In order to teach today’s youth the components that influence both positive and negative leaders, educators traditionally use the lives of living, breathing men and women. Students can research the lives of the Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other great personalities. Autobiographies and biographies are excellent learning tools, but often fictional literary figures are not considered when teaching the criteria for strong leadership characteristics. In reality these male and female characters provide good (and bad) models of leadership. Imagine how, with the addition of fictional personalities, the spectrum of examples of leadership could grow, as well as the number of classes which teach today’s youth strong, intelligent leadership skills.
Personal integrity, practical knowledge, survival techniques, political and spiritual motivation, social commentary, ethics and morality, and much more can be found in the novels below. There are hundreds of titles and authors being used in today’s classrooms and the following is a brief list of potential titles to be used as whole-class novels or for individual projects.
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Bless Me, Ultima is the coming of age story for Tony, a young boy who must overcome simultaneously conflicting cultural, political, religious and social stereotypes. Throughout the novel, Tony learns from an old curandera, or medicine woman, Ultima, whose has come to live with his family in New Mexico. Ultima becomes both mentor and grandmother to Tony, and teaches him her skills of practical knowledge, tough love, and close observation of both wild and human nature. Ultima is a firm believer in tolerance and understanding, and she teaches Tony that different belief systems can offer equally valid ways of understanding the world. The lessons learned from Ultima shape Tony into someone who can both think and act for himself.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Harper Lee, in her only novel, captures the racism and injustice stirring in America’s South. Siblings Jem and Scout live in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama where their whole world is turned upside down when their father, attorney Atticus Finch, defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. What ensues is a brilliant web of personal responsibility, ethical and moral decision-making and leading by example. As the single father raising two young children, Atticus is respected by the entire community due to his penetrating intelligence, calm wisdom, and exemplary behavior thus becoming an excellent role model for his children, along with every other reader who has picked up the book. At the end of the novel, Atticus modestly sums up his leadership qualifications by saying, "before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him."
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Absolute power corrupts, absolutely, and who better to point out this truth than the brutish pigs of Animal Farm. Animal Farm reveals the power of ideology, propaganda, blind faith and ruthless opportunistic actions. Loosely based on the Russian Revolution and subsequent political state of the early 20th century, Napoleon and Snowball become excellent examples of political leaders whose initial ideology shifts, thus creating mass corruption. Napoleon is the power hungry tyrant who can be compared to Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic and other despotic rulers. Snowball on the other hand, creates a potentially empowering political theory, but does not have the strength to carry it to fruition, thus his reliance on basic rhetorical skill and lack of action prove that successful leaders need strength in both categories. The result of poor leadership abilities is revealed through the exploited fate of all of Animal Farm’s characters.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
As a multiple award-winning author, Octavia Butler, as of yet has not become popular reading for high school students, but she should be. Butler blends the genre of science fiction with that of accurate and stunning social observations. In Parable of the Sower, a young minister’s daughter, Lauren Olimina, violently loses her family and home. In the aftermath that could destroy most people, Lauren must rebuild her life utilizing amazing survival skills, forging bonds with unlikely travelers like herself, creating ethical guidelines in an amoral society, and continuing to educate herself and her group in a society that has abandoned all forms of formal education. Within all of this, Lauren begins to formulate a new faith, Earthseed, which combines traditional religious themes with a conservationist’s viewpoint. In the novel, and the sequel, Parable of the Talents, Lauren becomes the pragmatic, loyal, endearing leader to whom many entrust their entire lives.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
When a group of young British boys are marooned on a deserted island, their first instinct is to enjoy absolute freedom from the confines of adults and their subsequent rules. However, leaders emerge and control begins to take shape, for a while. Ralph is initially elected leader and with his intelligent and fair practices tries to create a civilized living arrangement for the boys, as well as alert passing ships, planes, of their presence on the island. His nemesis is a jealous boy, Jack, who is given leadership over the hunters, before becoming disillusioned and seeking ultimate power over all the boys. What occurs is a horrifying account of what fear and poor leadership can do: death, pain, agony and the supreme loss of self.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In the world of Fahrenheit 451, firefighters, like Guy Montag, do not put out fires engulfing peoples’ homes, instead they start them. Montag starts fires in order to burn the books hidden inside the homes and the owners who defy law by keeping them. Montag himself is a reluctant leader, thrown into his role by the gradual dissatisfaction of his life, and the injustice being placed on people by an oppressive government. With the desire to learn what is so horrible about books’ contents, he defies all he’s ever known which in turn costs him everything: his wife, his home, his friends, his job, his entire existence. After many plot twists and turns, Montag finds a group of other social misfits and promises to help them preserve the integrity of literature, thus he is charged with aiding the restoration of civilization.
