I’ve always liked Fridays as much as the next guy, but this year I especially like them: Every Friday, my students and I read an obituary together. If that sounds morbid, let me tell you what I tell the kids: An obituary is the story of a life; death is just the detail that gets it printed.
How do I select the weekly life story we read? I don’t. I have other people do it for me. I’ve been asking folks around town—elected officials, businesspeople, civic leaders, colleagues, and friends—this question: If you could pick one person from the past whom you wish kids would learn about in school, who would it be?
With their introductions, we’ve made the acquaintance of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor, Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist who helped desegregate our schools, and Tom White, a businessman who gave away his riches to the poor. In upcoming weeks, we’ll be reading about a firefighter, a judge, and a rowing coach. And I’ve got lots more in my pile, all marvelously interesting—and inspiring. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’d never heard of most of these people before, but I’m glad to have finally met them. And I’m very pleased to introduce them to my students.
For a teacher, obituaries are useful classroom texts. They offer short history lessons, excellent vocabulary (for example, “ephemeral” and “posterity”), and align well with the new Common Core standards. But the greatest value of the obituaries we read is this:...