unpacking the backpack – The alchemist

The Alchemist, a quirky little novella from Paulo Cohelo, is the perfect self-help book for high school students because it comes in the form of a readable parable, and the narrative helps to disguise the preachy nature of books designed to help teens find themselves and their way in the world. For many years I have used this book with my high school juniors as a fun yet engaging diversion in the middle of what can be their most intense year of schooling.

The book tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia, who sets out on a journey to see the pyramids after he has a strange dream about buried treasure. The story actually becomes more of a search for himself, as the people he meets along the way guide him into numerous life-changing decisions. He learns that his journey is actually in search of a different kind of treasure, his personal legend, which is his true purpose in life. For the book to truly resonate with kids, I’ve found it’s helpful to move beyond just reading and discussing the events of Santiago’s journey. Crafting activities around the ideas of the book can more effectively engage the students in their own journey and quest to discover their own personal legend. 

The lessons I build around the reading of the novel become what I call the “Alchemist Project,” which is actually a multi-genre research project about themselves. In a variety of activities I ask students to honestly answer some tough questions meant to elicit some genuine moments of self reflection; for, the goal of this book and project is for students to figure out, not simply what they want to do, but who they really are. They try to determine what they value most and what they can live with and without. They will ultimately create a portfolio which may include poems and paragraphs, lists and pictures, slide shows and songs. One year a student even created a puppet show.

As part of the supplemental activities, I use an engaging TED talk, featuring Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs.” Rowe has some fascinating bits of advice and insight for students about the things he got wrong in life on his way to adulthood. Most importantly, he ponders the possibility that “follow your passion” might be the worst advice he ever got. I advise my students that in Rowe’s view some people should follow their passion, some should follow their skills, and some should just follow the market. The goal is to figure out which one they are.

We also read and discuss related columns and stories such as a girl from Jean Twenge’s book The Ambitious Generation who was quite adept at getting into college, but not so clear on why she was going in the first place. Other materials include a David Brooks op-ed on institutional thinking called “What Life Asks of Us,” and also a Robert Fulghum essay about a girl who was “sitting on her ticket.” These pieces have a way of motivating them to think critically about themselves. Perhaps the most interesting and engaging of the tasks is for students to complete an extensive analysis of their “Imaginary Lives,” which gives them a chance to dream, wonder, and ultimately try to see themselves in a future.

I always conclude our unit by showing a short clip of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor known for his Last Lecture, a speech he gave before passing away from cancer at a young age. His YouTube speech and subsequent book are quite inspiring, and he also gave a shortened version on an episode of Oprah. Pausch’s lessons connect well with the story of The Alchemist. While Coehlo’s book says “The universe conspires to help you achieve your personal legend,” Randy Pausch posits “If you are living correctly, your dreams will come to you.”

Ultimately, The Alchemist is a meaningful book for high school students as they seek to figure out just who they are and where they are going in life. Students sometimes dismiss the book as a little silly and contrived, and honestly it probably is. But even the most hardened student finds something useful in our Alchemist Project. Reading The Alchemist is the perfect nudge toward finding your own personal legend. So, check out Santiago’s fabled journey, and perhaps use it to guide you on your own pursuit of your personal legend.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com