Compassion, Tolerance, Awareness Grow Through Principal’s Book Club

Contributed by Principal Elizabeth Nunes, Jefferson Elementary School, Everett, Wash.

The launch of Principal Elizabeth Nunes’ book club is a story of convergences: her own love for reading, the establishment of three additional special-education classes in her Everett, Wash., school, and the gift of R.J. Palacio’s wondrously popular first novel, Wonder.

A longtime member of a book club, Elizabeth didn’t need any persuading about the power of reading. But it was a gift from Scholastic Book Fairs field representative Cynthia Dixon that compelled the first-year principal of Jefferson Elementary School to commit to a fifth-grade book club.

The gift was a copy of Wonder, inspired by the author’s experience years earlier in encountering a little girl with severe facial deformities. R.J. Palacio’s two children responded with tears and stares, prompting her to consider how such responses must typify the little girl’s day-to-day life. From that inspiration was born Auggie, a fifth-grade boy with similar deformities who emerges from the safe cocoon of a homeschool environment to the challenges of traditional school, with all the stares and taunting that comes with the territory.

Cynthia’s gift proved timely: Just this year, Elizabeth’s school added three special-education classrooms for children of various and varying degrees of disabilities. “It was hard for other students to see children with Down syndrome or to see kids who can’t walk,” Elizabeth observes.

Knowing the power that Wonder could have upon her students, she then decided to coordinate reading the book to her students with the school’s upcoming summer Book Fair. Tapping into an existing read-aloud time in fifth-grade classrooms, Elizabeth started by asking, “How many of you love to read?” About two-thirds of the students raised their hands.

“Then I began to read, and in minutes they were hooked. When I got to the story of the delivery room and the farting nurse, I knew I now had the boys on board too,” Elizabeth laughs. She stopped after 15 minutes and repeated her question, “How many of you love to read?” Even more hands went up. Elizabeth came back to the classroom to read 20-minute segments of Wonder for three more days that week.

Knowing she couldn’t take up so much classroom time every day, Elizabeth came up with a plan: What if she asked fifth-graders to sacrifice some of their lunch recess time three days a week? “I shared this with the 54 students in the room on that first day, telling them I would have the signup sheet on Friday and that this four-day introduction was just to whet their whistles for Wonder,” she says. To her amazement, 26 students signed up.

After the second day of reading, students asked if they could read aloud too. “Of course!” Elizabeth says she replied. “So I took down names of those who want to read to the group, and each day two different students read and then I recapped, adding a think-aloud or asking for their predictions.”

The students come together every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday during lunch, sharing five Nooks on which they can follow along with the story. “There’s a fight for who gets them,” Elizabeth shares. “They are hooked.”

Proof of the students’ engagement in the story is tangible: They not only laugh during comical parts but also seem to share Auggie’s pain in the more emotional parts. The story’s lessons – kindness, compassion, and acceptance – seem to be taking root within Elizabeth’s students. The principal thinks of one of her fourth-graders who bought a new doll for Kitrina, a child with Down syndrome. She longs to see that empathy echoed throughout her school, hoping that the lessons of Wonder will propel students along that path.

Also taking root among Elizabeth’s students is a love for reading. “I’ve had teachers say to me, ‘These kids – they love the book club!’ One mom said, ‘My daughter is coming home reading,’” Elizabeth shares excitedly. “It’s taken off in a way we didn’t think it would. I offered to cut it down to two days a week, but the kids protested!”

A longtime music teacher, Elizabeth likens reading to piano lessons. “When I taught private piano lessons, a wise person told me, ‘Just keep their hands on the keyboard. If they don’t love the classical composers, let them learn with jazz or popular music; just keep them playing.’ I told the class it was the same with reading: Find something you love to read, and it makes you want to keep doing so.”

To help her students find right-fit books, Elizabeth is not only holding a Book Fair this month but is also compiling a summer reading list for her students. In addition, she plans to staff her school library with volunteers one day a week over the summer to increase access to books.

In the meantime, Elizabeth is relishing the book club experience, vowing not to cheat by looking ahead to see what happens next in Wonder. “It’s a gift for me too because I’m loving the book. It’s killing me, though. I want to know what’s coming up too!” she laughs.
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