WOW Stories: Developing Engagements with Global Literature

Creating Global Awareness through Collaboration between the Public School and the University
by Garden Hills Global Literacy Community

The Garden Hills Elementary School Teacher Group was a public-school-based group of teachers that received support from a university professor. The teachers were dedicated to extending their abilities to work in equitable and just ways within their recently adopted globally-focused International Baccalaureate Americas (IBA) program. This internationally themed, multilingual magnet school is located in a high poverty crime area of a small urban school district in a university city. Group members included literacy specialists, classroom teachers, and other educational specialists in all three strands offered by the school (bilingual education, gifted education, and native English language education).

The group had two key goals: (1) to increase the global awareness of the school community while working to become fully accredited by the PYP-IBA and (2) to continue to work to decrease the ethnic achievement gap at the school by increasing the use of culturally relevant literacy instruction using authentic materials. Teachers wanted to “increase both our access to and knowledge about culturally authentic and engaging global literature so we can more effectively incorporate it into our students’ learning experiences at Garden Hills.” In addition, teachers were also intent on becoming a fully accredited PYP-IBA school. These goals remained the focus of our reading, discussion, and book list suggestions at each meeting.

Over the course of the school year, teachers worked hard to expand their literature choices and use. Each monthly meeting was devoted to sharing literature and literature teaching ideas by all participants. Key monthly activities included reading and discussing chapters in Growing up Global (Tavanger, 2009) and chapters about teacher study groups in Birchak, et al. (1998), along with other readings that became relevant (e.g., articles in Language Arts) and a lot of children’s literature. Teachers discussed readings and shared children’s responses to classroom activities as well as ideas for lessons teachers wanted to try. They shared book recommendations, discussed their school’s progress on their PYP-IBA application, brainstormed a list of books to order, planned activities for the coming month, and shared questions and concerns. In addition, they invited international visitors and gained new perspectives from their own staff members’ experiences with international travel and living.

All of this discussion was tied to ways to include authentic, engaging books that would inspire children to adopt an international focus. Teachers strove to create experiences and to include literature that would engage their students in learning about and appreciating unfamiliar customs, becoming familiar with people who have made a difference in communities across the world, comparing across information in picture book text sets to encourage reflective thinking—all the while maintaining not only an international but also a multilingual focus that mirrored the multiple languages spoken by children in this widely diverse school.

Opening Our Eyes: Karla J. Möller

Garden Hills Elementary School was highly impacted by two books read at the beginning of the year that led to a year-long school focus on what one can do for others to make the world a better place. The first three vignettes describe how two books Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler by Margery Cuyler (a picture book read to all the students in the entire school) and Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (a picture book read to selected classes), set the stage for an exploration of what it means to “give back” to one’s family, community, nation, and world over the course of the school year. The final vignette by Mrs. Borgeson takes us to the end of the academic year and to the final novel she read to students across a number of classrooms: A Long Walk to Water. This two-voiced novel by Linda Sue Park, written with support and guidance by Salva Dut, alternates between the experiences of a Sudanese boy forced into the long walk to safety during the extended and violent Sudanese civil war period and the experiences of a young girl from a different tribal group in more recent, but still tumultuous, years. Dut, a Sudanese man who himself participated in the long walk of the lost boys of the Sudan as a child, has become an international humanitarian who reaches across formerly antagonistic tribal and kinship groups to bring access to clean water to a number of Sudanese communities.

In between these vignettes that bookend the school year at Garden Hills Elementary School, students studied a number of other people from across the world who surmounted odds to make a difference in their communities, nations, and the world. Some of the many books that were used that engaged and inspired the Garden Hills students include those that focus on other Africans who have made a significant difference, often in the face of significant danger as well, such as 2004 Novel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Kenyan Greenbelt Movement Wangari Mathaai and Malawian inventor, humanitarian, and author William Kamkwamba.

