Finding life lessons for students on the obituary page

Peter Sipe

I’ve always liked Fridays as much as the next guy, but this year I especially like them. The reason is that 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: They’re fine examples of how to live. We’re not merely reading life stories, we’re learning about lives worthy of emulation. By the end of the year, my students and I will have met dozens of excellent role models.

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, observes that instruction in America used to promote a culture of character in which “what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking.” Now, she believes, we’ve developed a culture of personality in which… well, I don’t know who the next celebrity will be, but I’ll bet my next paycheck whoever it is won’t have achieved fame by quietly performing good deeds.

Too often, those who deserve our admiration—and our emulation—remain unsung. It doesn’t have to be this way. Obituaries provide character education with real characters. These good men and women were part of our communities, and if you ask to be introduced, you can meet them. Their obituaries present life stories of those who lived well, who did good deeds, and who offer virtuous examples to follow. By making the passed present, we don’t just honor these fine citizens. We do our civic duty.

Peter Sipe is a sixth-grade teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School. See his previous Flypaper editorials, "At ed schools, a low degree of difficulty" and "How to challenge voracious young readers."

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Boston Herald.