February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

‘The One and Only Ivan’ Inspires School-Wide Activities

Katherine Applegate

Author Katherine Applegate visits NEW ACademy in Canoga Park, CA

A year after Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins, 2012) won the Newbery Award, this heartbreaking tale about a gorilla living in a tiny cage in a shopping mall still resonates with students and librarians. Kelly Spector, a librarian at the NEW Academy in Canoga Park, CA, recently used Ivan to launch a school-wide program, resulting in thematic art projects, social activism, and even a staged interpretive dance.

Music teacher Genein Letford worked with fifth grade students on “Home,” a dance choreographed entirely by the students, who acted out a shortened version of the gorilla’s capture from the wild to his imprisonment and eventual freedom. Applegate came to the school to watch the performance, in addition to visiting all of the classrooms to speak with students.


Kids see how they measure up to a life-size Ivan

Other classes were moved to action by the social injustices portrayed in the novel. Third-grade students, who were learning about writing persuasive pieces, used the opportunity to pen letters to Barnum & Bailey Circus, opposing the circus’s use of bull hooks on elephants. Similarly, a Kindergarten class collected used cell phones to raise money for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Teachers continue to use Ivan to make connections to other aspects of the curriculum, says Spector. One first-grade teacher cited the book’s description of protesters who rallied over Ivan’s plight in the book to introduce a discussion of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

Spector had previously shared R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, 2012) with her students for a school-wide event that involved discussing the songs quoted and featured in the book. While that project was also a success, she says that Ivan was accessible to a wider age range. Spector wanted the Ivan project to make a huge splash: her mentality was “go big or go home,” she says.


Student with Ivan-inspired project

Before revealing which book would be the impetus for projects this time around, Spector started giving out hints and clues to the teachers around campus, such as pencils and crayons accompanied by quotes from the book and bags of un-popped microwave popcorn. After watching the book trailer, other teachers were eager to get started, and Spector “sat back and watched the magic happen.”

What struck Spector most about the Ivan project was the way the book brought the entire school together. “Providing the opportunity for all of our students, from Transitional Kindergarten to fifth  grade, to share their interactions with the story has united the school in one mission,” she said.  The endeavor created “a really great sense of community around books,” Spector added.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.