A first. One of my students sat in her desk on the front row literally dancing in her seat and said, “I couldn’t wait to get back from Christmas break so I could find out what happens in our story.” Wait. What? I’ve heard kids say they wanted to get back to see their friends, but for curriculum? But it happened. Right here in room 712.
I keep a running list of the books I read in my personal life, and I noticed, after recommending a few for a friend, that I love cross-cultural stories. A lot, apparently. A direct result of my reading habits is a decent knowledge of several cultures and/or events in history. Although most of the books I read are intended for adults, I decided to try adding literature to my social studies curriculum. This is nothing for an elementary school teacher, I know, but in the upper grades, not so much, in my experience. So, during our study of Africa, I began reading Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza aloud to my classes. Left to Tell is an autobiographical account of a woman who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide by hiding in a small bathroom for 91 days. I read from my Kindle everyday for the first fifteen minutes of class. Because I alone had the text, I could skip paragraphs and pages that either didn’t pertain to our unit or were too graphic for twelve-year-olds. The kids were hooked early on, begging for more each day. So many teachable moments arose from our reading. My students learned far more about Africa’s geography, European imperialism, civil war, genocide, ethnic differences, religion, economy and forgiveness than they ever could have from a social studies book, news articles, web pages or character education lessons. The story allowed them to build a schema connecting their world to one vastly different.
My favorite teachable moment came when I asked students what question they would ask Immaculee Ilibagiza if they could talk with her. Invariably, they said, “How could she forgive the men who killed her family?” I posed questions back to them, “What if she had not forgiven them? What are the implications for Rwanda as a country had she chosen hatred?” The class discussion about the cycle of violence many African nations face would not have happened had I just explained the genocide. Or if they had merely viewed a news report and then moved on.
Another benefit I found in this approach is the support I can offer the language arts teacher on my team. With Left to Tell I was able to reinforce their knowledge of the elements of plot and strengthen writing skills. Furthermore, piquing the students’ interest in Africa, genocide and Rwanda led them to seek related books for their individual reading.
Does reading a two-hundred-page book take time out of the “regular” curriculum? Yes. Was it worth the time spent? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Already am. We are reading Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo – a novel based on true-life Iqbal Masih, a child slave from Pakistan. Maybe I am late at discovering the value of a literature-based social studies classroom. Perhaps I should have read an article like this eighteen years ago. Whatever the case, I am enjoying this journey here in room 712.
Kendal Privette blogs at a spacious place