A previous AISL article, “Exploring Our National Treasures,” highlighted the rich learning experiences that can be accessed through our national museums. This article will describe a successful collaboration that grew from relationships with local organizations in Houston, Texas. As a member of the AISL organization, I value the many ways that independent school librarians across the United States and Canada network to provide ideas and best practices for promoting literacy. But there is a special connection that forms within our local librarian communities. The Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network (HAISLN) brings together librarians who share ideas as well as serve on committees to recommend book titles for the HAISLN Recommended Reading Lists. In January, HAISLN organized an opportunity to build collaborations through a meeting held at the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH). Librarians were encouraged to bring a teacher from their school, and together they toured the museum and learned about the museum’s educational outreach programs.
My school’s 7th grade ELA teacher, Dr. Matthew Panozzo, joined me for this HMH presentation, and we were impressed by the Digital Curriculum Trunks. HMH loans these trunks to schools so that students can read a variety of books about the Holocaust experience, and curricular resources are provided to deepen students’ understanding. As Dr. Panozzo and I toured the HMH museum, we excitedly discussed the possibility of broadening students’ understanding and empathy. The 7th graders had been exploring themes of social justice, and a class trip to HMH was planned in support of reading Elie Wiesel’s book Night. What if students read an additional book presenting the Holocaust experience and students were challenged to write a persuasive letter to an authentic audience, such as the HMH museum? With the identified audience in mind, students would propose the inclusion of their chosen book for the Digital Curriculum Trunks through 1) a brief book summary; 2) personal connections to the book; and 3) suggested classroom extension activities. This letter-writing component would provide a meaningful goal for the students’ independent reading and deepen student engagement.
Students sampled possible fiction and nonfiction titles in a “book tasting,” and they submitted a google form of their top three books along with a brief explanation of their interest in the book titles. Through our school library’s print and ebook collection, most students were matched with book titles that presented a variety of voices and experiences of the Holocaust–without requiring students to purchase their own copies. This drove home the point to students that our school was privileged to have such wonderful resources–the HMH Digital Curriculum Trunks provide resources to schools that need book resources or that wish to expand their own classroom library reading materials.
Here is a sample letter for the book The Light in Hidden Places that was shared with students.
The students’ letters identified a variety of themes and personal connections. Highlighted below are a few of the students’ connections and suggested extension activities.
The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron
Themes: Strengths of sisterhood and friendship.
Personal Connection: Fear–”breaking out in a sweat” while reading tense scenes.
Extension Activity: Draw an apartment space to hide Jews and note necessities, such as
access to food, water, sanitation, etc.
Alias Anna by Greg Dawson and Susan Hood
Theme: Importance of family and staying true to oneself and one’s passions (talent for music).
Personal Connection: Historical story takes place in Ukraine, and it reminds one of current struggles and conflicts in Ukraine.
Extension Activity: Create own alias and personal motivation (example: the character Zhanna took as her alias the name “Anna” and she was motivated to stay “Alive.”) Create a poster to visualize your alias and motivation.
Resistance by Jennifer Nielsen
Theme: Courage, but also “feelings of guilt that come with saving yourself instead of others, even if it is the logical and safe thing to do.”
Personal Connection: Teenage point of view of the main character seemed authentic–conflicting emotions of difficult relationships and missing a family member or friend.
Extension Activity: Cast the fictional characters in the book and describe why a particular actor or actress would best convey the book character.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Theme: Personal loss, importance of building “new family” and friend relationships.
Personal Connection: Voice of the narrator, Death, helps the reader to better visualize and empathize with the characters and conflicts.
Extension Activity: What Would You Do? Step into one of the scenes of conflict in the book and discuss how you might have intervened or reacted to Nazi persecutions of the Jews.
Dr. Panozzo shared the following reflection about the value of this independent reading and persuasive letter-writing project:
When it comes to teaching reading, it is important to provide students with multiple entry-points to learn about a topic. Visiting Holocaust Museum Houston, reading the class novel Night, and students selecting their own books provided various opportunities for students to engage with the horrors of the Holocaust. But it wasn’t just about learning of the devastation; it was about finding their role in always remembering to never forget. This project inspired a sense of hope as they read about the different ways families and friends looked after each other. This project helped us see the injustices of our world through a lens of the past, offering clarity in uncertain and unsettling times. Lastly, this project allowed students to take up the baton of teaching our rich history to others.
This collaborative project was an experience of serendipity; we discovered “treasures” in our own community. We are thankful to the HAISLN organization that made possible our visit with HMH, and we are grateful for the HMH program, the Digital Curriculum Trunks that promote understanding of the Holocaust. And, we are thankful to our students who embraced this opportunity to connect with the important themes of justice.