From Wonder to Social Justice: How One Book Changed a Community

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coverOver here at SLC we were touched by R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder about a boy coping with a craniofacial disorder. In her article, Angela Hartman describes how she shared  the message of Wonder with her school and the wider community. If you haven’t read the book, you need to go get it right now and see if it doesn’t inspire you to “choose kind.”

Subscribers to SLC can read more articles like this at School Library Connection.

A number one New York Times bestseller and still winning awards, the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio continues to be a favorite of people of all ages. For those not familiar with Wonder, it is a middle-grade novel about a boy named August Pullman who was born with severe craniofacial anomalies. As a baby and a child, Auggie underwent twenty-seven different surgeries. He is finally able to begin public school for the first time in fifth grade. Chapters are told from the perspective of different characters, illustrating how Auggie is treated because of the way he looks. Readers learn that Auggie just wants to be a normal kid and to be accepted for the person he is. This book transformed our community.

One Book/One Community
Inspired by Palacio’s book and by a session I attended at the annual Texas Library Association Conference in 2015, I began a One Book/One Community project in Hutto Independent School District (HISD) using Wonder. After explaining my ideas to and getting backing from the entire library staff in our district, I wrote a grant proposal. Thanks to a generous grant from the Hutto Education Foundation, we were able to purchase over 800 copies of the book, both in English and in Spanish, to share at our campuses and with our community. The books were purchased through an organization called First Book (https://www.firstbook.org) at a greatly discounted price. Our superintendent, Dr. Douglas Killian, encouraged me from the time I presented my grant proposal idea to him.

The success of the One Book/One Community initiative was due in great part to the library staff on each HISD campus and to the teachers who grabbed on to the idea and participated enthusiastically. The HISD library staff made sure the books got into the hands of teachers and kids?, endlessly promoted the book, and encouraged “choosing kind.” Teachers made time to share the book aloud. Teachers and library staff had discussions with kids about compassion, friendship, and tolerance. Parents, siblings, and grandparents talked about Auggie. It genuinely took a village of supporters.

Wonder was read at all campuses by most grade levels. Teachers were able to choose if and how they wanted to participate. Some classes read it together with a set of books. Some teachers read one copy aloud and some classes listened to the audio recording. We had copies available for checkout in each library and we had “floating” copies that students, staff, and others could read, sign their name in, and pass on to a friend or family member. Wonder provided a connection at campuses between students of all ages and all abilities. We all loved Auggie and loved to talk about the book.

Community Links
Since this was truly a project to involve the entire community, the book was also introduced to our city manager, our mayor, HISD school board members, and district administrators. Even folks from our transportation department read Wonder after one curious bus driver asked why so many kids were reading the book on the bus. We shared copies of the book with local businesses, our firefighters, police officers, parents, and grandparents. The Hutto Public library joined us by posting information on their website and ordering additional copies in eBook format in both English and Spanish.

Links to the Classroom
There are countless valuable ways to use the book academically and we did. I shared an email with everyone in the district with links to ideas and resources to use with Wonder and teachers created and found excellent ideas on their own. We learned about precepts, character traits, point of view, vocabulary, inference, and themes. We wrote impressive poetry and created beautiful art. Students wrote journal entries reflecting on different parts of the book, and some students carried the thoughts in the book home as they were assigned to tell their parents about a certain part of the book and ask for their parent’s reaction. A first grade teacher commented that Wonder inspired some of her students to tackle reading a chapter book for the first time.

Character Links
Auggie’s story was used to begin conversations about how our actions and words can build someone up or truly hurt them. Random House, Inc., the publisherwonder 2 of the book, recommends an excellent program to pair with the book called “Choose Kind” (http://choosekind.tumblr.com/). As we read the book, teachers and librarians talked with students about what it means to be kind. It could not be assumed that every child understood the definition of the word. We discussed specific ways to be kind in classrooms and at home, and we modeled acts of kindness. One middle school teacher shared with her campus how one act of kindness had actually changed her life. Teachers tapped into a Random Acts of Kindness bingo game, Kindness Jars, and Random Acts of Kindness bulletin boards. Students took an online pledge to choose kind at the Random House website (http://www.randomhouse.com/kids/choose-kind/pledge.php). Students can be seen stopping at the “Pledge Kindness” wall in hallways to see which students have pledged kindness to others.

