense of belonging, the meaning of ‘home’, social and political topics especially relating to prejudices, minorities, immigrants and refugees, which arouse deep emotions and are potentially explosive in the classroom. Students training to work directly with people, such as teachers, educational advisors, psychologists, social and community workers and others need to confront and reflect upon their attitudes and feelings on such issues as part of their professional training in order to function effectively in a multicultural society. I have found that a useful and very effective way to encourage self-reflection, productive group discussion and a deep understanding of the complexity of the issues mentioned is the use of children’s books in the classroom.
I use my own books, but of course it is possible to incorporate many different texts into the learning process. The students divide into small groups, each group receives a book or selected text from a book, together with two or three questions to discuss following their reading. From my experience, students are at first amused and intrigued to be reading children’s books, but the resulting conversations are always very deep and meaningful, leading to significant insights and profound group discussions. This is because children’s books tell stories that are easy to relate to, describe people from different parts of the world, each coping with their own unique surroundings, problems and realities, and yet the themes are universal: the legitimacy of being who we want to be, the dissonance between self-identification and society’s perpetual labels, the harmful effects of bias, prejudice and racism, the basic human desire for a safe home and a loving family, and how in different contexts each one of us can be ‘the other’. Children’s books make the strange familiar, refute stereotypes, create empathy, make the presence of ‘the other’ legitimate, create both self and other awareness, and act as cultural bridges which provide a solid foundation for talking about all these issues. After small-group discussions, a representative from each group presents the main issues that arose to the whole class, and the main points for contemplation are highlighted for all, with further joint discussion.