Why I’m Excited to Teach Refugee by Alan Gratz
Sometime last spring, one of the awesome teachers in our English department sent us an email about this year’s Global Read Aloud picks, and when I read the description for Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee, the middle school / junior high choice, I hopped over to Amazon and ordered it immediately. When it arrived two days later, I devoured it. Like, could. not. put. it. down. I’m pretty sure it took me all of two days.
I love a good storyline, and Refugee has that. I also love when stories come together in surprising ways, woven together purposefully but subtly. Some of my students will guess the connections early on, as I did, and some will be totally surprised, and I love seeing both of those reactions in kids. As for the plot, here’s how Gratz’s website describes it:
Three different kids.
One mission in common: ESCAPE.
Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…
Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…
Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…
All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.
There’s constant action, literally from the first page, and it’s real enough to provoke empathy. All three characters are in incredibly tough situations, and not all of the characters make it. It’s not all kittens and rainbows, folks, just like real life. I know my kids will enjoy reading this book, and I won’t have to fight the battle of you-had-better-read-the-chapter-or-I’m-giving-you-ten-thousand-check-quizzes-on-it.
But I’m not teaching it because I think my kids will like reading it — that’s just a bonus. I’m teaching it because I think my kids need to read it.
The world is a crazy place right now, and our students have questions. They want to know what’s going on, and why. They want to talk about solutions. In between all the Fortnite and watter bottle flipping, they actually do care, and they’re capable of understanding much more than we give them credit for. I love that Refugee starts the conversation about the topic of immigration and the refugee crisis from a human standpoint. When you are able to see life through the eyes of a Syrian boy, the same age as you, it changes the conversation. It makes you care and it makes you think.
After I selected Refugee and put it on my syllabus at the end of last year, I got an email from another colleague that the novel had been adapted into a play, which was being produced right here in Fort Myers at the Florida Repertory Theatre. And Alan Gratz himself would be there on the opening night and would be answering questions about the novel afterwards! I mean, talk about a sign from above, right? I was able to see the incredible adaptation live on opening night, and I also got to participate in the Q&A with Gratz. What really shone through during that talk was his genuine desire to affect change and to open our students’ eyes to a timely and critically important topic.
I’m so excited to teach Refugee with my eighth graders next semester. Am I a little nervous to dive head-first into a potentially controversial topic with middle school students? Well, yes. Yes, I am. But I also know my kids can handle it.
I’ve created some awesome resources for my unit, including poetry and art analysis, an inductive learning activity about the Syrian Civil War, and an MUN-Inspired Refugee Crisis Debate research project. I’ve also got some informational text analysis activities to plug in (I got you, CCSS!), and my check quizzes, graphic organizers, Socratic Seminar, and test all ready to go. If you’re interested in teaching Refugee too, head on over to my TPT store and check out my Refugee Activities and Assessments Bundle! It’s everything you need to teach the novel (except a copy of the novel, obviously) for one low price. Just print, copy, and teach.
I’ll let you know soon how it goes with my kiddos! Hope you enjoy Refugee as much as I did, and if you have any questions about the novel, leave ’em in the comments!