Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.
Virginia Euwer Wolff
Each of us must find ways to live with courage and hope in an imperfect world. Middle grade students, in particular, stand on the cusp of self-discovery but are often uncertain how to navigate their path through adolescence. Many care deeply about fairness, justice, and reaching out to others, yet they wonder Where do I fit in? How can I make a difference?
In my writing and in my work with beginning teachers, I’ve been inspired by National Book Award-winning author Virginia Euwer Wolff and her quote above. She goes on, “It’s the kids with the faltering voices … many of us are writing for them. Not to change them into different kids, but to keep them company while they evolve.” Books raise questions, offer a sense of life’s complexities, and illustrate how people make decisions under less-than-perfect circumstances. Fiction and nonfiction can help middle grade readers develop empathy and gain insight into how people – real and imagined – deal with challenges no matter who they are, or where or when they live. And often, it’s a teacher or librarian who puts the book into a reader’s hands that helps her find her voice.
My job is to help beginning teachers learn how to open the world of literacy to students in kindergarten through eighth grades. One of the most meaningful assignments we undertake is a Themed Literature Unit, a structured unit of study designed to develop crucial literacy skills as students read, write about, discuss, and sometimes respond artistically to high-quality children’s literature. Each unit is focused on what I call a “human issues theme” (e.g., working for justice, reaching out to others, persevering despite obstacles, caring for the environment), vital challenges that we all face as members of a democratic and global society.
Here are three examples of units my graduate students will be teaching this winter:
Adapting to New Situations ~ 4th grade
Susie Henderson teaches at a highly diverse urban school in Seattle. Her students and their families come from all over the world and have had to face the challenges of adapting to new environments.
Here’s how she explains the goal of this unit: “It is my hope that students will make connections to their own experiences and mature/grow in their understanding of the real world through the exploration of this theme. Given that adapting to new situations is a vital skill for all of us, the unit will pave a path for students to explore what it means to adapt and also realize that this is something that all humans do.”
The unit guides students to understand three big ideas:
Adapting to a new situation or environment means we find a way to belong in an unfamiliar place or with different people;
It takes courage to adapt to new situations; and
In order to adapt, we must be willing to reach out to others and get to know them.
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Di Camillo. A young girl, India Opal, moves to a new town with her father. Her mother left when she was just a baby, so she is lonely when her father, a preacher, is too busy to spend much time with her. India tells a story of how she came to be friends with many interesting people, all because of a big dog that falls into her lap one summer day shortly after moving to her new Florida town. I will offer this as one of our book club choices.
My Name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada. Maria is a new girl in the United States, who has just moved from Puerto Rico. Her teacher insists on calling her Mary, but she wants badly to be called by her real name, which tells a lot about her family and her past. Book club choice.
Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banarjee. Poppy Ray wants to be a veterinarian. She gets to go spend the summer with her uncle on an island in Washington, which tells her a lot about what it is really like to be an animal doctor. Through this experience, she starts to reconsider if this is what she wants to do with her life. Book club choice.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Born into a wealthy family in Mexico, young Esperanza has lived a good life,. But things change all of a sudden, and Esperanza has to move to California with her mother where they no longer have the life they have always known. Esperanza realizes quickly that her life might never be the same. Book club choice.
The Trouble Begins by Linda Himelblau. A young Vietnamese boy immigrates to the USA with his grandmother to meet up with the rest of the family. He has a lot of catching up to do to adapt to a new life, a new language, and a new school. Book club choice.
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Charlotte, a young orphan in New Hampshire, wants to run away from the orphanage and ride horses. She is a very good rider, but since she is a girl, she is not allowed to in the 19th century. She disguises herself as a boy in order to be able to ride. Book club choice.
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Caleb and Anna are excited when their father gets a mail-order bride to come live with them. They really love her and hope she will stay, but she is not so sure about the prairie life. Book club choice.
Taking Risks to Help Others ~ 5th grade
Toby Steers teaches fifth grade across an open-concept “hallway” from Susie. He wanted to help his fifth graders get ready for the challenges that lie ahead next year in middle school.
