A few weeks ago, we gathered the middle school students and advisors together and began to read Fish, by L.S. Matthews. Reading aloud is not uncommon in middle school, but on this particular day, we joined with hundreds of classrooms and thousands of students around the world. The Global Read Aloud for 2015 was launched.
Each spring, under the leadership of a seventh grade English teacher in Wisconsin named Pernille Ripp, books that cover a wide range of interests are announced as the Global Read Aloud choices. As a middle school, we have many choices because we can pick from the younger or older ends of the spectrum. Our faculty discuss the options in June, and then read them quickly, and have a summer discussion by email to make our final choice.
This year’s story is told in simple language yet is tackling a timely and difficult set of issues. Fish is the story of a young child, called Tiger, who is living in a war torn country where Tiger’s parents are relief workers. The family is forced to make a difficult evacuation under the care of a guide. Just before departure, Tiger finds a fish in a vanishing pond in the village, and proceeds to rescue the fish and carry it along, as the family makes its journey to safety.
We made our book choice before the refugee crisis in Europe was front page news, and this is giving our experience reading the book together a relevance we had not anticipated. In addition, though, the story is one of altruism and kindness. Older students have been thinking about human nature, itself, as they discuss how people will help others, even at risk to themselves. They have also been interested in discussing what causes conflict in countries, and why some areas seem to be more filled with strife than others. The younger children have been coming back to the realization that they are very lucky to live in such comparative safety.
Amidst the serious topics come the fun, excitement and connection of working with people from far away who are contemplating the same big questions. One way students connect is by using the class Twitter accounts. For Global Read Aloud, each week begins a “slow chat,” as classes post to #GRAFish, or, for a particular week, by adding the week number. This week’s slow chat can be found at #GRAFish3, for example.
When tackling a tough topic, we always work to couple the serious information with heartening examples of people who help. In this case, advisors showed the TED Talk by Melissa Fleming, who is the Head of Communications for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. While she knows first hand from the refugees how difficult their lives are, she also brings a human face to them through the anecdotes of her work. She makes the point that providing education for refugees is critically important and that there is a global responsibility to helping refugees. Advisors plan to make contact with a refugee support organization in the UK, called RedR. Their organization, which works in 101 countries, has offered to set up a Skype call for a student interview.
Personal reflection is important whenever students work with literature, and the Global Read Aloud book provides this opportunity too. After we read the first chapter, we passed out index cards and asked the students to draw– a visual form of note taking– some of the images that the first chapter brought to mind. We’ll have them do this again, after we finish the book. Our sixth graders have written about an object they would choose to take with them if they were departing their homes suddenly. Our seventh and eighth graders will connect their experience of hearing Fish to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Among other concepts, Fish shows its readers many instances of kindness and generosity. Today, some of our advisories celebrated Random Acts of Kindness Day, by leaving uplifting notes in surprising places, doing some small cleaning and tidying around the building, and looking for the good deeds of others to celebrate. We like to think the concept will stick and carry into the future.