Anthem by Ayn Rand
In a futuristic era that does not support individualism, people are given names such as Equality 7-2521, International 4-8818, and Liberty 5-3000. This particular trio exist and attempt to rebel against the motto of the times: "There are no men, only the great WE." Equality, being an intuitive and intelligent man, is chosen by the Council of Vocations to be a Street Sweeper. With this new job, Equality 7-2521 finds an unlocked grate which contains artifacts from the "Unmentionable Times." "The narrator" as he is sometimes called is a strong, intelligent, introspective young man who is feared by the conformist founders, and rightfully so. He stirs up trouble, thus escaping with a woman he falls in love, Liberty 5-3000, in order to recreate a society where each person can become whomever and whatever they so desire.
The Chocolate War by Richard Cormier
The Chocolate War tackles topics such as corruption within adults, the violence and fear of gang mentality, the ease with which some students blindly follow instead of lead, and the fact that strong leaders may not prevail, but indeed maintain their integrity, if not their faith. Jerry, an unlikely hero decides to not sell chocolates, thus going against a popular teacher, Brother Leon, and the school’s gang of thugs, The Vigils. At first his decision to stand against the injustice of The Vigils’ "assignments" is applauded by his fellow students who themselves are victimized by this menacing group. His actions indeed speak louder than his words. Quickly, though, their resolve fades, and they quickly side with the thugs, leaving Jerry to stand once again alone. The end result is that the "bad guys" are not punished, and the "good guy" leaves in an ambulance with a broken jaw, internal injuries, and the loss of faith in mankind. As Jerry leaves, he quietly whispers to another boy, "…do not disturb the universe."
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The wizarding wonder who lives at 4 Privet Drive is none other than the famous Harry Potter. Yes, he has taken the entire world by storm, and millions of adults as well as children have read his tales. What better opportunity could be used to look at leadership capacity among today’s youth than with the most famous literary figure of the 20th century? Potter successfully tackles the angst of peer pressure, the responsibility of being a moral person, the importance of loyalty, the power of individuality all the while battling the forces of evil which want to engulf him. Potter’s most powerful leadership ability is by "walking the walk, and talking the talk." He is respectful, intelligent, resourceful, and strong. Moving from the mistreatment of his family members to the immediate fame of the "wizarding" public, Potter maintains his integrity and humility. He bests great forces not by brute strength, but by patience, thought and intuition.
In our everyday existence we are destined to find positive and negative examples of leadership. Educators can help students recognize those qualities in a variety of places. Literature should be one of those places students are allowed to discover; in literature there is a wealth of information for them.
The question then remains, after a student has read, or is reading, these novels, or others like them – “what can they do to reveal their learning?” Plus, how can the educator assess their progress and knowledge? I might suggest that students use the criteria discussed in class as their guidelines for gathering potential examples of leadership qualities.
One final suggestion would be to analyze your students’ strengths. Allow students to find choices in their assessment so they can capitalize on their academic strengths. This allows for diversity and differentiation, two very important components for today’s classrooms.
1. An obvious suggestion would be to write an essay describing the leadership qualities the character possessed.
2. Another possibility would be to have the student create a reading notebook that he/she writes keeps while reading the novel. Then he/she can catalog all the examples, along with their personal thoughts and connections. Afterwards, the student could give a brief presentation of learning.
3. Technology is more and more available for our students today. Students could create a Power Point presentation of their learning. All presentations could be saved together for a larger group presentation. Plus it’s a great way to teach other classmates, or other semesters, what they could do.
4. Visualization is a crucial component for reading comprehension; students could create a mandala, an art form which uses symbols to represent various themes. Typically, mandalas can represent opposites, similar to the yin yang. Students could create a mandala discussing the positive and negative leadership qualities of their characters.
5. Creatively the student could create a variety of poems, short stories, extensions of the novel, letters from the character, book reviews, etc. The list with creative writing is endless.
Additional Web Resources:
Teacher Source (Lesson Plans in Arts and Literature): Provides a wide range of lesson plans in many content areas. This particular HTML code is specific to literature lesson plans.
Beyond Books: Provides other books that relate to literature content standards. Although not by design, the book lists are great resources for other books to explore for teaching leadership lessons through literature.
University of North Carolina Leadership Library (other literature choices for exploring leadership)
Leadership & Literature Syllabi (primarily college-based, yet provide good insight and possibilities for creating courses at the high school level):
Leadership & Literature (Gonzaga University)
Women & Leadership in Literature (University of Colorado, Boulder–Honors Program)
Public Leadership & Literature (University of Maine – 1997 syllabus, but still neat ideas, moreso for adults—literature choices are a little esoteric for teens)
Written by Kirsten Aarestad, English Department Chair and Social Studies Instructor
Vantage Point High School