I believe literature can bridge gaps that would otherwise never close. The potential of this brings me hope.
Teaching how to read and love literature is the cornerstone of my language arts classroom. I try to capture it in read aloud. This time is precious. It has to count.
Every year we read joyful, funny books. Books that children love. And every year we read books that are disturbing. Every year I wonder, are my book selections the best I can make. Too heavy, too light. What’s just right?
Our first chapter book of the year was Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I love this book, yet was concerned. How might my students understand it or handle the topic?
The story of Kek is brutal: a ten-year-old Sudanese refugee making his way in Minneapolis after his detention in a refugee camp, after losing his mother, after the murder of his father and brother.
Heavy stuff. My students aren’t privileged by Western standards, yet they are light years away from Kek’s experience. My students read for plot, action, adventure, humor, and fantasy. Is this too big of a stretch?
I went with it because it was the chosen text for the TCRWP Reading unit of study. While I don’t hesitate to change things to meet student needs, I felt I needed to give the design of this unit a chance. The expectations are high. I thought if anything would help students approximate the work required, the read aloud would be the access point.
We have a week left in the book. And there have been glimmers of deep thinking. I’ve seen a few notebooks that gave me hope, but the overall reactions of students worried me. Was the nature of the story turning them off? Was engagement waning? They were so quiet.
Today I read this scene,
The grocery store has rows and rows, of color, of light, of easy hope. . . I stand like a tree rooted firm my eyes too full of this place, with its answers to prayers on every shelf. . .
I reach out and touch, a piece of bright green food I’ve never seen before. And then I begin to cry.
I stop and wonder aloud: “I don’t understand. This is the opposite of what I’d expect. A grocery store is a place that ‘answers his prayers.’ Why would he cry?”
Maybe he’s filled with joy. Yeah happy tears.
Then from a student who seemed disengaged and had voiced his opinion that the text is slow (not enough action) turns to his partner,
I think he’s doesn’t think he deserves these things. Why him and not his family.
We read on. The Library,
I don’t know what to do with it all, I say. I kick a chair leg. To have all this food and all these books and all this freedom. I feel sort of… I dont’t know, the word. Too lucky.
“Too lucky?” I say. I don’t understand. Why is Kek feeling this way. How could he feel too lucky? His life has been unlucky. Why is this such a problem? Why has the author created this situation for Kek? For us to understand?
Partner talk erupts.
He can’t handle this it’s too much.
He doesn’t think he deserves it.
He feels guilty.
I think I have a new theme!
Somethings can not heal. Things can’t help, sometimes they hurt.
They listen to more. They hear how Kek handles his trip to the mall, his encounters with money, birthdays, and racism. All ideas that are foreign to him yet he moves through it.
Then, I take them back to the quote that titled the section:
One doesn’t forgo sleeping because of the possibility of nightmares.
Students have interpreted this to mean: One doesn’t give up living because there might be trouble.
I ask, “How do these chapters fit into this part? How does it fit with the whole?
They talk and write.
Later at the end of reading workshop, students finish up their discussions on their books. Two students approach.
“Mrs. Harmatz, we have two new questions we should ask during partner talk: How does this part fit in with the whole and why is this important?”
Whoa. What I’d been saying again and again in read aloud had sunk in just a little bit and transferred to their work. A few have gotten toeholds on the wall they need to climb.
This book is challenging in its structure and content. But perhaps, there lies the wisdom of this book choice.
We have to sort through the whys and hows. We have to fit the pieces together to make sense of it. And we do it together. That’s what a read aloud should do.
We have to think through the differences. We have to come to terms with ideas that disrupt our world view. That’s what literature should do.
Thank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Live Tuesday. You bring us together to write, to share, to connect. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara. Read more slices here.