Ordinary Heroes and Extraordinary Students

Meg Reed’s fifth-graders just finished their first foray into the world of literary symbolism, and demonstrated an understanding of the metaphorical that’s a literal work of art.

“The red on the Nazi flag stands for blood, violence and hatred of Jews,” wrote Evan L. in the report that accompanied his painting. “The Nazi soldiers were unwavering in their pursuit of the Jews, and almost anyone stopped by the soldiers was stricken with fear.… Even the sight of the swastika could torment people, making them feel fear and anxiety.”

Evan produced the painting and his astute analysis as part of Reed’s unit on the Lois Lowry novel, “Number The Stars.” Other students tackled the topic by writing letters or recording period radio pieces. Listen to two examples below.

Broadcast by Chase

Broadcast by Jonah

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A work of historical fiction, “Number The Stars” chronicles the tumult and terror of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and the heroism of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen. Annemarie risks her life to save her best friend, a Danish Jew named Ellen Rosen. A vast majority of Denmark’s Jews were spirited away to neutral Sweden and survived the Holocaust “thanks to the courageous Danes,” wrote Nina S.

“Denmark was, and still is, a tolerant place,” said Reed. “There was no ‘Jewish Question’ for them, and this story is a little ray of light in the whole sad saga of WWII.”

Reed explained that Lowry’s story, of a brave young girl and ordinary people acting with extraordinary bravery, resonates with students and helps them relate to a recent past that sometimes doesn’t seem quite so recent. “A lot of kids think of this as ancient history when we start,” Reed said. “I’ll say ‘World War II’ and hear, ‘Hmm. Was that before or after the Civil War?’ But that doesn’t last long.”

In June 2012, Reed spent a week in Palo Alto, Calif., where she not only escaped the oppressive humidity and punishing heat of the Keystone State, but was one of 25 teachers accepted to “The Great Depression and World War II” seminar at Stanford University. She studied with one of the foremost American history scholars, David Kennedy, an experience she described as “so awesome. Just so cool.”

“The program seemed geared toward Upper School teachers,” Reed said, “but I’ve been teaching ‘Number The Stars’ and just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could get really good at this?’

“I learned so much,” she continued, “and it’s enriching for my students, but also for me personally. Plus, the weather in Palo Alto was quite nice,” Reed said.

Back in her classroom, she asks her students to consider the idea of bravery in an exercise she calls “Could That Be Me?” Students write about their most harrowing experiences and sweetest triumphs. “Their answers run the gamut from, ‘I stood up to a bully’ to ‘I got lost at the mall without crying,’” Reed said. “But thinking about courage in their own lives helps them connect with the story and with the history, and a lot of kids really get into it.”