Tapping in to Literacy Along With Some Tolerance and Respect
Frequently, books and films in popular culture and Hollywood spill over into the classroom, creating opportunities for conversations that might not otherwise happen. The 2012 book Wonder, written by R. J. Palacio, followed by the 2017 picture book We’re All Wonders, and the 2017 film adaptation are no exception. The story centers on a boy, Auggie, who was born with facial disfigurations from Treacher Collins syndrome (TCS).
This story, in the tradition of Dr. Seuss stories, engages all ages and therefore is relevant to the K–12 classroom. Given that it illustrates the worst and the best in people, the story provides opportunities for classroom learning and lessons on empathy. Wonder is perfect for counselors, and educators in family literacy, visual art, and reading at all levels.
Here are ways you can leverage the power of Wonder in your classroom.
Set up the message. Before exploring the narrative or the picture book, have students anticipate the story from the title. Talk about the word “wonder” and try to draw a picture of this word. Ask whether it is good to be “a wonder.” Children can discuss what it means to be “ordinary.” Would they choose to be “ordinary” or “different”? During read-aloud time, have students share how they react to insults or even whether they themselves talk about others, make gestures, or use expressions that hurt others’ feelings. Challenge younger children to draw and to talk about or share how they might “escape” being mocked. After the story, ask the children to draw or write a story about how they might “look with kindness … and find wonder.”
Discuss how illustrations can convey emotions. Early childhood teachers can explore how Palacio uses line art and painting to convey the “wonder” status of a “different” Auggie. Full-page illustrations in We’re All Wonders portray snapshots of Auggie’s life, doing ordinary things like riding his bicycle, eating ice cream, and playing ball. Small thumbnail portraits show the other kids who are different from him—and each other. A two-page spread, which features Auggie and his dog Daisy facing the ground because they are devastated by the looks and comments of other kids, conveys Auggie’s emotional pain. Another spread shows Auggie escaping ridicule by putting on his helmet and blasting off to Pluto to chat with other single-eyed beings, and demonstrating ways individuals retreat from insults. The illustrations show the power of imagination to overcome negativity. Palacio’s message, “The Earth is big enough for all kinds of people,” is universally communicated by the illustration of Auggie with his back to the reader gazing at a vast shining Earth from a galaxy perspective.
Focus on Auggie’s just right narrative voice. For early childhood teachers, use story hour to share the picture book illustrating Auggie wearing his helmet. Palacio crafts Auggie’s voice to the appropriate K–3 register. The take-away message is that, despite his youth, Auggie is aware that he is different and that others make fun of his differences. For his taunting peers, the word “wonder” is a negative. Auggie wants them to focus on their own differences. Were they to do that, they would include him as an integral part of their world of differences because everyone is different from others. Palacio has poignantly tapped the rich emotional core of Auggie’s message to the unfeeling universe of so-called normal adults and children.
Explore the concept of genre. For middle school students and beyond, Wonder offers a unique opportunity to reconnect them with a favorite book from their childhood. Challenge students to share a favorite picture book from when they were young and detail how picture books differ from the young adult and juvenile literature they now read. Have students anticipate how Palacio might reframe the story in various genres, including picture books. Once students anticipate the themes and images, have them review the work and compare their ideas with the print story. Explain how Palacio, an illustrator and author, decided to tell her Auggie story through the picture story book genre. Ask students whether they prefer the middle school level book Wonder or the picture book version, and have them explain why. Families and students in class can also sample read-alouds of the work: bit.ly/Wonder-ReadAloud or bit.ly/Wonder-ReadAloud2. These resources can inspire students to create their own read-alouds, including public domain music and special effects.
These are just a few ways you can use Wonder in your classroom. A powerful message with a hero who has fascinated millions of readers—and viewers—can transcend age and genre to touch a larger audience. Palacio has used “wonder” to change the way readers of all ages “picture” the wonders within themselves. Readers of every age can benefit from this recognition and bring a little bit more nice “wonder” into the world. How will you bring “wonder” into your classroom?
Dr. Rose Reissman is a veteran teacher educator who founded the Writing Institute now in 157 elementary schools nationwide. She is coauthor of Project-Based Literacy: Fun Literacy Projects for Powerful Common Core Learning (Information Age Publishing, 2016).