After we’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird…
After we’ve read Great Expectations…
After we’ve read When We Get There and The Secret Life of Bees and Cold Sassy Tree or any of a number of other stories about coming of age in America, I ask my students: Is growing up the same in other countries and cultures? In other cultures, is there a specific age at which you are declared to be an adult? Is there an event, like a Quinceanera, to signify the passage from childhood to adulthood? Does it take a “confrontation experience”—like Jem’s encounter with the truth about the justice system—to push you into adulthood? Does reaching majority in other cultures bring entitlements—a driver’s license, the right to vote, responsibility for your debts? Or is the growing up process a gradual one, a transition that occurs naturally over time and is unmarked by ritual, decree, or event?
What’s it like to come of age in other lands?
This is International Education week—just the right time to describe one of my favorite assignments—and one my students have always liked as well. I call the assignment “International Fair.”
The students’ first task is to select a book, fiction or non-fiction, about growing up in another country or about someone from an ethnic or cultural minority coming of age in this country. In my classroom, I have a shelf of books about young people in other countries—or immigrants and refugees in this country—and many more books are in our school library. Our media specialist helps me out by pulling the books ahead of time so kids can find them quickly and peruse them easily until they find one they like.
Next, each student creates a stand-alone, 3-sided poster—the kind that is used for science fair projects. The goal is to create a poster that makes the story as appealing as possible, but at the same time conveys something of the history and culture of the country portrayed in the book.
The poster must include
1. Author’s name and title
2. A summary of the book (about 300 words)
3. Two maps—one of the country where the story takes place with the city or region highlighted and one of the continent in which the country is located.
4. A paragraph about the history of the country during the time period of the book (again, about 300 words)
5. A paragraph about pertinent religious or cultural characteristics of the particular cultural group described in the book OR a description of the relevant cultural characteristics of the country overall if the main character is not from an ethnic minority (not to exceed 300 words)
6. A bulleted list of at least 5 differences and at least 5 similarities between a teenager growing up in Indiana and the character in the book.
7. A comparison table showing the following pieces of information about the country or region compared to the United States:
- Number of square miles
- Literacy rate
- Gross domestic product
- Per capita income
- Average life span (m & f)
But there can be more: Students sometimes include photographs, symbols, clothing, 3-D objects or pictures of objects, or decorations that capture the feel of the country. They may include important sayings or proverbs from the culture, quotes from the book, other pertinent maps, or even their own assessment of the book or recommendations for other books with a similar theme.
The most successful posters are eye-catching and colorful, but even a student with little talent in art can create an appealing poster with some help from a computer and just the most basic understanding of design. I give the students these simple directions: Type your paragraphs, keep the design uncomplicated, use construction paper to frame the typed paragraphs, and be consistent with the fonts and point size.
On the day the posters are due, we set them up in the library and students give book talks about the work they’ve read. I want them not only to summarize the story, but to connect the dots between the story they have read and the demographics, historical facts, and other statistical information they have gleaned. I ask them to expand upon the similarities and differences that they have noted between themselves and the characters in the book. Sometimes—for extra credit—they’ll offer their classmates “international fare”—regional food that they’ve prepared themselves (Parents have to sign a form indicating that their child actually prepared the food. I am not interested in giving Mom or Dad extra credit.)
Invariably, the students’ lists of similarities and differences are the most interesting part of the presentation. Depending upon what they’ve read, the students notice differences in family relationships, in family size, in the size of American homes versus homes in other countries. They’ll see disparities in possessions, in schooling, in opportunities. They’ll see differences in wealth, in medical care, in the availability of food; differences in transportation, occupations, and expectations. Some are surprised, even shocked by what they learn because some of these stories are violent and horrifying. Some are just plain sad. Resilience is a common theme. But for the most part, students also discover similarities between themselves and the person they are reading about, and those commonalities allow them to identify with the characters.
