Tuesday, April 1, 2014

B: Books and the Power of Stories to Transform Lives

Have you ever had a book change your life?  I did.  This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!!   Please enjoy.  :)
Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one.  The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana.  As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust.  In the next chapter, we meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club.  In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko understood correctly that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.  That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so began a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.
Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter.  So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members at the end of the book.  
As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature.  In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too.  My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books.  Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.  
As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students.  There are, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more.  The books in our classroom span a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there is something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond.  Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.  It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too.   However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine.  My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career.

Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it.  :)

My classroom is loaded with books.  I have them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre.  For example, I have a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on.  My standard classroom practice has become to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arises for them.  However, whenever I start a new Unit of study in the classroom, I will pull those books out from wherever they are and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happens to be.  As I pull these books out, I will hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they become familiar with them.   My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day.  In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan.  As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go.   So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario.  I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes.  When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved.  The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over.  I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true.  This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn.  They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks.
So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank.  So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me.  In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story.  I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I keep books that I like but that I don’t feel Grade 2s are ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class.    This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books.  I said that I would.  And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either.  So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too.  I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look the books over during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures.   I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.
Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana.  Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks.  There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust.  But, Kaicey continued to stand there.

”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes.  Will you help me, pleaseeee!”

I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal.
So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.  That first day, she read three and a half pages.  We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady.  She answered.  I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read.  I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow.   In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady.
So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her.  She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.  
Well, we were about 20 pages in when Remembrance Day came and went.  Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase.   I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through.  So liked that idea.
Over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amidst the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book.   Normally, under such circumstances, such an event would be cause for celebration.  It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end.  While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and students in the course of our academic affairs.
So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust.  I expected her to take the book.  But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come.   So, reluctantly, I took the book back.
The story would have ends there if not for some fortuitous timing.  Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine!  I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion.  At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience.  Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her.  Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.    
Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book well, it had never occurred to me until that very moment.   So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would, if I got the actual author to autograph a copy for her.  I didn’t have my copy on hand so I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy.  Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall so I immediately contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do.  Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help.  I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.
About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book.  Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note.  The note read:  ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special.  Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too.  Keep up your interest in reading.    Yours truly, Karen Levine.”
I contacted Kaicey's mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey's mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled.  I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.
That experience happened several years ago. But, thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!”  A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career. As part of her birthday wish on Facebook, Kaicey sent the following photo and comment, "Signature. Always Remember it says. 7 years later and I haven't forgotten a single sentence!"   She still has the book, the bookmark it came with, a letter from the publishing company and, even, the envelop it all came in from the Post Office!   Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it.  Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach.  It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 26 year teaching career.
Good books are important.  A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever.  
Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish?  If so, do share.  I’d love to hear your stories, too

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