Through their hard work this past year, the Garden Hills teachers have gained insights into how to further globalize their instruction and have shared and learned about many books and other media they can use to enhance their instruction. They now have book sets on everyday people who have made a difference for their communities in Iraq, in Colombia, in Appalachia, in India, and across the United States historically and in the present, just to name a few areas of focus. They have used text sets we created that focus on food availability as well as eating habits and choices across the world. They have sets focused on Central and South American experiences, on African and African American experiences, and on a Asian and Asian American experiences that offer their students in their internationally populated school multiple examples to see people who look like them as well as people who may have different experiences reflected in a wide range of authentic ways across a range of text genres. They have created sets of books featuring international athletes, sets of connected picture book biographies, and sets that focus on specific injustices that are more recent, such as a fiction and nonfiction text set that addresses issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

I continue to be in awe of teachers’ focus and drive as they work to meet the needs and expand the interests of their students. I am confident that they have already—and will in the future— move forward as a school team in raising issues of global awareness.

Kindness is Cooler!: Olga Halpern

Mary Borgeson, our bilingual literacy specialist, came to my second grade bilingual class and read aloud Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler (Cuyler, 2007). The book is about a teacher who wants to teach her students how important it is to be kind, and what being kind is about. After reading the book, she opened the floor to the children for discussion, asking them what they could do to show kindness. The children came up with a list, and were asked to write any acts of kindness they performed or that someone did for them on a red paper heart. The hearts were displayed around bulletin boards and walls around the room. Children reflected on the activity, and as a group, discussed the different ways they showed kindness, and how they felt as a result. This activity was a wonderful way for children to self-reflect and to internalize a quality, which will make them better, and more fulfilled people.

The Golden Rule: Susan Dilley and Dawn Beyler

We introduced the Golden Rule to a classroom of multicultural third graders. We posted the following six examples of different religions version of the Golden Rule and had a lively discussion on the similarities, cross cultures, languages and geographical distances. Students were excited about the common language and illustrated each poster to represent an image reflecting the meaning.

• None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. Islam
• Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. Baha’i
• This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Hinduism
• Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Judaism
• Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christianity
• Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Buddhism

Later that week, we read Each Kindness (Woodson, 2012). This beautifully illustrated and wonderfully written story is told from the perspective of a young girl who misses the opportunity to show kindness to a new girl in her class before she moves away. After reading the story, each student placed a shiny pebble (the kind you get in the bottom of floral arrangements) into a glass pie pan of water. As we did this, we made a pledge of a kindness we would carry out or shared a kindness we have done. It was simple and meaningful. Placing the pebble in the water illustrated the rippling effect of how doing a good thing impacts the recipient. When a good deed is done to you, then you can turn and do a good deed to someone else, then they turn to someone else, creating a rippling effect. All it takes is the initial pebble.

Here are a few samples of how students responded to the prompt during the activity:

• “I’m going to help my mother with the dishes.”
• “I’m going to walk with my brother to school.”
• “I will share with my sister.”
• “I will help my teacher in the classroom.”

I noticed that most of the third graders’ responses focused on doing a good deed for another person. Their idea of being kind was through action, not just words.

This experience would be a great activity to do in the first week of school, so I have made a notation to myself to use it again next year! I would like to help students expand this concept of kindness to things they think and say. Using it at the beginning of the year would be helpful as we begin forming a class community of learners. It would show my new students this is something we value at the beginning of the year. The culture of kindness, demonstrated in what we do and say, is what we will value all year.

Caring for One Another: Hallie Sturdyvin

During the school year students worked on being kind to one another. We incorporated our PYP attribute of caring from the Learner Profile into our daily lives in a variety of different ways, including helping someone on the playground or during math or working together on a project in order to get something done. One day during shared reading time, a time in which students are brought back to the carpet to listen and share in a story, Mary Borgeson, one of our literacy specialists came into our classroom to share a story, Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler (Cuyler, 2007). Right away the students pointed out that kindness was something that we have been trying to work on in and out of our classroom.

Throughout the story, the characters tried to carry out different acts of kindness at school, on the bus, at the park, in their homes– wherever they were. When they got to school they took a red construction paper heart and wrote what they did on the heart. The heart was then put on display in the classroom. They made a goal for themselves to reach one hundred hearts.

