This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch.
More often than not, I begin my fifth-grade English course with Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, a fantastic story about a young girl navigating the perils of family and friendships in New York City. The novel, full of complicated vocabulary, vivid detail, and complex literary devices, is always a hit with students and provides me with a rich mentor text for teaching everything from annotating to writing style. In many ways, it is the perfect way to start the year, as my students are instantly engaged in a story about a protagonist whose circumstances are so similar to their own. It is easy for my fifth graders to care about Cornelia, an independent school student growing up in New York City, in part because many of them see so much of themselves in her.
While a novel that is easy to connect with is the right way to start our year, by January students are ready to engage in a study of more diverse literature, and then I intentionally choose books whose protagonists are less instantly recognizable to the average American eleven-year old. Our spring syllabus begins with Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner, a novel set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As students at an all-girls school, my fifth graders are quick to point out the various injustices protagonist Parvana faces after the Taliban shut down her school, her mother loses her job at a radio station, and women all over Kabul are forbidden from leaving their homes without a male escort.
After processing their outrage, we begin to dig deeper into the history of Afghanistan, Islam, and the rise of the Taliban. Writing prompts and class discussions encourage students to look more closely at Parvana and Islam, and they begin to see a girl just like them—one who argues with her cranky older sister, feels misunderstood by her mother, and whose religion shares many similarities to their own. The value of studying diverse literature is never more apparent to me than when a room full of primarily Jewish and Christian students eagerly make observations about the overlap between their own religious practices and those of Muslims.
As their appreciation for Parvana’s culture and religion grows, my students start to chip away at the notion that different is inherently less valuable and develop an understanding of and respect for a more diverse set of cultures and beliefs. By the time we move onto our second title of the semester, Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg, they are better equipped to see not only similarities between themselves and the diverse characters they read about, but also to understand and investigate differences without automatically judging those differences.
Burg’s novel, written in verse, is set in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. Serafina is a young girl eager to go to school and become a doctor so that she can help her community. As with Parvana in The Breadwinner, students root for her success, condemning those who try to stand in the way of a young girl seeking education while celebrating characters who support, encourage, and motivate Serafina to achieve. Burg’s novel offers a tempting glimpse into Haiti’s music and culinary culture, and students come away from the text understanding that Haiti may be financially poor, but it is rich in appealing traditions and celebrations. This presents a striking dichotomy for those who are inclined to think money is necessary for achieving happiness and fulfillment.
Our final title of the spring term is Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai’s novel about a family who leaves Vietnam at the end of the war and must acclimate to their new lives in the United States during a period of history when Americans were not particularly eager to show kindness to Vietnamese immigrants. Our class conversations about this novel center primarily on the prejudice and stereotyping aimed at Ha, the novel’s young protagonist. Though friendly, smart, and kind, Ha looks and acts differently from her classmates, and she struggles for much of the story to find a group of people who will not only be civil toward her, but who might also accept and appreciate her unique perspective. When she is welcomed by a group of peers who notice what makes Ha different but don’t judge her for it, my students express relief and compassion, as this is, of course, what all people deserve.
Fifth graders can immediately identify the more simplistic issue here—it’s both unfair and unkind to judge someone for their differences—but over the course of our work with the novel, they become more introspective and self-reflective. It is my sense that their work with this novel, as well as the other diverse titles we read, leaves them ruminating on the roles—both small and large—that they play in their communities. I hope that exposing my students to diverse characters in literature helps them become more thoughtful, respectful, and appreciative of the differences they see in the people around them.
Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.