Challenging Students To Connect Literature
To The World Around Them
A truly teachable moment, as they say, is unplanned and occurs on the spur of the moment. On any given day, a student can come up with an idea or a comment can be made during a literature discussion that sparks an interest that eventually leads to an experience that’s never to be forgotten – by the students or by the teacher herself. As an educator with over 16 years of experience, each day is vastly unique.
The topic of the Holocaust has always been an integral part of my 6th grade curriculum; however, three years ago, I began to implement the autobiographical book Children of Terror written by Bozenna Urbanowitz Gilbride and Inge Auerbacher, into my existing unit. The story documents two outwardly different children; yet highlights the similarities they shared growing up during World War II. It created an opportunity for me to teach my students that those who they may feel that they have nothing in common with could surprise them. The first section of the book is identified by a large cross on an otherwise blank page. Students were told to remember this symbol as we would discuss its significance and relevance later. As we began to study the first portion of the book, my students read and annotated the story of Bozenna and the details of her childhood as a young Catholic Polish girl affected by the Holocaust in her small village of Leonowka, Poland. As we read orally in class each day, my students became fascinated with the nonfiction story. Often, our reading would stop to allow for questions and valuable discussions on culture, religion, and the family unit; all of which are chronicled in the story. At the end of each chapter, which is aptly titled in regard to the setting, my students took a moment to create a bullet point list of highlights from the particular section. This way, going back to reference certain scenes and events would be easier. Additionally, students labeled family members and locations that actual photographs depicted in each chapter. My goal was to have them fully engaged with the text and not to see just words on a page during a class lesson, but to really get to know the characters they were reading about and to invest emotion in the story. In the end, it is so much more meaningful to a student. All the while, I saw my class beginning to feel as if they truly knew the characters that we were reading about. They expressed their sorrow, their shock, and even their anger regarding how people were treated.
Next, we came to the Star of David symbol and we began Inge’s story. As a young German Jewish girl, Inge also was affected in many similar ways by the Holocaust and the challenge for my students to think outside the box was alive and well. At first, even though the population of my students is about 50% Christian and 50% Jewish, I found that most had no idea that Christians, specifically Catholics, were in any way affected by the Holocaust. They began to connect literature to the real world and literature to real lives. So, I incorporated letter writing into the unit. Students learn and practice the skill of writing a friendly letter including the appropriate structure. Each year, Bozenna and Inge receive an envelope of 40-50 heartfelt letters written by the students themselves. Through the letters, students have the chance to question and comment about what they are studying to the authors directly. I cannot even describe their faces when responses to each are received a few weeks later from the authors. When students see their learning come to life they appreciate it more. It is different than assigning something to be read and administering an objective test on the material. The true learning experience is when students see the worth and value of their new knowledge in their daily life. The opportunity to read and study Children of Terror and to then write personal letters to the authors has become a staple of my curriculum that parents and students alike, look forward to on a yearly basis.
When students are able to see each other as people, they respond in mutual respect for one another. Bozenna has said it several times, “If you want respect, behave in a respectful way. If you want peace, behave in a peaceful way.” Students wholeheartedly want respect and peace on earth. To a student, it seems to be that simple. To a teacher, it is much more complicated. However, it is important for more teachers to be unafraid to challenge students to think outside of the box, to consider all perspectives, and to encourage a new way of looking at the world around them.
Finally, while Bozenna was touring the Florida area recently, she once again met with my students. They were able to shake her hand, to embrace her, and to take photographs with her. As her visit was coming to a close, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I stood in the hallway. I turned around and found a female student of mine with tears in her eyes. All that she wanted to tell me was “thank you”.
– Danielle T. Lyon
M.S. Reading Grades K-12
B.S. Primary & Elementary Education Grades K-6