After listening to this story, of course students wanted to do the same thing as the kids in the story. So, we made hearts and when students did something kind for a family member or a friend, they filled out a heart and put it up on the bulletin board. The students talked about the book, the hearts, and their acts of kindness for the whole school year. I think they were as proud of themselves as I was of them.

Engaging Upper-Elementary Bilingual Students: Mary Borgeson

Garden Hills Elementary School is in the process of applying for acceptance to become an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Project School. Our work with global literacy was perfect for our monthly learner profiles which include: Caring, Thinker, Risk-Taker, Knowledgeable, Inquirer, Open-Minded, Reflective, Balanced, Communicator and Principled. We met monthly to discuss chapters from Growing Up Global: Raising Children to be at Home in the World (Tavangar, 2009). This author touched upon each of our Learner Profiles in one way or another. Her chapters were filled with ideas and her own vignettes about how to be a friend, greet friends, play, going to school, what do people believe, celebrating with the world, sustaining friendship, service and giving, and widening our circle of compassion. She lived for some time in Africa with her children and realized that positive experiences with the world’s cultures enhance our lives.

Our school was lucky enough to have the expertise of Karla Möller from the University of Illinois who teaches children’s literature. Each month, she brought in many, many globally themed books which dealt with the specific learner profile in focus for the specific month. She explained the content of each book, compared and contrasted themes among books and gave us all a bit of history of the different cultures involved in each book’s story and struggles. These books opened our minds and our hearts to the struggles that people face each day of their lives and we became better people for having experienced this knowledge.

I decided to introduce the book A Long Walk to Water (Park, 2010) to our fourth/fifth grade bilingual students (Spanish/English). My goal was for them hear about other children who have been displaced from their homes and need to establish themselves in a new community and sometimes a new country. In part, this two-voiced novel book tells the story of a boy from Sudan who has to walk with other boys to safety leaving his war-torn country. As I read aloud each chapter, the students were spellbound, listening to each word, imagining what it was like not to have water or food to eat on the trip. It took me five days to read the entire book—and each time I had to stop for the day, the students groaned and pleaded: “Please, please, tell us what happened next!”

The main character Salva valued education more than anything in the world and I took the opportunity to remind students how lucky they were to have a free education and beautiful equipment in their class like a Smartboard and computers. They could turn on a faucet and get clean water whenever they wanted. When we finished the book, we had many discussions of what they could do to help other children in the world who did not have what they had. We went to Salva Dut’s web page and heard him talk about his projects in Sudan to bring water to villages that did not have wells. The students were thrilled—amazed and totally engaged—to see and hear Salva talk about his long walk as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and hear his stories of how he went to school in America and started his foundation to bring water to the villages of Sudan—even to villages in which other tribes lived with whom Salva’s tribe had negative relationships in the past. Salva was about peace and working for the betterment of all those he could impact positively in his homeland—not just about his own specific tribal group. This book transformed many students, and inspired them to want to read more about the struggles of other students. This is a book and an experience we will treasure and that will lead to many other experiences as we continue to focus on what is happening in our larger, international world of different and yet closely linked communities.


Birchak, B., Connor, C., Crawford, K. M., Kahn, L. H., Kaser, S., Turner, S., & Short, K. G.. (1998). Teacher study groups: Building community through dialogue and reflection. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Cuyler, M. (2007). Kindness is cooler, Mrs. Ruler. Illus. S. Yoshikawa. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Park, L. S. (2010). A long walk to water. New York: Clarion.

Tavangar, H. S. (2009). Growing up global: Raising children to be at home in the world. New York: Ballantine.

Woodson, J. (2012). Each kindness. Illus. E. B. Lewis. New York: Penguin/Nancy Paulsen.

Additional References

Books that focused on Wangari Mathaai

Johnson, J. C. (2010). Seeds of change: Wangari’s gift to the world. Illus. S. L. Sadler. New York: Lee & Low.

