Social Studies: Reading to Foster Perspective-Taking

Perspective-taking is especially important as teachers and students think more deeply about the meaning of equity—how we might achieve it, and what might be standing in the way of social justice and fairness to all. Students must learn to pose essential questions: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who is left out? Who suffers? Why is a given practice fair or unfair?

There are many books available for teaching the importance of perspective-taking so students can begin to think about equity and respond to questions such as these. Some are light and humorous, like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf. Others are more thought-provoking, and explore personal issues such as bullying or sensing what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. There are other books that examine historical events from perspectives that are different from the commonly held view. For social emotional learning, I have selected stories of a more serious nature, listed below, though each is intriguing in its own way.

Looking at something differently can lead to a new view of the situation

Ann Jonas has written and illustrated two books, Round Trip and Reflections, that show the importance of perspective in astonishing ways. Both are excellent. Here I focus on Reflections.

It was late on Friday afternoon when I recently visited a fourth-grade classroom to read this story. At the outset, no one seemed especially thrilled to be ending their week this way, and I had to ask them (more than once) to move closer to me so they wouldn’t miss the details in the pictures. Keeping them engaged during the first half of the story was a challenge. A child wakes up in a small seaside town and throughout the day, encounters morning fishermen, the first ferry of the day, an approaching storm, a boat yard, a peach orchard, and a grove of trees. Until this point, it’s a simple personal narrative, no high adventure here.

Then there’s the trip back home—at which point, readers are prompted to turn the book around. The scary birch grove has now transformed into a pond with lily pads and frogs. The boat yard, turned upside down, is a campsite, the rowboats reimagined as tents. A family flying kites has taken the place of sailboats under gathering clouds. Students are mesmerized by these and other transformations, astounded that they could have missed this alternate view the first time around. Which is the whole point!

“You changed my life!” one boy announced after I’d read the last page. I doubt it, but I did help him and his classmates recognize that if they don’t look hard for other possible perspectives, they will probably miss them. I often read this book before discussing a topic that begs for more of an open mind than I think will come easily to some students.

There can be many sides to the same story

If there’s one issue that has the attention of all educators, it’s bullying. We implore our students: Think about how you’d feel if you were the kid being bullied. Sometimes they heed our lectures, other times, not so much. The set of three books called the Weird! Series goes a step further. It tells the same bullying story from three different perspectives: the child being bullied, the bully, and the bystander. What I especially like is that it helps readers understand that all the players are victims in their own way.

I begin by reading Weird, which is the bullied-child’s version of the story. Luisa gives up many of the things she loves because Sam, the bully, belittles her at every turn: her polka dot boots, the way she greets her father in Spanish, and greets her mom with a kiss. Sam says she’s just weird, which prompts Luisa to be “unweird” by giving up the things that are important to her—until eventually, she barely recognizes herself. She tries ignoring Sam instead, and finds this is the best remedy. No longer able to intimidate Luisa, Sam gives up her bullying ways.

I then read Tough, the story from the bully’s perspective. Sam wants to keep things “cool” at school, letting everyone know she’s the one to make the rules. Her goal isn’t to be mean so much as to make sure everyone knows she’s tough. As the story proceeds, readers see what’s behind her behavior: Sam is bullied at home by her big brother and at school, needs to feel like she’s in control. Readers see how hard it can be to break the cycle, though eventually with the help of her teacher, Sam sees that being kind can also be cool.

Finally, there’s Dare, the story of the bystander, Jayla. She was Sam’s victim last year, and is so relieved that Luisa has taken her place that she won’t stand up to Sam, even when Sam dares her to do hurtful things like tell Luisa her hair looks weird or that she can’t sit at their table during lunch. Jayla doesn’t like the person she’s becoming, and eventually dares to tell Luisa how sorry she is for not standing up for her. Instead of being scared, she now feels prepared with strategies to respond to Sam’s toughness. Gradually, Sam begins to leave Jayla and Luisa alone. There are many messages to extract from these three books, perhaps the most basic of which is that bullying and how to handle it is complicated.

A commonly held belief may not be the only way of looking at something

The Thanksgiving story we’ve typically shared with students is more of a fairytale than a verified account of history. There were no tall hats with buckles on them. It was a raucous party with drinking and gambling as opposed to a religious event. The partygoers ate deer, not turkey. It was most likely held in September or October, not November. And the role of Native Americans was significantly different from the way it is often portrayed. (“6 Things Everyone Believes About Thanksgiving,” n.d.)

We need a book with a different perspective to give students a more accurate view of the real Thanksgiving story. For this, Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving is a great resource. Told in the first-person from Squanto’s point of view, he explains how he was tricked by a white friend, taken to Europe, and enslaved. The myth of the great friendship between the Native Americans and pilgrims is dispelled by Squanto’s stories of his people’s generosity and the poor treatment they received in return at the hands of the white settlers. This story is a great conversation starter, with opportunities for some of that careful listening mentioned earlier.

Ignoring a different perspective might lead to unfortunate consequences

Sometimes failing to listen is not only limiting, as demonstrated by the many untrue beliefs about Thanksgiving, but also potentially dangerous, as it was in Encounter, an alternate version of the Columbus story. In this book, a young Taino boy runs to his chief to report “three great-sailed canoes” nearing their shore, and is fearful of what might happen next. But the chief will not heed the warning, telling the boy he is only a child.

From the boy’s perspective, the strange creatures who arrive on the boats may not be human, because they hide their bodies in colors and hide their feet as well. There are bushes growing on their chins, and how could skin so pale come from the earth? Students are intrigued to see the world through this boy’s eyes—the evil he recognizes in the silver spears of the strangers, and in the darts that thunder from their sticks. Still, his elders will not listen. Then the boy is captured, forced to sail away on one of the great canoes. The last page shows an old man in a suit jacket perched on a tree-stump many centuries later, reminiscing about his lands forever lost to the pale-faced strangers. How important is listening? How important is exploring a different perspective? This book invites such important conversations.

Try to see something through another person’s eyes

Sometimes we ask students to understand another person’s perspective just because it’s the “right” thing to do, although they may not know much about the situation that calls for this response. Insight into the underlying issue is key to more genuine buy-in when it comes to perspective-taking. The book Going Home illustrates this. In the story, Carlos describes his family’s visit to Mexico for Christmas. He and his sisters were born there, but came to America with their parents years earlier. The children can’t fathom why their parents are so excited to make the trip, but that changes as soon as they arrive in their family’s small village.

Amid the animated dinner chatter, Carlos notices that his parents have never been livelier. Everyone is impressed that he and his sisters are dressed nicely and can speak English. Papa tells them the schools in America are good and his children are getting a fine education, and that he has steady work in his new country. As Carlos and his sisters fall asleep that night under the stars, Mama and Papa come out of grandfather’s house and begin to dance, so pleased to be home, if only briefly. In that moment, Carlos understands that for his parents, Mexico will always be home. They left so their children could have “the opportunities.” It’s a perspective-changing insight.

This post is an excerpt from Nancy Boyles’ book, Classroom Reading to Engage the Heart and Mind: 200+ Picture Books to Start SEL Conversations (W. W. Norton, April 2020).

Nancy Boyles, formerly a classroom teacher and professor of reading at Southern Connecticut State University, is the author of multiple books for literacy educators. She is currently a consultant working with districts and educational agencies to provide workshops, model lessons in classrooms, and assist with curriculum development.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: