Collaborating on High-Interest Topics | The Refugee Experience

It’s a magical moment for a librarian when a classroom teacher says, "Let's collaborate on a reading project."  Whether the teacher's focus is the Common Core, Social Studies, or their state standards, there are ample opportunities for a librarian to make a huge impact.

It’s a magical moment for an upper elementary, middle, or high school librarian when a classroom teacher says, "Let's collaborate on a reading project."  Whether the teacher is planning to use the Common Core, Social Studies or their state standards as the focus, there are ample opportunities for a librarian to make a huge impact. Suggest how this learning could take place. Provide a set of amazing resources. Then facilitate ways for students to demonstrate what they know.

Where the learning takes place

Offer your colleague ways to differentiate the work to accommodate the wide variety of reading abilities and learning styles that are found in every classroom. Instead of a group read, suggest book clubs or literature circles. Be ready with ideas on how to makes these structures work within the classroom. Be prepared to launch the clubs or circles by introducing the books and managing the formation of the groups or partnerships. Help the teacher develop guiding questions for students to answer as they read, and promote the identification of text evidence to support student responses. Spend time in the classroom to model the creation of norms for the groups, then observe and coach the discussions. Teach students how to evaluate their group meetings and to set goals for those that follow.

Amazing resources

Promote a high-interest, important topic, such as the refugee experience. Encourage a variety of formats and texts that exhibit a range of length and complexity that allow for student choice. 

Introduce a topic with books and more books

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skupuch with Tuan Ho. illus by by Brian Deines. Pajama Pr., 2016. ISBN 9781772780055.

K-Gr 3–Tuan knows the war in Vietnam means separation. His father and older sister have already gone to Canada, but reunification is taking too long. Realizing that the family is in danger, his mother leaves his youngest sister behind and sets out on an overcrowded boat with Tuan and his other siblings, gambling that they can find rescue or sanctuary. Illustrations in vivid colors depict the terrors of the boat trip, with a looming U.S. aircraft carrier finally offering safety. Back matter adds information about the war and the author’s family story.


Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. Holiday House. Sept. 2018. ISBN 9780823440559.
K-Gr 3A mother and son immigrate to the United States and though there are hard times and misunderstandings, they find a true home in the public library; the stories they discover there transform their world. The irresistible artwork, which combines the realistic and fantastical, reveals more delights with each reading. The author talks about her book in this video.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna. Flying Eye /Nobrow, 2016.  ISBN 9781909263994.
K-Gr 3–War comes, father is gone, and the narrator’s family must leave home for a safer place. When the fleeing family comes to a wall, they must run on foot, eventually seeking passage on a boat. Migrating birds symbolize the hope that their journey will end in a better place. The stunning illustrations match the haunting, matter-of-fact text. (“The farther we go...the more we leave behind.”) 

The Map of Good Memories by Fran Nuno. illus by Zuzanna Celej. Cuento de Luz, 2016. ISBN 9788416147823.
Gr 3-6–War has come to her city, and ten-year-old Zoe knows that she will be leaving it tomorrow, perhaps never to return. As she draws a map of all the places she loves, readers are offered a glimpse into the rich, complex lives that are part of the backstory of refugees and immigrants. An illustration of Zoe drawing in an almost empty room with suitcases packed underscores what she is leaving behind. 

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed. illus by Catherine Stock Eerdmans, 2009.  ISBN 9780802853073.
K-Gr 3–Everything about his new home is a source of confusion for Sangoel when he and his family arrive in the United States after the war tears apart Sudan. In addition, no one at school can pronounce his name or has any notion about his culture. Figuring out a way to help his classmates say his name provides the boy with an opening for some friendships. Illustrations aptly depict the United States from a child’s point of view. 


Informational resources

Librarians can provide essential background by curating a list of online information resources. Include maps, photos, video clips, and articles representing opposing viewpoints, news, and cartoons. Locate them all in an attractive, easily accessible place online. Be sure to feature these titles.

Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts. illus by Hanane Kai. Barron’s, 2017. ISBN 9781438050201.
K-Gr 3–In this slim volume, a few brief paragraphs on each page suggest questions kids might have about immigrants and refugees—why they leave their countries, who assists them, etc.—and provide concise answers. Illustrations employing a muted palate add empathy. A helpful glossary is included.

Stormy Seas, Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale and Eleanor Shakespeare. Annick Pr, 2017. ISBN 9781554518951.
Gr 5-8–There's a long and tragic history of boat refugees. Short sections in this title introduce readers to young people fleeing danger and terror at home, from Ruth, who hoped to escape the Nazis on the St. Louis, to Phu, whose family is no longer safe after the fall of Saigon. Intriguing, collage-style art and outstanding book design are integral to each story. Sidebars add information.



Include graphic novels 

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. illus by Giovanni Rigano. Sourcebooks, Sept. 2018. ISBN 9781492665823.
Gr 5-8–The terror of Ebo's Mediterranean crossing in an overloaded inflatable boat gives way to a series of flashbacks depicting the boy’s life in Ghana, his desire to follow his brother to Europe, and the stunning cruelty that meets him at nearly every turn. Family separation and physical ordeal are endured for the hope of a better future, which Ebo and readers learn is not guaranteed. A moving graphic novel that makes it clear no one is “illegal.”