The individuals in the stories my students read have families that, like their own, love them, occasionally smother them, sometimes annoy them, always are important to them. They encounter teenagers from far away who also have dreams and aspirations; characters who respond to injustice and inequity just as they do; young men and women who are disappointed, delighted, rewarded or punished, teased or tolerated, loved or hated. They find kindred spirits in people from other countries—and learn that stereotypes are just that and outward appearances can be deceiving. In short, they learn that what makes us human—our emotional responses to the people and events in our lives—is common to all of us, no matter where we grow up.
In the past, the posters have remained in the library for a month or so—long enough for other students to see them and perhaps be enticed to read one of the books for themselves. But even if their classmates don’t choose to check out a book, the posters attract attention and alert other students to a world larger than the one they know. As for my students, reading a book about someone from another country helps them learn an opposite and important truth: The world is actually much smaller than they might have supposed.
In case you’d like to try this for yourself, here are the books on my shelf. You’ll need to check the reading levels and match the book with the particular student. Some of these are adult books, suitable for advanced readers; others are for middle schoolers. If you know of a title I haven’t listed, please add to my list by commenting below. I’m always on the lookout for another good book.
|Roots and Wings||Many Ly||Cambodian-American|
|Spud||John Vander Ruit||South Africa|
|Power of One||Bryce Courtenay||South Africa|
|A Thousand Splendid Suns||Khalid Hosseini||Afghanistan|
|The Kite Runner||Khalid Hosseini||Afghanistan|
|Bless Me, Ultima||Rudolfo A. Anaya||Hispanic/New Mexico|
|China Boy||Guss Lee||Chinese-American|
|In the Time of the Butterflies||Julia Alverez||Dominican Republic|
|Yo!||Julia Alverez||Dominican Republic|
|How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents||Julia Alverez||Dominican Republic/ America|
|In the Name of Salome||Julia Alverez||Dominican Republic|
|The Namesake||Jhumpa Lamiri||Indian-American|
|The Poisonwood Bible||Barbara Kingsolver||Congo|
|The Syringa Tree||Pamela Gien||South Africa|
|The Invisible Thread||Yoshiko Uchida||Japanese-American|
|When My Name was Keoko||Linda Sue Park||Korea|
|The Joy Luck Club||Amy Tan||China & Chinese/American|
|Habibi||Naomi hihab Nye||Israel/Palestine|
|Snow Falling on Cedars||David Guterman||Japanese-American|
|Farewell to Manzanar||Jeane Houston||Japanese-American|
|Zoli||Colum McCann||Romani in Eastern Europe|
|Swimming in the Monsoon Sea||Shyam Selvadurai||Sri Lanka|
|Stealing Buddha’s Dinner||Bich Minh Nguyen||Vietnamese-American|
|The House at Sugar Beach||Helene Cooper||Liberia|
|First They Killed My Father||Loung Ung||Cambodia|
|They Took My Father||Mayme Sevander||USSR|
|The Lost Boys of the Sudan||Mark Bixler||Sudan/Kenya/Ethiopia|
|There is No Me without You||Melissa Fay Greene||Ethiopia|
|They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky||Deng, Deng, and Ajax||Sudan/Kenya/Ethiopia|
|When I Was Puerto Rican||Esmeralda Santiago||Puerto Rican-American|
|Leaving Mother Lake||Yang Namu||China (Moso culture)|
|The Endless Steppe||Esther Hautzig||USSR|
|Growing Up in Moscow||Kathy Young||USSR|
|The Diary of a Young Girl||Anne Frank||Nazi-occupied Holland|
|The Children of Willesden Lane||Mona Golabek||England during WWII (Jewish refugees: kindertransport)|
|All But My Life||Gerda Weismann Klein||Nazi Germany|
|The Bite of the Mango||Mariatu Kamara||Sierra Leone|
|A Long Way Gone||Ishmael Beah||Sierra Leone|
|The Kids from Nowhere||George Guthridge||Eskimos in Alaska|
|Lipstick Jihad||Azadeh Moareni||Iran|
|The Price of Stones||Twesigye Kaguri||Uganda|
|A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English||Shappi Khorsandi||Iran/England|