An important skill readers use to comprehend a text is to make personal connections to it by accessing their own background knowledge. We link what we are reading to what we already know by making text-to-self, text-to-text (text-to-media), and text-to-world connections. As I design my 6th-grade reading class, I want my students to connect not only to the books we read but also to other people and their experiences. I want them to recognize that reading and writing help us develop empathy for others. Reading and writing deepen our understanding of experiences we might not personally have. When we read and write, we are not only making connections with the text but also making connections to people’s experiences.
To help my students connect with the texts and with the lives of people from different backgrounds I have selected books from around the world that address global issues. We begin making these connections when the boys read the assigned summer text: Andrea Warren’s Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. Surviving Hitler tells the true story of Jack Mandelbaum, a 12-year-old boy taken prisoner during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The story serves as an excellent introduction to the Holocaust and the boys really connect with Jack. The book ties in nicely with the theme of conflict studied in our sixth-grade social studies classes.
In the first trimester of the school year, the boys read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars in a small group with Mrs. Parker and Anne Holm’s I Am David in a small group with me. The characters in these books are easily accessible to 6th graders and the boys make connections with many of the experiences in the stories. After reading each book the boys complete a project where they make stronger, personal connections with the book. In my class we focus on making strong text-to-self connections while reading I Am David, and our work culminates in an “I Am” project where the boys create a 3-D metaphorical monument that represents their connections to the experiences of David.
For the second trimester, all the boys return to my room for core group reading. (Alice teaches small group reading with fifth grade.) We focus our study on human rights reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis and making connections to the South African apartheid novel Journey to Jo’burgby Beverley Naidoo. With these books, we focus on making strong text-to-text connections between, and the boys show an understanding of how global the problems of racism and discrimination are. My students are privileged people, but I’m impressed with how deeply they connect to the struggles of the characters in our books. They also have a strong sense of justice and develop feelings of empathy for those facing injustice. Their compassion is inspiring. Currently, the boys are designing their own project-based learning as they move from connecting with someone’s experience to taking action to help that person in need.
During the last trimester, my students will have more choice over what they read and how they approach each book. I have selected several works I think the guys will enjoy including The Giver by Lois Lowry, Nothing But the Truth by Avi, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen, and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. (I’m considering adding a few others so please let me know if you have suggestions.) After I introduce each book, the boys will select which book they want to read and organize a “book club” that they will plan and lead. I’ll occasionally sit in on face-to-face book club meetings as a visitor, but also I’ll primarily keep up with their discussions through the Livescribe pencasts they’ll share in Edmodo as they go. A primary goal of their book club discussions will be making text-to-world connections as they read and discuss the novels.
The class design helps students connect to the experiences of others. However, the course needs further development in actually connecting with people beyond our classroom. In the future, I want to use Skype, the Global Read Aloud, and blogging as ways to connect with people around the world. Instead of reading about apartheid-era South Africa, I’d like my students to connect with South Africans living in and striving to overcome the prolonged effects of apartheid. My hope is that someday my students will not only be making connections to our books, but they’ll be making life-changing connections with others.
What’s your opinion on these ideas? What are some more ways that I can help my students better connect with others and better understand the human experience?