Hewitt News

Research, Empathy, and History in Sixth Grade English
Launa Schweizer, Head of Middle School

Today, the sixth grade began work on a research project to prepare themselves to read the young adult novel Refugee by Alan Gratz.

In the story, to quote Gratz himself, “Josef, a young Jewish boy, escapes Nazi Germany in 1939 with his family aboard a ship bound for Cuba. Isabel, a young Cuban girl, runs away from Fidel Castro and hunger riots with her family aboard a homemade boat bound for Florida in 1994. Mahmoud, a young Muslim boy, flees the Civil War in Syria for Germany by car, boat, train, and foot with his family in 2015.” The story, with its child protagonists, illustrates connections that link the stories of refugees across history.

This book has quickly become a staple for middle school English classrooms. It is deeply readable. As Grade 6 English teacher Lael Jacobs said, “Many students find that they can’t put it down.” But before they even picked it up, Jacobs worked closely with our librarian Erik Sommer to teach research skills and to allow the students to inform themselves about the historical context.

The purpose of this research was to help them to understand and empathize with the plight of the three young protagonists.

The students divided into groups to research the historical leaders and followers caught up in these three historical moments. Some students asked specifically to research particular topics, or not to research particular topics.

Some students found that particular historical moments were vitally important to them because they relate closely to their own family history. Others preferred to research topics that were not so personal. With grace and insight, Ms. Jacobs helped them to find topics they were eager to research. Mr. Sommer showed the students how to access the school’s catalog and databases. He also showed students how to take effective notes, linked to sources, and how to run an effective Google search for new information.

Within minutes, the room was buzzing with energy. “What is communism?” one sixth grader asked. “I heard it means that everyone is equal.” Another student replied, “I’m not sure that’s the definition.” To learn more, they used what Mr. Sommer had taught them in order to find the best answer. They learned about Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Adolph Hitler.

As they were researching, many students continued to discuss connections to their own lives, their identities, and their families. They spoke about how to tell if a resource is an effective one or not. They found video of individuals speaking about the eras they were researching and reflected on those individuals’ choices. They started to see connections across time and space.

Throughout the class, Ms. Jacobs and Mr. Sommer moved from table to table, giving guidance and support, answering questions, and encouraging students along the way. Students will present their research, along with a works cited page, to their classmates, and then, when they begin reading, they will be reading with deeper context because of the research they did together.