How do people’s differences keep them apart, and what strategies can be used to bring them together? These are the essential questions that guide our 5th grade humanities classes.
By studying past and present events, 5th graders are introduced to real world problems. We aim to create projects and experiences for these students that allow them to build their skills while tackling big issues. Throughout the year, 5th graders come to realize that there is much work to be done. With each new unit, our essential questions feel more and more relevant to the world we live in.
So, what kind of questions do we ask students to ponder? We ask many. Our refugee unit is a good example of this. Who can become a refugee? Who should take care of refugees? Why are some governments and people reluctant to help refugees? What countries are accepting refugees and which ones are not? Why do refugee camps exist? These are just some of the questions that are discussed during this unit. Students first learn the definition of a refugee and then engage in a lesson on the Syrian Refugee Crisis as a case study. By watching videos, reading articles, and taking part in simulations, students begin to understand how people are displaced and the dilemmas that we, as people in a global society, need to confront.
After presenting students with these facts and problems, we introduce them to six different novels with main characters who are refugees. Students rate what books they would be interested in reading, and we form six different book groups that highlight stories from refugees around the world. While continuing to develop their reading skills, students build empathy for these refugee characters on a personal level.
After reading and discussing with their groups, students work in pairs to create a poster that spotlights the book they read. Students are asked to creatively express the themes, symbols, and problems of the story through art and design. They are also tasked to review the book, to define who refugees are, and comment on how they feel the displaced should be treated. In this way, students collaborate, create, read, write, draw, and connect the themes from the novel to the history and current events they learned before reading their books. As students integrate their learning across skill and content areas, profound and deep understanding occurs that is likely to last for many years.
As a finale, students display their posters all around the classroom and everyone quietly reads and writes comments for each other. Immediately following this exercise, students are able to check out the other refugee books that they did not read. This process not only allows students to read about additional refugee experiences, but also continues to foster the love of reading in the classroom.
To close our refugee unit, we read the book Inside Out and Back Again as a class. It is a novel written in verse about a girl named Ha and her family who flee war in Vietnam to come to America in 1975. Why does Ha struggle to become accepted in America? Why do the other children treat her so unfairly? Why do people call her “pancake face,” make fun of her religion, and throw bricks through her family’s window? We close the book by trying to answer these questions. We also examine the strategies that Ha’s family used to try to build connections with their new community members, and we brainstorm some possible strategies that could have succeeded in helping Ha and her family acclimate to their new life in America.
At the same time, 5th graders know that there is an intense international discourse around immigration and refugees today. The road to real change starts on the interpersonal level. What lessons can we learn from Ha’s experience that are relevant to our world’s biggest problems? These are real issues that adults are dealing with today and the 5th graders know this. Thus, we can say that the work we do in 5th grade is the work that we must all do as Americans and global citizens to make the world a better place.
Nathan Tanaka, Fifth Grade Humanities Teacher