WOW Stories Volume IX, Issue 2

Building Global Connections through Literature During Online Schooling
Julia Hillman

As a fifth-grade Teacher at Wheeler Elementary School, a Title 1 PreK-5 school in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), I had the privilege of working with students whose parents opted for online learning during the 2020-2021 school year. The school year presented many challenges for students and families due to the global pandemic but also brought insights as our classroom became a space for students to connect with each other in new ways and with characters across the globe. Our work as a Global Literacy Community fostered these connections and inspired meaningful book discussions and engagements during a time when many students were losing interest in school.

Our Global Literacy Community meetings were engaging from the beginning. We focused on reading and discussing picturebooks set in Middle Eastern countries and sharing engagement ideas. At one of our first meetings, Dr. Sakoi shared a book titled Under My Hijab by Hena Khan (2019). The story depicted a young girl’s six family members who wore their hijabs in different ways depending on their personalities. After reading, one of our group members commented that she liked the diversity shown in the story in terms of the characters’ skin tones, style of dress, where they lived, and how they wore their hijabs. I thought it was an empowering story for young girls who wear the hijab and read it to my class following our meeting. The experiences within our literacy community were valuable because we all connected around literature and took what we learned back to the classroom.

Selecting Books for Reading about Middle Eastern Countries

Several books were selected and shared with students, but the following two held students’ attention and sparked conversation: Tomorrow by Nadine Kaddan (2018) and King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan and Christiane Kromer (2019). The purpose behind selecting these books was to offer students access to characters in countries outside of their own, and to provide mirrors (Bishop, 1990) for students who are from the countries in a context outside of being an immigrant or refugee in the U.S. The importance of representing students who are from the Middle East in different settings and diverse contexts was central to our conversations within the Global Literacy Community, and reiterated by Dr. Yoo Kyung Sung, when I had my mind set on how I wanted to introduce the books by starting with students’ stories in the classroom. Dr. Yoo Kyung Sung pointed out that if we started there, students would likely share stories of immigration to the United States instead of stories of their home countries, which is what has typically happened in the past in my classroom. She added that I could start by sharing stories of children in a different country for a change, which was a great suggestion. All of the books were set in Middle Eastern countries outside of the U.S., such as Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Palestine.

Read Aloud, Discussion, and Engagements with Tomorrow

The picturebook Tomorrow is set in Syria and depicts a young boy who is stuck inside due to an ongoing civil war. I selected this because I thought students would relate to Yazan’s experiences and learn some new ways to cope with loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, and loss.

Some of the discussion questions posed by students and myself were: Who is the story about, how do you know? Where does it take place, what details support your answer? Why do you think he has to stay inside? Do you think he made the right decision by leaving without permission? Why didn’t his parents yell at him, or ground him? Why did his mother suggest they paint a picture of a park on his wall? How did he feel after painting? What connections did you make to the story? What did you learn from the story?

Students’ responses to explicit questions were quick in coming, but inferences took time. They assumed Yazan had to stay inside because of Covid, even after prompts to use what they already know, the text itself, and clues from the illustrations to support their answers. I wondered if they were paying attention to the details at all because the dark colors, damaged buildings, and absence of anyone outside were not factoring into their responses. But, as we turned the pages, their responses began to change. What stood out to me from this reading was that students connected what they were experiencing to the story based on one event instead of looking carefully at the details. I realized we needed to take more time to read slowly, carefully, and to discuss what we read.

I noticed students empathized with Yazan, commenting that they understood why he left the house without parent permission because he was bored, missed his friends, missed the park, and wondered why he couldn’t go outside, like they had all wondered during the Covid lockdown.

S: He couldn’t see his friends. He couldn’t do anything, no park, swimming, riding his bike. This is the same as what we’re going through right now.

S: He can’t go outside, like us, but he doesn’t have to do online school so he’s lucky.

S: No, maybe he just doesn’t have a computer. That’s not lucky.

