This second installment of our Pre-to-3 column looks at how young children are connecting with peers across the globe by reading the same books.
Last month, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning released materials describing what the skills needed “to succeed in work, life and citizenship” look like in a classroom of young children. They added that core academic areas should include 21st century themes, such as civic literacy and global awareness.
For educators who aren’t sure how to open young learners’ eyes to the bigger world beyond their local neighborhood, the Global Read Aloud is a great place to start. Now in its eighth year, the campaign began Oct. 2 and runs for six weeks. In participating schools and classrooms, teachers not only sign up to read one of the featured books, but they also agree to share their reading experiences with at least one other classroom — anywhere in the world.
“By connecting with other classrooms during the GRA … we are able to see different perspectives or validate our own thoughts on the story,” says Jennifer Bond, a 3rd grade teacher at Glengary Elementary School in Walled Lake, MI. Last year, when her students were reading "The BFG" by Roald Dahl, they watched videos of teachers reading the chapters “so my students were also exposed to the different dialects people had,” Bond says.
In past years, her students have mostly made connections with other classes in the U.S. and Canada, but this year she sent one tweet asking other readers of "The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown to say where they live. So far, she has received responses from 18 states and 13 countries. “We’re going to keep adding our connections to a map that we have on a bulletin board,” she says.
Overall, two million students from 80 countries are expected to participate in GRA this year, says founder Pernille Ripp, a 7th grade language arts teacher at Oregon Middle School (OMS) in Wisconsin. Schools and classrooms use a variety of ways to connect with other GRA participants, from a simple handwritten note to another classroom to a variety of virtual platforms, such as Edmodo, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Write About, an online community in which students connect through their writing. At The Presentation School in Sonoma, CA, Melissa Yazzolino’s 3rd graders have also used Kidblog and Skype to communicate with other participants. Talk about 21st century skills!
“There are so many ways to make the book ‘come to life,’ which is why I think the GRA is so much more enjoyable for my students than to just read the book,” Yazzolino says. “Making these connections is what makes it real to them. Seeing and speaking with other students in different parts of the world does make them feel connected.”
The GRA, which uses the slogan “one book to connect the world,” also leads to a variety of joint projects inspired by the books, which range from picture books for toddlers and preschoolers to young adult novels. Bond says sometimes a teacher will use a Padlet — an online, collaborative platform — to create a post related to a book and her students will add their thoughts to it.
“I think for me the best part will always be that moment of discovery kids have when they see the similarities that they have with other kids around the globe,” Ripp says. “It is often when children discover that they like the same food, cartoon, or even books that their eyes light up. This is where I can feel the world grow visibly smaller; when we can reach across thousands of miles, spurred on by a single book or author, and realize that those we think are so far from us are just like we are.”
Following the hashtag #GRA17 on Twitter turns up plenty of examples from educators looking to share their ideas with others. Ripp also collects lesson plans and other activities to inspire teachers and students. Learning about the featured authors, studying the areas in which their virtual “buddies” live and even creating math projects related to the themes in a book are a few of the ideas suggested.
“I know teachers who have worked together for more than five years now because they met during the GRA,” Ripp says. “Because we have the community, there are so many ideas shared that it also feels safe to ask non-GRA related questions about bigger pedagogical issues, so it becomes self-driven and explored professional development as well.”
Last year, Ripp added a charitable component to the project, inviting participants to donate books or money to create a library in a community center in Jocotenango, Guatemala. GRA partnered with the nonprofit Palms and Souls, founded by Reidun Bures, who also teaches at OMS, and her husband Ryan. Their organization is raising money to keep the community center open five days a week and recruiting others to help improve the lives of children in a country where education is not compulsory past 6th grade and “less than 40% of students make it past middle school.”
Yazzolino’s students held a fundraiser to support the cause, which ultimately collected $8,000 for the library. “Not only did each child get to pick which books we would donate, but we Skyped several times with Reidun and Ryan Bures, who truly allowed the kids to feel like they were a part of the project,” she says.
This year, GRA participants are supporting Water for South Sudan, a nonprofit founded by Salva Dut, the subject of Linda Sue Park’s "A Long Walk to Water." The book is also this year’s GRA selection for middle school students.
While participation in GRA is driven by teachers, Ripp says administrators have an important role in contributing to its success. Some teachers have told her that the project convinced district leaders to allow access to digital tools or online sites that had previously been blocked. Administrators can also allocate funds so students can have the books on the list or help make connections with outside organizations.
“I think a project like GRA can feel overwhelming, especially before it gets going,” Ripp says, “so it is nice to have someone backing you up, telling you, 'you can make it work.’”