Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist & our Personal Legends

Each year in my AP Language class, as the exam approaches - and passes - I shift gears with my highly motivated students, and I ask them to look inside themselves as they look toward their future.  It's a challenging time for young people, and many face anxiety, not over their tests or their grades, but over their identity.  As they hurtle forward toward adulthood, they pause. They struggle because, for many, they do not know who they are. These kids are in search of their personal legend.  And Paulo Cohelo's classic parable about a shepherd in search of treasure - The Alchemist - may be just the guidebook they need.

I have a variety of activities designed to help the kids along the way - not the least of which is a series of study questions about the book.  They can learn much from the stories of the Englishman, the parable of the oil and the spoon, Santiago's time with the Crystal Merchant, the idea of maktub, the lessons of the camel driver, and more.  The story is simple and accessible, no doubt.  And many teachers of an AP or honors class might worry this book is dumbing things down.  But it's not always about college-level diction and syntax.  Sometimes it's about self-reflection and living deliberately.  The kids need this book, and they need to find their Personal Legend.  Each person has a Raison d'etre - a purpose in life, but there is no guarantee we will live the life we were meant to live and fulfill the role we were meant to complete.  So, some soul searching is in order.

I couple the study of Coehlo's The Alchemist with a variety of worksheets, journals, and activities designed to get them pondering their place in the universe.  For example, I begin with a story from Robert Fulghum's It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It about the census.  Fulghum's essay on how every single life matters in serious and significant ways is thoughtful - I ask the kids "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious and, oh so, meaningful life?"  I also have a handout asking them questions about what they are afraid of, what they would never give up, what they would gladly give up, what their perfect day is like, etc.  I share with them the story of Sarah Marshall - a misguided teen from Barb Schneider's book The Ambitious Generation.  It's a reminder of the wrong way to approach college and adulthood.

These activities culminate in a great multi-genre paper called "The Alchemist Project."  For some kids, it's exactly what they are looking for.  Because they end up finding themselves.

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