Last year I began exploring the possibility of a literature-connected STEM unit for my 4th-grade students around refugees with my school’s Engineering chair, Dr. Michael Sloan Warren. Early on I suggested we center it around Andrea Davis Pinkney’s beautiful verse-novel, The Red Pencil (which I had reviewed for the New York Times). We also used a number of refugee-centered picture-books, among them some I also reviewed for the Times. Having recently finished running the unit, we are thrilled with how well it turned out and can’t wait to do it again next year.
Here’s what I wrote for the school’s website:
Edinger House 4th graders delved into a unique unit combining literature study with STEM. After an introduction to refugees and displaced people now and in the past, they were given Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil, an award-winning verse-novel set during the Darfur conflict in Sudan (and reviewed in the New York Times by Ms. Edinger).
Working in groups, students used their annotating skills (introduced earlier in the year during the E. B. White unit) to read, discuss, and reflect on protagonist Amira’s difficult journey. In preparation for the STEM component, students were asked, along with their annotating, to fill out empathy maps, a technique used by designers to better understand the needs of others. These proved to be wonderful tools when it came to digging deep into Amira’s experience. As students transitioned to the STEM portion of the unit, Dalton’s Engineering Chair Dr. Warren asked them to look closely at Amira’s experience just before she was given a gift that made all the difference for her, a red pencil.Students were then given a new task — to work through the Engineering process with another fictional refugee. They were given new empathy maps, each centered on a single image from one of three compelling books about the refugee experience: Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb’s The Day the War Came, Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, and Don Brown’s The Unwanted. Using the image and the accompanying information, each group worked through a process to come up with a gift for their new users, one that would have the same impact the red pencil had for Amira. They designed and then built prototypes, using constructive feedback to improve or rework them. The students’ focus, thinking, creativity, and empathy on display throughout this process was remarkable. At the end, each group shared their process and prototypes.
Students are now completing blog posts that document their experience and learning. Meantime, take a look at the photos below for a taste of this extraordinary learning experience. Our great thanks to Dr. Warren for working since last year with Ms. Edinger to design the unit and lead the STEM components.
Please go here to see photos of kids at work, an empathy map, their prototypes, and more. The prototypes include a comforting enclosure and a sleeping bag for the frightened and lonely girl from Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb’s The Day the War Came, vehicles (one including a map on the interior walls) for the mother and children from Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, and a welcome home kit (including spices and games) as well as some other objects for the family from Don Brown’s The Unwanted. (FYI: Each group was given a single image along with a few pieces of information. I read aloud the books in total after the unit was over. )