A View of One’s Own
Book: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3; R.6
What to Do: To Mary Bauer, a fourth-grade teacher at Terrace Park School in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu provides the perfect backdrop for a lesson on point of view. The book follows Lucy, an Asian-American sixth grader who struggles to reconcile her Chinese heritage with her American lifestyle. “The way Wendy Wan-Long Shang handles the conflicts between generations and cultures is satisfying without being cliché,” says Bauer, who blogs at Artistry of Education.
Bauer asks her students to pick out a scene from the novel and record the event from multiple perspectives using her point-of-view graphic organizer. For example, a student may pick the moment where Lucy learns she will have to miss basketball practice to attend Chinese school. Then, students select four characters who might have different perspectives on the event. (A student might choose Lucy, her mom, her dad, and one of her teammates.) Finally, Bauer asks students to answer the following questions for each character: What is this character’s response? Why do you think he or she responds this way? As students analyze each character’s reaction, they develop a sense of how cultural factors may influence viewpoints.
Book: The Dreamer, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4; W.4; L.5
What to Do: When exploring Chilean culture, why not start with Pablo Neruda’s hometown? To introduce students to the Latin-American poet, Alyson Beecher, a K–8 literacy specialist for the Pasadena Unified School District in California and blogger at Kid Lit Frenzy, recommends reading The Dreamer. This fictionalized portrait centers on a young Neruda (born Neftali Reyes) as he discovers poetry all around him.
As students get to know Neftali, Beecher encourages them to follow in the poet’s footsteps by finding the poetry in their own neighborhoods. To start, she takes her students on a nature walk that echoes Neftali’s long strolls in the book. “We encourage students to go slowly and examine everything around them,” says Beecher. “See. Feel. Touch.” After the walk, students look for examples of lyrical or descriptive language in The Dreamer, exploring the ways in which Muñoz Ryan’s poetic prose echoes Neruda’s own style. How does this language help the reader experience Chile on a sensory level? Once students have a feel for sensory language, Beecher invites them to create original poems drawing inspiration from their surroundings, much as Neruda did.
What’s in a Dream?
Book: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2; W.3
What to Do: In this Newbery Honor memoir, Woodson gives voice, through a series of moving poems, to her experiences as an African-American girl growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. One major theme: the power, and fragility, of dreams.
To Jennifer Vincent, an instructional technology coordinator for grades PreK–12 for School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois, this recurring theme serves as a gateway to a conversation about diversity. To open the discussion, Vincent recommends starting with the poem at the beginning of the book: “Dreams,” by Langston Hughes. The main refrain of “Dreams” calls on the reader to “hold fast to dreams.” Ask students to consider how Hughes viewed the act of dreaming. You can prompt them to discuss whether dreams are capable of being lost and whether dreams are valuable.
Vincent, who blogs at Teach Mentor Texts, helps her students trace the theme throughout the book, pulling out key passages and highlighting lines that reveal different characters’ perspectives. As a class, explore the language characters use to describe the act of dreaming, as well as the types of dreams they hold dear.
Vincent recommends asking students to share their own dreams in personal narratives. They can explore the ways in which their dreams differ from and align with Woodson’s. “By identifying core values and beliefs all people might share, such as having dreams, we bring individuals together and help them see the similarities as well as the differences,” says Vincent.
Words of Wisdom
Book: Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1; R.4
What to Do: In Wonder, a teacher named Mr. Browne instills values in his students using writing prompts from famous phrase makers. He calls these quotes his precepts. (His first precept: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”) Brian Wilhorn, a K–5 reading intervention teacher at Mead Elementary Charter School in Wisconsin Rapids, uses the precepts to teach about diversity, disability, and understanding.
Wilhorn, who blogs at Mr. W. Reads and at Help Readers Love Reading, has his class compile a list of precepts featured in the book, as well as characters’ lines that could qualify as precepts. “If we pull powerful lines from the book, we get quotes that can stand on their own as precepts,” he explains. Then, he asks each student to select a precept to analyze in greater detail. As students begin to explore the meaning of the phrases, Wilhorn encourages them to make real-world connections by asking, “How might these messages apply to our lives in class, in school, at home, and in our community?”
To complete the project, students create posters illustrating their chosen precepts and explain what the words mean to them.
A Mile in the Watsons’ Shoes
Book: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
What to Do: To teach character, Susan Fabrizio, a fifth-grade teacher at Louis Toffolon Elementary School in Plainville, Connecticut, asks students to walk a mile in Kenny Watson’s shoes as he and his family travel from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 — just before the horrific 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
First, Fabrizio, who blogs at The Teacher’s Theory, draws an anchor chart in the shape of a sneaker, complete with toecap, flap, and laces (find an example here). On the bottom of the shoe, Fabrizio writes “Walking in Our Character’s Shoes.” In the center she scrawls the character’s name, “Kenny Watson.” Then, Fabrizio and her class work together to fill in the shoe with adjectives that describe Kenny, such as humorous, caring, timid, and generous. Students can take turns writing their adjectives on the laces, the side of the shoe, and the toecap — wherever they can fit them!
“Using this giant sneaker provides students with a visual opportunity to figure out what empathy means and how to use character traits to make the connections to feelings,” says Fabrizio. By studying character and empathy in the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, she says, “students have the unique opportunity to get a better vision of what it truly was like for families during the civil rights movement and beyond.”