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown. HMH, Sept. 2018.ISBN 9781328810151.
Gr 8 Up–What caused the civil war in Syria?  Easy-to-follow panels briefly describe the political situation, placed within the context of the Arab Spring. A variety of unnamed refugees are depicted as they escape by land and water, and are harassed and rejected as they desperately search for a safe place to live while mourning the loss of family, culture, and country. An author’s note describes conditions in Greek refugee camps. An interview with the author can be found here.

Zenobia by Morton Durr and Lars Horneman. Seven Stories. Nov. 2018. ISBN 9781609808730.
Gr 5-8–When the civil war in Syria comes to Amina's village and she makes her way onto an unreliable boat for the Mediterranean crossing, she comforts herself by remembering the heroism of Zenobia, a historical and powerful Syrian warrior. This graphic novel is an excellent choice for struggling readers and ELL students; there’s very little text, but the flashbacks and vivid storytelling will allow students to do grade-level inference and thinking work.


Provide a choice of novels that vary in length and difficulty

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi. Penguin, Jan. 2018. ISBN 9780399546839.
Gr 8 Up–The Syrian civil war has overtaken the city, but Tareq's family manages to establish routines that provide some stability—that is, until their apartment is bombed. Only Tareq, his father, and his younger sister survive the bombing and must travel through Turkey and navigate the horrifying Mediterranean crossing to find measure of safety.

The Crossroads by Alexandra Diaz. S. & S., Sept. 2018. ISBN 9781534414556.
Gr 5-8–Jaime's terrifying trip from Guatemala is over, but adapting to his new life in New Mexico is overwhelming. A few kids and teachers are helpful, though one boy bullies him. Drawing helps him hold on to his memories of his family and those he met along the journey. How can Jaime face his uncertain future without turning his back on his complicated past? A sequel to the author’s The Only Road.

Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzsi. S. & S., Jan. 2018. ISBN 9781481472173.
Gr 3-6Nadia's 12th birthday party is interrupted by the advent of the Arab Spring in Syria. Everything she hoped and planned for is overturned as her family is separated and the girl must find her way through the dangers of Aleppo, guided by an elderly man who is her only hope, but whose political allegiance is suspect.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. 2017. ISBN 9780399546440.
Gr 5-8–It’s hard enough to leave Cuba behind, but just as Ruthie is starting to adjust being in the “dumb kid’s class” in a new school, a car accident leaves her in a body cast, facing a long rehabilitation. How will she and her family manage her medical needs and their isolation as they rebuild their lives? The book offers a “complex portrayal of the immigrant experience” and a warmhearted look at a diverse community.

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh. Roaring Brook Pr, 2018. ISBN 9781250307576.
Gr 5-8–Max and Ahmed arrive in Brussels under very different circumstances. Max’s family has moved from the United States for his father's job while Ahmed landed in Belgium after losing his father in an escape from Syria. At the end of his resources, Ahmed finds shelter hidden in the basement of Max's house. A story of friendship, immigration, and Islamophobia.

Now is the Time for Running by Michael Williams. Little, Brown, 2013. ISBN 9780316077880.
Gr 7 Up–War in Zimbabwe sends Neo and his brother on a journey to safety to South Africa, but there's no future for the undocumented arrivals there. Living hand to mouth, Neo's only happiness is with his team of street soccer players. At turns tender and raw, this compelling novel features complex characters—and story and setting that U.S. readers may not be familiar with.

Refugee by Alan Gratz. Scholastic, 2017. ISBN 9780545880831. 
Gr 5-8–Josef is escaping Nazi Germany. Isabel's family leaves Cuba on a small boat, looking for safety in the United States. The Syrian civil war sends Mahmoud on a dangerous journey. Their vividly told stories end with a surprising connection.


Explore more deeply with real-life stories

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana. HarperCollins, 2017.  ISBN 9780062470157.

Gr 7 Up–Sandra's family fled Rwanda for the Democratic Republic of Congo, but waves of Congolese wars and violence find the family uprooted again and again. At one refugee camp, rebels attack, massacring many, including the girl’s younger sister, sending the family on a journey that ends in the United States, which is not the refuge they had envisioned.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ismael Beah. Farrar, 2007. ISBN 9780374105235.
Gr 8 Up–Thirteen-year-old Beah and his friends were captured, brutalized, drugged, handed AK-47s, when forced to become child soldiers in Sierra Leone during the civil war there in the 1990s. Their horrifying experiences are representative of those of a whole generation of young men in need of help, healing, and refuge.

Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You by Hanna Jansen. Lerner, 2006.ISBN 9781467765961.

Gr 8 Up–A mother and her adopted Rwanda daughter tell the story of the girl’s narrow escape from the 1994 Rwandan genocide and her adaptation to life in Europe.


Ways for students to show what they know

It’s possible that the technology, space, and expertise needed to make a book trailer, film a Public Service Announcement, put together a class blog of book reviews, create and share a literary essay, or design an infographic can be found in the library. 

Collaboration, from start to finish!

Chris Gustafson is the Library Media Specialist at Richmond Japanese Immersion Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.

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