The best kind of learning is social and collaborative. I find that avid readers (read: nerds) demonstrate the perfect example of this process. The act of reading itself is solitary and contemplative, but when two people come together, the discourse that ensues can be animated, thrilling, emotional, fulfilling. And it only took one special student to open my eyes to the social aspect of learning.
Her name was Brenda.
Brenda was in fourth grade. She was one of a kind—short and assertive, inventive, reserved at times, but often quite mouthy, independent and smart as a whip. I met her one day as we were doing arts and crafts. She was sitting alone at the edge of the table, hands shimmering with glitter, completely absorbed in her work.
She was building a pineapple out of cardboard. It looked pretty good, too—I remember she had cut it so precisely to give it the texture of the real thing. She sprinkled glitter in the ridges to really make it shine. “That looks great!”, I said as I sat next to her. “How was school?” Any parent—any adult—knows that a child’s only answer to this question is, “Good.” That’s all. No details, just “good”. So you can imagine my surprise when she actually told me.
That day, there was a book fair at Brenda’s school. She had begged her mom for money for a few things—a pack of gel pens, a slime kit and, most importantly, the latest Diary of A Wimpy Kid book. She went on and on about that: she told me how she and her friends were reading the series together and that they had started a club, about her favorite character and so forth.
Then she asked me, “What’s your favorite book?”
I paused. I hadn’t read anything in a while. Work always kept me busy and I was often too tired to read when I got home. Still, I wanted to give her an answer—she was eager to chat and a bit of a loner sometimes. Then I remembered something:
On the lowest level on the shelf in the corner of my classroom, there was a clear box filled to the brim with all kinds of books. I had chosen all of the books myself, so you know this collection was in good taste. It’s important that you know that. Magic School Bus, Amelia Bedelia Magic Tree House, Roald Dahl books, I had them all. If you were a child between 1989 and 1997, our book collection was a treasure chest. Solid gold, I’m telling you. It belonged in the Smithsonian.
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I dragged the box outside and over to where Brenda sat. “Look at these!” I said, and together we sorted through all the books. I showed her a few of my childhood favorites, including Corduroy, about which she remarked, “That’s a baby book.” She picked up A Wrinkle In Time (“This book is weird”), Matilda, (“Can I have this?”) and that Charlie Brown book about the girl who gets sick that is actually way too dark for children (“I want to read this one!”). One by one, she yanked out the books, scanned the covers, and laid them aside, until her eyes fell on something she liked.
“What’s this one?” she asked. It was Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, one of my favorites. It’s a story about a young boy who’s raised by ghosts in a graveyard and is affected by all sorts of dark and supernatural events as he grows up. It’s touching and can get genuinely terrifying at times—still didn’t dampen her interest. She flipped through the pages and scanned both covers thoughtfully.
So I said what any bibliophile would say at this point:
“Do you want to borrow it?”
She beamed. “Can I?” I agreed, under one condition. She had to tell me how she liked it when she finished. And let me tell you, it was a joy to see her reading it. Sometimes I’d find her laying in the grass, or underneath a tree with her nose buried in that book, and every now and again her face would light up with discovery. She finished it within a week, and she ran up to me one afternoon, and gave her opening statement:
“This book is SO violent. I didn’t know that guy was a vampire!”
Then off we went. I admitted to her that it took me a while to realize “the guy” was a vampire too, and we talked about which characters we loved, which ones we hated, the ones that we wished hadn’t died, and so on. That gave way to a full-on debate! Soon, she was lecturing me about literary themes, the importance of parental love, and loneliness before pointing out every single similarity between this book and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was the inspiration for Gaiman’s work (I told you she was smart).
Here’s the thing.
We were just talking about a book that we both liked, and that mutual excitement gave way to genuine and educated discussion. Brenda brought up several great points that I hadn’t even thought about! Then, our discussion led to the both of us to discover things we had missed while reading! The more you discuss, the more you think, and the more you think, the more receptive you are to learning new things! And one book was all it took!
Every week since, I brought her a new book each week that I think she would enjoy. We bonded over The Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Coraline, and so many others. Every time we got together, we discussed the books, argued about the characters, raved about our favorite parts, and taught the other about something new they had missed. Learning can take place anywhere, at any time. Trading thoughts, challenging ideas, it’s one of the most social aspects of life. Every time we got together, I was reminded of the following quote from the great Nora Ephron:
Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.
To me, that sums up everything about the social aspect of learning.