In Language Arts 1, we are reading literature slowly, deliberately, and deeply. We're also reading to develop our social-emotional learning.
This block, we are reading Lois Lowry's classic, Number the Stars. The book is set in German-occupied Denmark, and tells the story of one family's escape to safety, once their young daughter is given safe harbor from the Nazis. Our reading material marks a change for us in Language Arts 1, and is introducing students to seminar-style discussions of literature and to close reading skills.
While we have read short stories and non-fiction, this is our first novel. It's terrifically written, threading the needle of speaking to the horrors of the Holocaust without indulging gratuitously in violence or needlessly peddling fear to capture our emotions. It's honest and historically informed, and captures the larger story of a state-wide rescue of approximately 92% of Danish Jews in 1943. This is literature that gives us a ground-floor perspective on living in history, giving us an opportunity for empathetic reading while learning to read analytically.
However well-researched and well-written, Number the Stars is still literature. There is plenty of understandable dissent from scholars, survivors, and advocates that the Holocaust shouldn't be introduced through a work of fiction. The Holocaust, after all, isn't fiction, however delicately told.
That is why our first days this block focused on history. We surveyed what students already knew about World War II before digging into its history, made alive by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The USHMM has an abundance of teaching materials for every age, from very young children to adult scholars, with maps, videos, and artifacts. We also welcomed a professor from USF's Jewish Study and Social Justice Program, and who has worked with secondary school students as part of the "Beyond Bridges: Israel-Palestine" program, to help us better understand the history surrounding World War II.
These early days of the block helped students understand that our book, as a work of fiction that gets at historical significance, is really a representation, and therefore we really do need to read it metaphorically. Knowing historical context helps us understand the book's arc, and it helps us read deeply and closely. To do that, we arrange the desks each day into a big seminar table, where we are better able to see one another while we respond to both the text and to each other's ideas. The seminar format, often based on the Harkness Table, is a development on the Socratic Method.
To help students understand what close reading is, and why it matters, I asked students to take us to a scene they thought was particularly important to the book. One student offered up a scene in which two girls find a familiar shop closed, with a new padlock on the door and a sign posted in German. The passage, with its mention of locks and signs, was brimming with the best kind of metaphor: one that is both physical and symbolic.
We read the passage aloud, and then spiraled back through the passage sentence by sentence, circling what seemed to be keywords. We defined them and discussed their literal significance, but we also wanted to think about their symbolic resonance. From there, we leveraged our Block 1 activity of making word clouds with synonyms to think more abstractly. We asked:
- What else is "closed," symbolically to these girls in this book?
- Why might the new padlock be a metaphor for how these girls experience the German occupation?
- What do you think it means that these girls understood the sign was in German, but didn't know the words?
As we came up with ideas for each keyword, and related those keywords to the larger story of the book, we took time to write down our thoughts—in the book. This was surprising to many students, even more so when I invited them to write in ink. It's important that students are able to take ownership of their learning, and writing in the book, even in ink, is one way for them to know this book is theirs, that their ideas are worth noting down, and that they can track their thinking alongside their reading. These thoughts will form the basis of their writing assignment this block: a close reading of the book, which has its roots in the French explication de texte.
These methods of "reading in the margins" are really methods of engagement, ways that physically manifest what so many technologies are after these days: interactivity. But writing our ideas in the margins, filling the voids of a book with our questions and ideas, is also a nice reminder that a book isn't literature until we note it, process it, and think about it. It's a nice reminder that a book without a reader forever remains closed, that the story it tells would have no ears and no eyes to fall on. Without a reader, a book is simply an inert object. It needs us to open it, and it needs us to do more than allow its words to wash over us. It's especially true of a book like Number the Stars.
A work of literature like Lois Lowry's can leave a mark on us as readers, that much is true. But we, too, can leave our mark in it.