Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is “the way things ought to be?” What is the problem and what is the solution?
These are underlying questions you might expect to find in War and Peace, but in Charlotte’s Web or Goodnight, Moon? In Professor of Education Adel Aiken’s Children’s Literature course, students learn to uncover the messages behind the stories—messages that can shape the way children look at themselves and the world.
Take Hatchet for example, a popular text in many upper-elementary classrooms. It’s a story about a young boy who’s traveling in a private plane to visit his father when suddenly his pilot has a heart attack and the plane crashes. The boy is suddenly alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a hatchet.
“Taken at face value, the book is an exciting adventure in which the boy faces all kinds of obstacles and triumphs,” Aiken says. “But the overwhelming worldview that comes out of that book is that I can do anything. I can trust my instincts, take inventory of my resources and I can conquer the world.”
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Hatchet as a story, but its overtones differ greatly from another book on the class’s reading list: A Wrinkle in Time. Like Hatchet, it is the story of a disaster, but the heroine comes to the conclusion that there is help outside of herself, and that it is love, rather than her determination as an individual, that conquers all.
“One of my chief aims with this class is to show that there are touchstone texts that can influence children in public schools, simply by teachers teasing out those kinds of perspectives,” Aiken says.
In addition to Hatchet and A Wrinkle in Time, the books Aiken studies with her class are Holes, by Louis Sachar; Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling; Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo; Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse; and Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. She also reads a picture book aloud during each class period. These books cover a range of genres and contrasting worldviews, but they all share overlapping themes and answer universal questions.
But Aiken’s class isn’t just about worldview. She wants to help her students begin to love literature; to see what makes a book a good book; and find out what makes kids want to turn the pages and then take another book down from the shelf.
“It’s a grand class to teach—the class I would want to teach forever,” Aiken says. “It’s just fun. I can’t think of any other word for it! It’s also gratifying to know there is the same life truth to be learned in a children’s story as there is in a Shakespearean play.”
The first biopsychology major graduated in 2012 and has been hired as an IOM Tech in UPMC’s Center for Clinical Neurophysiology (CCN).