Yazan, like our students, tired to keep himself busy by being creative. I asked students what he did to keep from getting bored in order to focus their attention on actions they may have taken to make staying at home more bearable.

S: He drew, built a castle out of pillows, made paper airplanes.

S: He was still bored though. That’s sad.

S: He feels the same way I do.

Although Yazan tried to keep himself busy, he was frustrated that his parents had lost interest in him. They were glued to the T.V. screen like we were glued to our computer screens. That’s when Yazan lost it and screamed at his parents.

T: Why did he scream at his parents?

S: Because he wanted to go outside. He was mad because he was so bored. He wanted to go to the park. He wanted to ride his bike. They were ignoring him.

Yazan didn’t know why he couldn’t go outside, but our students did know why they couldn’t. I wondered if it was fair for his parents to shelter him from the facts, but students had not posed the question, so I prompted.

T: Do you think if he knew why he couldn’t go outside, he would feel better?

S: Maybe, he might still be mad though.

S: Why didn’t they tell him?

S: Maybe they didn’t want him to get scared.

Did students think it was fair for his parents to withhold that information? I wondered but didn’t press further.

Unequipped to make an informed decision, Yazan goes outside without his parents’ permission and soon finds himself alone and afraid. I wondered what students thought about this decision.

T: Do you agree or disagree with Yazan’s decision to leave the house without his parents’ permission?

S: Yes, because he was bored, but it might not be safe because it looks kind of scary out there.

As most kids do when they break a rule, Yazan fears his parents’ reactions, especially his father and fears his father will “tell him off: which he did not do.

T: Why didn’t Yazan’s dad “tell him off” for leaving the house?

S: He feels bad for him because he’s so bored. He understands why he wants to leave. He loves his son and feels bad.

The story ends with Yazan and his mom painting a mural of the park he wanted to visit so badly on his wall. She also tells him why he can’t go outside.

T: Why did Yazan and his mom paint a park on his wall?

S: To make him feel better. He wanted to go, but can’t, so now he can pretend.

T: Why did she tell him about what was going on outside?

S: She told him because he could get hurt if he tries to go out again.

T: What would you paint on your wall if you had permission?

S: A beach, Minecraft, Fortnite, a panda bear, a sunset, Dare Devil, Among Us…

After reading the story, we read the letter from the author located at the back of the book, which begins with “Have you ever been stuck in the house when you’re desperate to go outside?” Kaddan went on to explain that many people in Syria are forced to remain inside because there’s a war going on, and it’s too dangerous to go outside.

T: What did you learn from the story?

S: People have to stay inside for different reasons, not just Covid. Sometimes there’s fighting, even a war going on outside.

T: I learned that it’s a good idea to explain why you made a rule, like no going outside. Otherwise, a person might break the rule and end up getting hurt.

After reading Tomorrow, we discussed how to respond to the story. Students liked the idea of creating a mural in their rooms like Yazan and his mother had. We discussed whether this was feasible and decided that since we would need parent permission and supplies, which some students did not have, we should try another idea. As our conversation continued, a student suggested that we create an art wall instead. He said that instead of drawing or painting on our walls, we could add a new drawing to the wall in their homes each week, and share our work at the end of the year. Students liked the idea, and we decided that the art could be in response to what we read, or just something we were interested in drawing.

Students created their first artwork for their art wall titled Two Windows, in response to Tomorrow. I asked students to create a window and show what they want to see when they look out their window and to do the same for Yazan by putting themselves in his shoes. After drawing and coloring, students shared their work in breakout sessions, then with the whole group. At the time, I just thought the engagement sounded fun, but afterwards, I realized it was also a way for students to use art to cope with staying inside during the lockdown.

Read Aloud and Discussion of King for a Day

When I asked, “Who wants to read?”, several students raised their hands and our story began. Some of the discussion questions students focused on as they read King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan were: What is Basant? Where is Lahore? What does Insha Allah mean? Why do they go to the rooftops to fly the kites? Why is that boy bullying girls?

