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by Kylie Walker - 5th grade educator/assistant administrator

At Sycamore, one of the ways we invite students to engage with literature and practice reading skills is through book groups - similar to book clubs that many adults participate in. While learning to read and building fluency are important skills in elementary school, book groups can offer students much more than that. Our focus at Sycamore is more vast and holistic, and invites students to experience reading and learning in a whole new way.

This semester, students in 5th grade are reading one of two books. When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed or The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis. When Stars Are Scattered follows a main character named Omar, a refugee from Somalia, navigating his life in a Kenyan refugee camp due to a civil war that is raging in his home country. The Mighty Miss Malone is about a 12 year old girl and her family who struggle through and overcome difficult times during The Great Depression.

Beyond practicing reading skills, what is the value of book groups?

  • Learning about different perspectives and experiences

Through reading and discussing novels, students are given a window into someone else’s life and experiences. They are offered the opportunity to be exposed to and learn about other ways of living, other’s challenges and successes, and a chance to think about situations in a different way than they might have before. Students also reflect on what perspectives we might be missing, and what others’ experience might bring to the whole picture. Here are some student thoughts:

“It would be totally different if it was a white man versus Deza Malone’s perspective. It helps you understand more about [the time period]. I would like it if this book had another perspective too, because we’re only getting hers. We only get one African American perspective, so we don’t know what the experience was like for everyone.” -L.T.

“I feel they could have added a few more perspectives of other people to know how it went for them, not just this one family. I learned that there were some jobs that only white people could get.” -K.L.

  • Practicing and building skills in compassion and empathy

As students hear other perspectives, they have the opportunity to practice empathy - or relating to the feelings that other people experience. This is especially helpful when students may not relate to the exact event, but have in fact felt a similar feeling or emotion. If they can’t relate, we practice imagining what it might feel like and how we might act in a similar situation.

“I want to succeed and do well, like her. I feel like I can relate to her in school. She really wants to get her work done. I can relate in terms of the fact that she is really hard on herself to succeed.” - K.L.

“Imagine killing your child by accident because you didn’t know you had to cook flour. That’s so sad!” -B.B.

  • Geography - learning about new places and how people live there

Before beginning the novels, we took some time to explore maps in order to learn more about the setting of our stories. One of the stories takes place in Gary, Indiana and the other in Kenya. We explored the map of the United States, and discussed the potential differences between Indiana and where we live in California. We used the map to talk about the geography of both places and make comparisons between them. In the other group, we used a world map to find the continent of Africa. Afterwards, we compared that to where we are currently in the United States. Then, we zoomed in to the countries of Somalia and Kenya to discuss the landscape, potential resources there, and the journey that refugees may have taken to arrive into their current country of residence. We compared what life might be like there compared to our life here. To support this understanding, we did a bit of research about Somalia and Kenya and learned more about the current refugee situation in the world.

  • Exploring new cultures

Students also have the opportunity to learn about various cultures both similar and different from their own. They can form a picture of what life is like in other places and consider factors that affect cultures. An example of this was considering how time and place played a role in the culture of the United States during the Great Depression. Students also gain exposure in different languages, beliefs and values, and social conventions. Students experienced this while learning that Somali and Kenyan culture is very different from our own such as the language spoken, the religion practiced, social norms, and the overall day to day life.

“Something I learned is that there is a language called Somali; I didn’t even know that existed. It makes me think about all of the other countries that have languages I’ve never heard of too.” -S.J.J.

“We learned that [Somolians] had to move to refugee camps. We learned that refugee camps were boring for Omar and Hassan, that they have limited food, and they sleep in tents on the ground. We learned that refugee camps probably aren’t the best place to live. I feel bad for them because they have to live through that. Many don’t have parents because they died and kids have to imagine that they would find their parents again and they have to live with that feeling. It probably sucks and it’s so sad. And they have to protect their things and themselves. They are trapped in this area.” -B.B.

  • Learning new vocabulary

Students have the opportunity to learn new words which they can add to their vocabulary for future use.

“I think it helps being in a group because if I don’t know what a word means, we can discuss it and learn about it together. We learn about new vocabulary” -E.C.

  • Synthesis of information and deeper discussion which leads to better understanding

By reading out loud, and pausing to ask questions, students gain a deeper understanding of the content. They are able to discuss inference, share predictions, and talk about events that might have been confusing or unclear to them. Our collective knowledge is more powerful than our individual knowledge.

“We can help each other to synthesize the book. ‘I think that this means this, but I’m unsure because…’ or ‘I agree with you because…’ We share our opinions and understand it better than if we were reading alone.” -L.T.

“I think I learn a lot more than being an individual because we can discuss and share together.” -E.C.

  • History - Time and Place

Reading historical fiction novels allows students to learn about moments and events from the past while providing it in a context of someone’s real life (or partially created) experience. Making observations of historical events can allow us to reflect on past decisions and cultural norms which we can use to discuss what is currently happening in our world. It gives students a lens to look through while learning about factual information. Because historical fiction novels often provide limited perspectives, it offers an opportunity to consider the missed perspectives that may not be present in the context of the history we are learning about.

“In this book we are learning more about black history and other time periods. Everyone has different perspectives and opinions and we get to share and discuss them.” -E.C.

“I really like how it helps us learn more about the Great Depression and African American history by reading about someone’s perspective during that time. -L.T.

“I learned that during that time the highest paid jobs for blacks were dangerous such as getting in a furnace to fix it, which is why he (one of the characters) was called steel lung.” -K.L.

  • Finding the joy of reading - seeing it in a new way

Lastly, we hope book groups allow students to enjoy reading in a low pressure environment. Directing the focus to the learning that comes from deep discussion and critical thinking about the information versus the skill of reading itself allows students to engage with reading in a different way. We can utilize reading as a resource to learn about others, practice empathizing and understanding, listening, and reflecting on the things we digest. The amazing thing about book groups is that while students are gaining skills and experiences in all of these important areas above, they ARE also practicing reading itself. When students can learn to love to read, the window of opportunity for learning emerges.

“I used to not like reading. But now with book groups and silent reading, I like to read.” B.B.


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