Toby explained the unit in a letter to families: “While reading books, students will learn about dangerous times and places where people showed great bravery to help other people. Students will also learn that, when they stand up to a bully on the playground or apologize when they have hurt someone, they are taking important risks too. The goal of this unit is to learn about how to take important ideas from reading that help students make important decisions in their lives.”
Taking risks to help others means accepting that bad things might happen to you;
We need courage and determination to take risks to help others; and
Taking risks means overcoming doubts.
An Apple for Harriet Tubman by Glennette Tilley Turner. A picture book exploring the early life of Harriet Tubman and connecting with her open heart and courage to help others as she became an adult. From this book, students will learn that we need courage and determination to help others. I will read this aloud to get students thinking about risks at the beginning of the unit.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter. An amazing Iraqi librarian risks her life to save the cultural heritage of her country. From this book, students will learn that taking risks to help others means that we accept that bad things might happen to us. I will use this book in a literacy strategy lesson on identifying character traits that different risk-takers have in common
Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs. A boy leaves his family in Mexico to try to cross the border into the United States to earn and send money back to his family. Along the way, he takes many dangerous risks, always remembering the hunger and poverty of his family that he is trying to help. From this book, students learn that we need courage and determination to help others. I will use it as a longer read-aloud over the course of the unit.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. Parvana lives in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and must dress as a boy to work in the market to support her family. At this time, girls and women were not allowed to be in public by themselves and, since her father is under arrest, none of her family can safely leave the house. From this book, students will learn that taking risks to help others means overcoming doubts. Book club choice.
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez. Tyler makes friends with a girl whose parents are undocumented farm workers on his father’s Vermont farm. When Mari is threatened with deportation, how will their friendship survive? From this book, students will learn that taking risks means accepting that bad things might happen to us. Book club choice.
Courage is Inside All of Us ~ 5th grade
Mo Newton’s fifth graders are also facing the big step from elementary into middle school. Like Toby, she wanted to help them develop the inner strengths and skills we all need to face big challenges. She chose to focus on the power of finding the courage that lies within each of us.
We all can build the strength to be courageous;
Even though we are afraid, we can still show courage; and
We can show courage in big and small ways.
Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry. Mafutu is afraid of the sea and is taunted by his community for being a coward. When he can’t handle the teasing anymore he decides that he has to conquer his fear and show his community that he can be brave. This story shows Mafatu’s journey and how he was able to discover courage. One choice for students to read and discuss in book clubs.
The Dandelion Seed by Joseph Anthony. A beautifully illustrated picture book about a dandelion seed that is afraid to let go. The seed decides to find the courage to allow the wind to carry it on a remarkable journey. I will use this book to teach several of the literacy skills in our unit.
Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper. In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sylvia Patterson is asked to be one of the first African American students to enroll in Central High School. While she is trying to decide if she can summon the courage to do this, racial tension and violence explode throughout the city. The time has come for Sylvia to gather up the strength to walk through the doors of Central High School. Book club choice.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. In 1943, ten-year-old Annemarie and her best friend, Ellen, live in Copenhagen, Denmark. Ellen is Jewish, and her religion makes her a target for the Nazi soldiers. For protection she moves in with Annemarie, pretending to be part of her family. Annemarie finds herself in a dangerous situation where she has to find the courage to help Ellen escape. Book club choice.
Something to Hold by Katherine Schlick Noe. Kitty’s family has recently moved to an Indian Reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon, where she is one of the few white children. She struggles with feelings of loneliness, wanting desperately to be accepted, but feeling like she does not fit in anywhere. Throughout the year, Kitty faces many challenges that force her to discover that even she has courage inside. This will be our class read aloud during the unit.
Research tells us that learning experiences that are personally meaningful and engaging also may be more memorable and long lasting. Themed Literature Units can be one way to engage students with learning that stretches their hearts as well as feeds their minds. You can learn more about teaching with thematic literature at the Literature Circles Resource Center (click on “Themed Literature Units”). And please contact me if you would like more information about any of these particular units!
Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Book Award for the middle grade/young adult and has been named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.