Students again located answers to explicit questions quickly, and had different ideas for why one of the characters in the story was engaged in bullying. One response was, “Kids get treated badly at home and take it out on other people.” Another student responded, “Sometimes people who are bullied bully others.” A third reply, “Some people don’t care if they hurt other people.”

After the read aloud, students took turns retelling the story: The main character, Malik, is a great kite flyer. He uses his kite, Falcon, to win the kite battle and teach the town bully a lesson. Because Malik was kind, creative and helpful, he became king for a day.

The next time I read this story with the class, I want to ask which character they connect with most in the story and why. This story was selected initially because it addresses several important topics, one being bullying, and I thought it might bring insights to students who need reminders for how to treat their classmates. I have found that bringing the issue to students’ attention through a story can be more effective than having a one-on-one conversation about it.

Our class did not actually work on the following engagements, but upon reflection, I would like to offer these choices next year:

  • Create a kite for Basant out of materials found at home.
  • Use the art style in the book-mixed media collage to depict the lesson or moral of the story.
  • Create a brainstorm map of the possible causes of bullying.
  • Create a skit or role play that includes how to stand up to a bully.
  • Create a poem, song, and/or dance about Basant.
  • Create an infomercial about Basant Kites you make and sell.
  • Research the history of Basant and create an informational poster to share with the class.
  • Come up with your own spring celebration. What would people do, wear, eat, and what symbols, items, animals, colors, would represent spring your celebration?
  • Create a Basant Kite Rap Battle with a partner. Falcon vs. Goliath
  • Rewrite the story so that Malik’s little sister, and the other girl who was bullied save themselves from the bully without Malik’s help.
  • Rewrite the story so that the bully apologizes and fixes his mistakes after losing the kite battle and becomes friends with Malik.

Students’ Requests to Explore Ramadan

An important part of our class readings and discussions came around Ramadan because students were excited about it. During our reading block, a student said, “Hey, did you know it’s Ramadan? We should read about it!” The class quickly perked up and agreed. One book that stood out was The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard and Laura K. Horton (2019). This story offered many important lessons and students again connected to the main character’s experiences throughout the text. The main character, Sofia, wanted more than anything to fast for Ramadan. She tried her best throughout the day and eventually needed something to eat before the evening feast that would break the fast. Sofia likely felt bad about it, but decided to make herself useful by helping to prepare the evening meal for her family. Students were able to connect to Sofia by offering examples of times they really wanted to do something but weren’t ready yet, like riding a bike, swimming, working on a math problem, or passing a level in a favorite video game.

This story also led to conversations about understanding and respecting differences with respect to religious practices. We discussed how students may need special considerations during Ramadan if they’re fasting, like sitting out of P.E. or going to the library or gym for lunch. I realized that in the absence of reading and learning about Ramadan, students may see such considerations as unfair, and I’m glad we took the time to have this discussion.

Final Thoughts

My biggest take away from the Global Literacy Community is that taking time to read and discuss books with fellow educators and experts in the field is meaningful. I learned something new each time we met, from listening to participants’ perspectives and ideas. I think this is also what students experienced in the classroom.

Children’s Literature Cited
Kaadan, N. (2018). Tomorrow. Oxford, UK: Lantana.

Khan, H. (2019). Under my hijab. Illus. A. Jaleel. New York: Lee & Low Books.

Khan, R. (2013). King for a day. Illus. C. Krömer. New York: Lee & Low.

Lumbard, Y. R. (2019). The gift of Ramadan. Illus. L. K. Horton. Park Ridge, IL: Whitman.


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors (

Julia Hillman teaches fifth grade at Wheeler Elementary School.

© 2021 by Julia Hillman

WOW Stories, Volume IX, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work by Julia Hillman at

WOW stories: connections from the classroom
ISSN 2577-0551