I’ve been reading Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening Minds with my preservice teachers, and it’s a must-read. One of the skills Johnston says the most open-minded students possess is that of social imagination, or being able to understand “what others are feeling, to read people’s faces and expressions, to imagine different perspectives, to make sense of abstract ideas, and to reason through this.” In other words–empathy on all levels. It strikes me that this is both a reading skill and a life skill.
To have your students practice social imagination, as well as grapple with a complex issue, try the following mini-lesson–which I believe I’d stretch out over two class periods.
Objectives: Distinguish the differences between meaningfulness and happiness according to the article; Connect the concepts of meaningfulness and happiness to yourself, the characters in your independent reading books, and people in the world.
Lesson: First, I’ll emphatically booktalk Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, written in just seven days while Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, argues that life is always worth living as long as one feels they have a purpose.
Next, I’ll distribute copies of The Atlantic‘s article “There’s More to Life than Happiness,” which pairs Frankl’s book with current research on happiness vs. meaningfulness. To give students a purpose for reading, I’ll ask them to read the article with a pen in hand, noting the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.
To get kids synthesizing the information, I’ll ask, “Once you’ve finished the article, answer this in your notebook for a quickwrite: which do you think is more valuable–a happy life or a meaningful life?”
The article is lengthy, and I’ll allot 30 minutes for students to read and respond in writing before we debrief. As a whole class, we’ll have a discussion in which we focus on what the article argues, what the students believe, and how culture may have nudged us to believe those things.
The next day in class, we’ll refer back to the article before beginning independent reading time. “As you read today, pay attention to the characters in your book–are their lives more happy, or more meaningful?”
When we wrap up silent reading time, I’ll ask students to turn to a neighbor and tell about the characters in their book, and whether they’re happier or more purpose-driven. This time will double as peer book recommendations as well as a quick assessment of the text-to-text connection.
After asking students to share out any really great characters they heard about (to give the class more reading recommendations), I’ll ask students to open their notebooks and quickwrite about a text-to-self connection–“is your life right now filled with happiness or meaning? Or both? What do you want for the future–happiness or meaningfulness? Freewrite about this issue in general. These responses will stay private.”
After writing, I’ll ask students to grab a post-it note and make a text-to-world connection–from their parents to friends to public figures to entire communities, countries, or cultures. I’ll collect the post-its for a quick assessment.
Follow-Up: I’d like to return to the idea of meaningfulness vs. happiness with a reading or writing unit on the issue. We could collaboratively study almost any novel, poem, story, or article in reading workshop through the lens of identifying purpose vs. happiness, or explore the issue further in a writing workshop geared toward either narrative, informative, or argumentative pieces.
How might you have your students consider the issue of meaningfulness vs. happiness?