Napoli, D. J. (2010). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the trees of Kenya. Illus. K. Nelson. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nivola, C. (2008). Planting the trees of Kenya: The story of Wangari Maathai. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Winter, J. (2008). Wangari’s trees of peace: A true story from Africa. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Books that focused on William Kamkwamba

Kamkwamba, W., & Mealer, B. (2009). The boy who harnessed the wind: Creating currents of electricity and hope. New York: HarperCollins.

Kamkwamba, W., & Mealer, B. (2012). The boy who harnessed the wind. Illus. E. Zunon. New York: Dial.

Books in our text set focusing on issues in the Sudan

Park, L. S. (2010). A long walk to water. New York: Clarion.

Leembruggen, M. (2007). The Sudan Project: Rebuilding with the people of Darfur: A young person’s guide. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Williams, M. (2005). Brothers in hope: The story of the lost boys of Sudan. Illus. R. G. Christie. New York: Lee & Low.

Applegate, K. (2007). Home of the brave. New York: McMillon/Feiwel & Friends.


The aim of all International Baccalaureate programs is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world. IB learners strive to be:

Inquirers They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.

Knowledgeable They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.

Thinkers They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.

Communicators They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.

Principled They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.

Open-minded They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.

Caring They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.

Risk-takers They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.

Balanced They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.

Reflective They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.

Dawn Beyler has taught in the Champaign school district for 8 years, including kindergarten, 3rd grade, 2/3 gifted, 3/4 gifted, and 3rd gifted. Dawn worked in the preschool and child care field for 18 years before returning to work in elementary schools.

Mary Borgeson is a Reading Recovery Teacher/Descubriendo La Lectura (Spanish Literacy), who taught for 26 years in Champaign Unit Four schools, and worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador for three years. She received a Fulbright-Hays grant to Japan and India.

Susan Dilley is an instructional coach who has been teaching for nearly twenty years in elementary schools throughout Illinois.

Olga Velasquez Halpern is a second-grade bilingual classroom teacher. She came to the United States as a student in the Intensive English Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and stayed. She has been teaching since 1986 in both early childhood and elementary schools and was also an elementary school Spanish teacher.

Karla J. Möller is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. Her research and teaching focus is on the selection and use of multicultural literature and on conceptualizations of struggling and capability with regard to school-based reading events. She conducts collaborative research with local teachers.

Hallie Sturdyvin is a third grade bilingual teacher in her fourth year of teaching. Born and raised in Champaign, she loves to travel in the Caribbean.

WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 8 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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3 thoughts on “WOW Stories: Developing Engagements with Global Literature

  1. The journey with Genny and her students has been one of the most powerful experience I ever had with books about Korea. Childhood connections became a powerful tool for children to wake up their curiosity to Korean culture and kids in Korea. Eventually this whole experience let them to think about critical stance of reading. Even though language was not all in English, childhood connection helped them to jump over the huddle in language barrier yet helped them to study carefully other visual cues like illustrations in the Korean picture books in return. This particular story Genny O’Herron wrote is empowering for me as a member of ACLIP indeed.

  2. Candace Loudermilk says:

    I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed reading this article. When I search for information on reading within the classroom, the majority of the articles are based around the elementary and middle school aged students. I really appreciate this in-depth discussion of how the teacher helped her students make connections and allowed them to follow the path that the book took them on. I teach at the ninth grade level in all co-teaching classes. My students are mostly not very inquisitive. I believe they have been taught all along to simply read and do the questions. We have lost a lot of the fun in teaching reading and learning about the information in the book. I a very inspired by this classroom and the functionality of the processing of the actual information within the text. We need to teach our students how make those connection and inquire into why things are the way they are. I have always loved to read and have never understand the disdain that many students have for reading. However, I know that if I can get them even slightly interested in the subject matter at hand, then the process is so much smoother. Once again, this was a fantastic article that I will be passing along to my colleagues.

  3. Kathy Short says:

    Thanks, I agree that there are few examples of using global literature in secondary school classrooms and there is so much potential at that age level. May kids, however, have learned not to think in schools because not much has been asked of them beyond basic literal level thinking. So while they are capable of so much thinking, they also have a long instructional history of not thinking which we have to get beyond. The potential is there, though, as you point out.

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