Author of “The Book Thief” Visits the Idea Hive Classroom

The Idea Hive classroom is almost out for the summer. But just before the year ends, the students had, as one of them described, the “opportunity of a lifetime” – a Skype visit from the award-winning author of  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.

Clarence and I have written about the Idea Hive class activities surrounding The Book Thief in previous posts. The story is set in the fictional town of Molching, Germany during WW II.  It’s a beautifully written story of a young girl’s relationship with her new foster parents and neighbours. Narrated by “Death”, it’s full of humour and heartbreak. A few of my favourite passages..

As Liesel attempts to explain the reason for her first stolen book to Hans, her foster father: The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.

The scene where Liesel intrudes upon her step-mother, Rosa, as she cradles her husband’s accordion after he’s sent to war. Mama was snoring again.  Who needs bellows, she thought, when you’ve got a pair of lungs like that?

And of course, the last quote from “Death”: I am haunted by humans.

Our classrooms connected via skype almost daily as Clarence and I read the story aloud to our students. While one teacher read, the other was in the TodaysMeet backchannel room, helping students as we answered questions or posting compelling phrases. After the book was finished, the students wrote their first book, A Field Guide to Molching, which is inspired by the characters and events in The Book Thief. Using Google Docs, and working in groups of 4 (2 from Manitoba, 2 from Ontario) the students came up with the topics that should be included before moving into this two month project.

After presenting the books to our students, we contacted Markus Zusak, from Sydney, Australia, who graciously agreed to a group skype call with our students. It took some planning, as we all live in different time zones. So with a willingness to make it work for everyone, Markus agreed to an 11:00 p.m. call, while Clarence’s students in Snow Lake agreed to come to school an hour earlier.  Each class had previously prepared questions, and two students from each classroom wrote as the event unfolded in the TodaysMeet chat room.

Unfortunately for Clarence’s students, skype was not connecting that morning for them.  As we got started, we assumed Clarence and the students in Snow Lake would be joining in shortly. But when we got towards the end of the call and still no Snow Lake, I had some of my students ask the questions that Clarence’s students had planned.

One of my students had videotaped most of what was happening in the classroom in three sections. I was able to upload the first section, which was under 300 MB in size, and share it with Clarence via Dropbox. Not so easy with the next two sections which were over 357 and 959 MB. Even the Dropbox upgrade still wouldn’t allow those size of files. My call for help on Twitter was answered by my son’s friend, who recommended sending the large files through Mediafire. Thank-you James!

Luckily, the audio quality from the videotaped files was clear, so the Snow Lake students could hear the discussion. Markus spoke very openly as he answered many questions from the students, including one on what it takes to gain success as a writer. His philosophy on the value of failure and making priorities could apply to many goals in life.
1) Embrace failure.  It means you will grow as a writer.
2) Make writing a priority. You need to enjoy that time alone and being alone with your characters.

Markus emphasized the importance of time in the writing process – time needed to develop and revise ideas, which often means moving sections around. He shared, he inspired, and he made kids laugh. Student reflected on their linoit sticky notes

“It was like he was right here with us. It was so much fun to listen to the answers that he gave. Markus put a lot of thought into each answer. It was a great experience.”

“After reading his book and getting to know all the characters it was nice to know how they came to life.”

“I am glad that Markus gave out some advice on how to be a good writer. Now I am thinking of writing a fly-fishing book over the summer.”

“I hope that when I’m in grade 9, and the Idea Hive is still working away, I get to hear about what is going on. I would never trade away this experience.”

After reciting the opening to his new book, Markus asked the students about their next publication. While they didn’t have a specific answer, the students hope to publish another book next year as our classrooms continue working together in the Idea Hive. Our soon-to-be grade 8 students already have a solid foundation to build upon.

While not without its share of struggles, our goal of creating a connected classroom has changed how our students learn. They value the fact that “we learn better together”.  They’ve learned that the definition of “teacher” has moved beyond being just the one in their classroom. In their connected classroom, “teacher” can be anyone in the world, including Mr. Fisher in the chat room or even an award-winning author of a beloved book.

Experiencing the Realities of War Through Life In the Trenches

In today’s world, when asked about technology, we think of hardware like smart phones and tablets or web 2.0 tools. Back in the early 1900’s, technology advancement led to the end of trench warfare.  As part of our WW 1 history unit, my gr. 7/8 students learned first-hand how soldiers used technology as they experienced life in the trenches.

Students traveled on a 2.5 hour bus ride to the Outdoor Trench Warfare and Living History Site in rural Tillsonburg to experience the hardships faced by Canadian WW I soldiers in the trenches.  They were guided by award-winning history teacher Robin Barker-James in the strategies used by soldiers as they struggled to survive and defend what they believed in.

As my student, Brad P., described it, “Robin Barker-James has a farm just outside of Tillsonburg where he and his Gr.10 history class dug replica trenches from WWI to host schools and teach them about trench warfare.  The trenches at Mr. Barker-James’ farm are very real, in fact so real that the Canadian military has trained there before heading to Afghanistan. There was even a movie shot there.”

During the morning session, students learned how to fight using bayonets and grenades, and Robin shared his collection of authentic WW 1 artifacts with the class.

In the afternoon, my girls played the role of the Canadians, and attacked the German-held trenches (my male students), “armed” with replica grenades, Ross rifles and the coveted Lewis machine gun. While the reenactment was without danger, students clearly began to feel the fear, chaos and discomfort that was reality for the generations before them.

Robin has guided over 70 000 students in the past decade through his site.  He specializes in providing a common sense, hands-on and concrete learning experience for students studying war.  The following day, I asked students to write about the experience, including a monologue and the lessons they had learned.

From the “Canadian” girls….

Nataja:  I learned that we need to work together as a team to survive.

Alyssa: The helmets were very hard to keep on your head, especially when you had to crawl.  And, they often dug into the back of your neck, which was very uncomfortable. I was tired and I was getting frustrated with  my team, but in a way that is a good thing.  It made us see some of what the soldiers had to go through in a daily basis.

Kori ‘s monologue:  The waiting is unbearable, because I don’t know what exactly am I waiting for. Am I waiting for excitement, or am I just waiting for this to be over? I think the most clear message was that war is not a game. What we did in the field at Robin’s farm may not have been real, but turning the corners in the trenches was still nerve wracking. I can’t begin to imagine what that would be like in a real war.

And from the “German” boys…

Iain’s monologue:  I feel sick, my stomachs churning due to the nerve racking moments about to happen. The enemy is almost here, I can hear them. I’m really scared, even though I have my best friend Isaac a few metres from me.  

Jason: I learned that war causes just as much psychological damage as physical damage. I learned about the hardships the men had to endure in and outside of the trench line. The saddest part was when Robin told me how many men had died for our freedom.  It was the most interesting field trip that involved learning I have ever been on.

Tyler: The experience of that day will never leave me….. Like Mr. Barker-James said, “If you are asked to send yourself or your kids into warfare, you better have a pretty darn good reason to.” I don’t think it could have been said better.

Can you feel it? These students, who 24 hrs. earlier saw trench warfare as a game, now have a more realistic understanding as they question the validity of war – exactly what Robin intended. My gr. 7 students are keen to travel back to Tillsonburg next year to participate in Robin’s re-enactments of the War of 1812 and WW II. There’s even a few gr. 8’s, who will no longer be at my school, begging to return with us. Powerful and authentic learning.

Flickr slideshow