Reading as a Witness to Lives Lived by Sarah J Donovan

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Originally published on Nerdy Book Club’s Reading Lives page.

Sometimes I feel like at outsider in ELA department meetings and the education courses I teach because ELA teachers like to talk about their favorite childhood books, how they read under covers with a flashlight, or snuck in a chapter during science class. Growing up, I did not have a relationship with books, but I did know about stories.

My family circa 1975 (missing the two youngest)
My family circa 1975 (missing the two youngest)

I was never a reader, and I had never imagined I would one day be an English teacher. I grew up in a Catholic home among my ten siblings with a small library of books. The only book I remember reading is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (so I guess I do have a book memory).  I would find the green cover of The Giving Tree when I felt most melancholy, turning the pages to see the glorious tree turn into a stump as it gave itself to the boy. While beautiful in many ways, I’d cry at what I perceived as an injustice. I sensed at an early age that my ability to feel a story  is what made me feel human, and, for my lifetime, I have absorbed pain and sorrow of others as if it were my own.

The injustices of the world always hit me hard. The pain of others moved me to study psychology, sociology, and criminal justice in high school and college, and my first career was as a social worker in the county jail. My job was to go to the jail and ask people for their stories, to listen to the stories of their lives, and to uncover how they arrived at this moment. I’d then write a report for their sentencing hearing.

At first, the jail stories felt like a burden.   I absorbed stories of neglect, abuse, resilience, and hope into my mind and body unsure of how to carry these lives alongside my own. Sure I was trained to set boundaries with clients, but , still, the stories seeped into my dreams and became a part of my memory.

I was their listener. I enabled their testimony so that the men and women who sat on the other side of the glass could witness their lives.  We were in it together – the storyteller and the listener. For me, because I witnessed their lives in this way, their stories endure.  I came to see my work as reading lives, which has been my privilege.

In 2002, after a few years of working in the jail, I was burning out and decided on a career change. (Like so many teachers, social workers burn out, too.) School experiences came up a lot in the jail interviews: from special teachers who tried to help to stories of ADD to the consequences of zero tolerance policies.  By pursuing a career in teaching, I guess I hoped to do that which so many teachers do every day and that which the media tends to overlook: to listen to the lives of young people.

I began a Masters in Education. I felt at home in the education classes about human development, but without a degree in English, I was an outsider in the literature classes until I took a young adult literature course. For most of us in the course, these novels were new; there was no “right” reading or authority on the text. In novel form, YA authors represented teenage wounds in remarkable ways, childhood wounds that I heard talk in jail cells. The humanity of these novels captivated me.

I read, and I witnessed stories of abuse, neglect, resilience and hope: Em  in When She Was Good  by Norma Fox Mazer; Callie in Cut by Patricia McCormick; Melinda inSpeak by Laura Halse Anderson; LaVaughn  in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff; and Young in An Na’s  A Step from Heaven.  I still carry the images and emotions in my mind and body from this literature. Now a teacher, I have many literary memories.

For over a decade now, I begin each school year with my story about how I came to be (and am still becoming) an English teacher: I was first a reader of lives. I carry the stories of many lives in my days and dreams.  Whether those stories are personal testimonies or representations of lived lives in fiction, my heart does not seem to recognize the difference. I cry with Gabi in Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen and laugh (and cry) with Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  I am part of stories, and my students are, too.

I try to teach my students that when they are telling their stories, listening to the stories of their fellow human beings, or reading one of the hundreds of books that surround them in H103, they are essential to the story. They make the story possible. They are not outsiders to literature.

This year, students read and witnessed many lives: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Journey of the Sparrow by Fran Leeper Bus, Shadow of the Dragon by Sherry Garland, and, among many others,Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen. (Take a look at their blogs here:

You, my Nerdy Book Club friends, and my fellow ELA teachers read many beautiful stories of humanity alongside students every school year. As teachers, we bear witness to the lives of students every day, and in journals, blogs, seminars, and over lunch, we read the lives of students as well. Because of teachers, students’ stories endure. We are a witness to their lives.

For the past five years, I have been working on a doctorate in English while teaching eighth grade ELA. All the stories I’ve heard in my career as a social worker and teacher compelled me to study how we read stories and how a story positions readers to bear witness.  How do we carry these stories once we close the books? How do we live with the images imprinted in our memory? How do these stories shape who we become? Do they?

My dear readers: How do you bear witness to lives through story?  Which books have moved you to feel the privilege of bearing witness to distant lives? Which books seem to move your students into the realm of reading as witnessing?  How do stories endure through you and your students?

6 Replies to “Reading as a Witness to Lives Lived by Sarah J Donovan”

  1. I’ve been trying to piece together exactly what I want to do tomorrow in my HS ELA classroom. Students are working on developing outlines for their college application personal statements into clear and vivid stories that will showcase their growth and readiness for college. Tomorrow is also going to be September 11th, a day that I sometimes struggle to honor in the classroom as my students enter each year further and further from having their own distinct memories of the day in history.

    We are in the middle of some “show, don’t tell” writing exercises to help them bring the stories in their essays to life, but I don’t feel comfortable having them do descriptive writing about the topic or Sept. 1tth just yet, as we are only in the 3rd week of school and I think that could easily be unnecessarily overwhelming for some students . I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make space for the intentional act of remembering while still honoring privacy and students’ growing sense of safety in the classroom, and I also want to begin to prep them for some peer review where they will be reading the personal statement of a classmate in order to give feedback.

    As I tried to figure out how to quilt these goals together, I headed back here just to remind myself how you have framed the concept of bearing witness… After reading this introduction once again, I think I might share parts of this blog post and another reading I found on the topic, and let students choose one to read in small groups. I’ve chosen a few questions to frame a small group discussion about how each author seems to be defining the act of bearing witness. I’ll leave it up to them to draw connections to Sept 11th, although I will prompt, I think that connection is more valuable if they decide for themselves at the end of the lesson. I hope to be able to come back to this act of reading as bearing witness to each other’s life and stories when we do peer review later in the week. Overall, I’m excited to build this in as an important piece of my classroom culture early in the year. Thanks so much for the inspiration to keep the humanity of my students as readers front and center once again~

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful email. I am so glad that you found this piece as a place to help ground your work and reflect on the sort of experiences you can nurture in your classroom.

  2. What a beautiful introduction. I saw your idea for the Sunday prompts and it lead me to your site. I just finished preparing an invitation for teachers in our community for a monthly (Sunday) afternoon Literacy Collaborative. The first hour will be a book club conversation; the second hour will be a writing group invitation. Teachers can come for one hour or both. I love how I can forward your Sunday Prompt invitation, too. I’ll look forward to staying connected. Thanks so much for your thoughtful work.

    1. Thanks, Toby. I love the idea of a Literacy Collaborative, and I appreciate you sharing my Sunday Stanzas and Stories invitation. I do think that teaching can be quite lonely, so any opportunity to get teachers together to do what we love, what brought us to the profession can really nurture our hearts and minds.

  3. Somehow I missed this on Nerdy book club. Reading it now and wow. This is a very powerful and important post. I have much to say in response but strangely I feel a little speechless. Just pondering for a while.

    1. Thanks, Carrie. Thanks to your comment, I’ve found your page. Your books lists are helpful – found a few new titles.

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