Positive results were seen in kids from second grade to twelfth grade who began making better behavior choices and standing up for those who needed it. Wonder taught us to not just be aware of differences in people, but to embrace those differences. I believe that as teachers, one of our most important jobs is to teach to the heart of kids. Reading and discussing Wonder has helped us cultivate empathy, a trait that is crucial to getting along and having a peaceful world.

As we read the book and learned about craniofacial deformities, students were taught about the “real-life Auggies.” The Children’s Craniofacial Association website (http://www.ccakids.com/) shares information about craniofacial anomalies and videos that show real kids like Auggie. These videos help foster compassion and give students an opportunity to make real life connections to the book.

Community Civic Action
wonder 3
On Saturday, April 16, 2016, our libraries hosted a Wonder 5K Fun Run, Walk, or Sleep In. When talking with students about sponsoring a race to raise money for the Children’s Craniofacial Association, they overwhelmingly chose to raise money for the “kids like Auggie.” All proceeds from race registrations benefited the Children’s Craniofacial Association in Dallas with the funds going towards sending CCA families to the Annual Summer Retreat. The retreat is often the only place where kids like our fictional Auggie get to see other kids with facial differences and where parents can interact with others who share similar experiences. The 2016 Annual Cher’s Summer Retreat will take place in June in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and our race raised enough money to send four entire families!

The Wonder Run was an untimed run held in our local city park and walking trails. The Parks and Recreation director from the City of Hutto helped plan the route and the city waived the park usage fees. Almost 400 people registered to race and the executive director of the Children’s Craniofacial Association, Erica Mossholder, participated in the event with us. The race festivities included a photo booth, shaved ice from Kona Ice, and live music. By offering an option to “Sleep In” during the race, we increased the number of registrations. People with prior plans or those who didn’t want to get out early on a Saturday morning still got the race t-shirt and supported a great cause. Thanks to R.J. Palacio for giving us permission to use the book cover image on the race t-shirts.

Volunteers showed up before dawn on a Saturday morning to help. These volunteers were cheerleaders, National Junior Honor Society members, student council members, JROTC members, parents, HISD teachers, coaches, staff, and community members. It took all of us to make the 5K happen.

Recently I sent out a survey to HISD staff asking for their feedback about the book and the project. These are some of the responses:

“Our kids are understanding more how their actions affect others in both negative and positive ways.”

“Students were observed engaged with reading the book at various times during the day including on the bus, after breakfast waiting for the bell to ring, and in line at dismissal while waiting to be picked up.”

“My students enjoyed the book and cannot wait to start the next one. They shared that they have asked their parents to read it.”

“My class LOVES this book. They want to stay after the bell rings to continue reading it.”

“My first grade students loved the book and some even bought copies for themselves.”

“I have noticed that kids have started to evaluate their responses to problems, issues, and conflicts, and are noticing how kind people were or how kind people were not.”

“We used the book to make connections between tolerance and diversity.”

“I love the idea of our community coming together to read one book.”

Over 78% responded that they felt students are more aware of good deeds and kind acts when they see them!

This was a huge project for a fairly small school district. We have one high school, two middle schools, and five elementary schools. None of our library staff had organized a 5K in the past and most of us are not “runners.” The One Book/One Community initiative and the race were successful because our library team worked together from the very beginning. It took their support and enthusiasm on each campus to build interest and to keep it going. District and campus administrators were supportive and our communications director continually spread the news for us. Our accounting department set up the online registration.

Soon after the race was over people began asking if we will organize a Wonder 5K again. A few have suggested we make it an annual event. As I ponder on the overall results of One Book/One Community and on the success of the fundraising effort, I can say that our libraries would consider sponsoring a Wonder 5K again. As with any big project, there were pros and cons and things that worked and things that didn’t. The biggest pro for me about Wonder and the 5K was meeting a family whose 3-year-old-daughter has craniofacial anomalies and has also endured numerous surgeries. This family gathered in Hutto from around Texas to walk the Wonder 5K. Our reach and our kindness touched people in our city and beyond. I believe Auggie would be proud and offer us a standing ovation.

Works Cited:
Palacio, R. J. Wonder. Random House, 2012.

hatmanAngela Hartman, is the librarian for secondary campuses at Hutto (TX) Independent School District. She has been a certified school librarian for twenty-two years. In 2015, Hartman was awarded the American Association of School Librarians Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award for her work in bringing Holocaust education to her school district. She presented at the National Council for Social Studies Annual Conference on collaborating with teachers in the library to teach the history of the Holocaust.

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