Educator Spotlight: Exploring History Through Reading and Writing

Kristi Barnes engaged her sixth-grade world history students in an exploration of reading and writing around the world. By supplementing a unit on ancient Japan with haiku writing exercises and the novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, she helped students make personal connections to the material.

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Kristi Barnes, a 2018 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, teaches sixth-grade world history at Seneca Middle School in Seneca, South Carolina. Photo by Tynette McConnell

Tell us a little about your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone on Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Why do you feel it is important to explore reading and writing around the world as part of your world history class?

Throughout the year, I share ancient cultures from around the world with my students. We study a variety of aspects of each culture, including the arts, architecture, government, religion, the economy and more. I focus on reading and writing because I want students to practice these skills while using a global perspective.

Instead of writing essays or multi-page papers, I chose to start with haiku poetry because it is a less-intimidating writing style and challenges students to deliver their message using just a few words.

The history behind the story of Sadako, which is set in Japan after World War II, allowed my students to delve deeper into more recent history. We used the story to have meaningful discussions, share our family traditions, and express our wishes for the future. After we learned to write haiku by creating riddles about animals, we moved on to writing poems about Sadako, peace in the world, and our feelings surrounding the loss of one of our own.

A student refers to a book while writing responses
Students read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and completed writing exercises. Photo by Kristi Barnes

We were very sad to hear that your school community suffered a tragic loss just before you taught this lesson. Could you share how these reading and writing activities became a way for your students to express some of their emotions?

In the story, two of the characters pass away from radiation poisoning. As we started reading the book, one of my students’ classmates was killed in a hit-and-run. We were able to create a safe space to talk about our loss, but more importantly focus on the future and their hopes and dreams. We talked about how tomorrow isn’t promised to us, so we should take full advantage of the time we are given.

Many students chose to write haiku first about the main character Sadako, describing her using emotions she expresses in the book. A few students chose to write about their personal feelings, expressing their sadness about our loss, while others focused on the good memories they shared with the student who passed away.

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Students wrote haiku about Sadako and her story. Photo by Kristi Barnes

You mention that your students are sometimes reluctant to write, especially in the context of a history class. What are some strategies you use to engage them? How did this lesson help?

Many of my students come to me believing that writing and reading should only happen in their English Language Arts class. Since this is my students’ first time learning about world cultures, it is important to me to expose them to as much as possible and to create learning experiences that connect the past to the present.

I try to make our history class as personal as possible by sharing about my friends from around the world, connecting current news events to our curriculum, and investigating students’ questions. I try to appeal to their senses by having them listen to and create music, create art, try new foods, engage with presenters, interact with artifacts, and more.

What impact did the lesson have on your students?

After the lesson, my students became much more inquisitive about other cultures. When we discussed other cultures, they were much more receptive to learning about differences between us, but also interested in discovering our similarities.

What is the most important thing you hope students will learn from your class?

Since I teach about cultures from all over the world, I hope that my students are able to be tolerant of anyone who is different from them. I hope that they are inspired to achieve their dreams and explore all that the world has to offer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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