Occasional Paper Series #44

Conversations About Death That Are Provoked by Literature

by Cara E. Furman

In an article on nurturing caring relationships in the literacy classroom, Mary Amanda Stewart (2016) writes, “In my office I have a picture that reminds me the priority is the people we teach—not content, assessments, or compliance” (p. 22). She reminds teachers that as we teach content such as literacy, it is the meaning that students take from this content, the opportunities the skills afford, and the quality of the experience that matter most. In this paper, I take up one small element of what it means to nurture caring relationships in the classroom and to put the student’s humanity first: namely, having difficult and unplanned conversations about death.

Story and Sense-Making

It is something of a truism that stories help people make sense of and cope with life and therefore, are an important part of early childhood education (Dyson & Genishi, 1994; Engel, 1995; Meier, 2009). Stories help people to learn about others and support the development of empathy (Nussbaum, 1997), construct and reinforce identities (Bruner, 1986; Engel, 1995), determine how to act in difficult situations (Nussbaum, 1992), and work through emotional experiences, including trauma (Bettelheim, 1989; Koplow, Dean, & Blachley, 2018; Paley, 2005). Therefore, picture books as a popular form of sharing stories with children are powerful teaching tools for social-emotional learning (Burke & Copenhaver, 2004; Handy, 2017; Husbye et. al., 2019; Mankiw & Strasser, 2013).

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About the Author

Cara E. FurmanCara E. Furman, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education at the University of Maine at Farmington. Prior to this, she was an urban public elementary school teacher. Published in journals, such as Curriculum Inquiry, Education and Culture, Educational Theory, International Journal of Inclusive Education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, and Teachers College Record, her research focuses on teacher development as it intersects with Descriptive Inquiry, inquiry, asset-based inclusive teaching, and progressive literacy practices. Having studied both philosophy and education, she integrates qualitative research on classroom practice, teacher research, and philosophy. She is the co-director of the Summer Institute on Descriptive Inquiry and co-leads inquiry groups for local teachers. She can be reached at cara.furman@maine.edu.