Can you infuse students with school spirit through the study of a novel?
Rachel Schwartz, the head of the middle school English department at the Moriah School in Englewood, would answer that with a resounding yes.
Moriah Reads Day — celebrated this year on January 16 — brought together sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for a day of “appreciating a book beyond its cover.” Judging from the reaction of several participants, school spirit was very much in evidence.
Appropriately, the event coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ms. Schwartz said. Created some five years ago by Ms. Schwartz and now-retired teacher Marie Doench, the event focuses on books that “open the door to a world children have never before experienced.
“We want to expose them to a world they’ve never been to, choosing a book that has extensions going far beyond English and history class.”
This year’s book, “Homeless Bird” by Gloria Whelan, “is the story of a young girl in India who goes through some tough losses and perseveres,” said Ms. Schwartz, who chooses the books each year and, admittedly, “lives and breathes this program.” She has been at Moriah for 17 years.
To provide a context for the young readers, “there is a comprehensive curriculum in social studies and history classes that provides background,” in this case on India, the caste system, Hinduism, the power of the Ganges, and other related subjects. English classes focus on analysis and comprehension of the book itself. Speaking immediately after this year’s Moriah Reads program, Ms. Schwartz said, “Today we took the book and made it explode beyond its cover.”
The day began with a reading of an Indian folk tale, “One Grain of Rice,” in each of the middle school’s 12 classes. Since the story has a mathematical connection, a math worksheet was distributed to each student. To add a religious component to the activity, teachers were asked to “focus on the underlying theme of ‘the power of kindness’ and discuss how one good deed can lead to another.”
Later, guest speaker Elizabeth Zimmer told students about the history of Jews in India and about her own life there. Her family has lived there for hundreds of years, steeped in Jewish culture and religious observance. “Afterwards, the children cooked Indian food based on her mother’s authentic, Indian, kosher recipes,” Ms. Schwartz said, noting that they cooked at 11 a.m. and ate at 4 p.m. “Each class made two dishes” — tikka chicken curry and yellow cumin rice — “with ingredients provided for them by our Chief Chef for the day, Rabbi Lipstein.” (Rabbi Eitan Lipstein usually teaches Hebrew at Moriah.)
Subsequent workshops embraced a variety of topics, each related to a theme in “Homeless Bird.” Ms. Schwartz talked about three Holocaust survivors, focusing on how they made it through a difficult situation. Another workshop tackled the issue of widows — the main character in the Whelan book was a young widow — and how they are treated in the Jewish community.
“We had a workshop on the role of women across the globe, particularly women who have made an impact on the world; the power of water in Hinduism and Judaism; and the parallel between Megillat Ruth and ‘Homeless Bird,’” Ms. Schwartz said. “We also had a perseverance walk and an ‘escape the room’ activity.” The “grit challenges” she said, were accompanied by the question:, “Where do you get your strength from?”
“Figures in Tanach show great perseverance, like Koly,” the young widow in the novel. “Yosef, for example, was someone who had to go through great challenges,” she said.
Ms. Schwartz said that it is important for children to be emotionally involved in what they are reading, because “it creates a connection to the book. They then want to learn more. There’s no learning without such a connection.” She believes as well that when you read books about other cultures, “it gives you a greater appreciation of your own culture and a better understanding of the world.”
Ms. Schwartz said she felt these goals were realized during Book Day, and that she “felt great about it. We took so many elements of Indian culture and made them about Judaism.” If the students had trouble relating to the idea of a 13-year-old having to participate in an arranged marriage, “they can relate to the idea of 13-year-olds being controlled by their parents in ways they’re not always happy with.
“We took a mainstream novel about a little girl in India and turned it into grand lessons about how people treat one another and the power of a child who shows grit,” she added. “It was a cross-curricular, multifaceted day. And we didn’t have to spend a ton of money. It was authentic teaching — and that was the most powerful part. We didn’t have to go on a trip or bring in entertainment. The entertainment was the learning.”
Eighth-graders Mia Greenbaum and Sophia Ratzker, both of Englewood, said they enjoyed both the book and the activities created around it.
“It was a lot of fun,” Sophia said. “Everyone really enjoyed it.”
She said she felt a connection to the book because “We all have challenges.” But unlike Koly, the heroine of the story, “I can’t imagine leaving my home for good. I don’t feel I could overcome those challenges; but she was so strong, she made herself a hero.”
The 13-year-old said she enjoys reading and learning about other cultures and how they’re both different from and the same as her own. For example, she said, she learned from the guest speaker that while Indian Jewish families celebrate Shabbat, “They have different foods for Shabbat than for the rest of the week. I also learned that practicing Judaism is not always that easy in India. We celebrate all the holidays, but in India they don’t.”
Mia enjoyed the book as well, and said that she learned a lot from the speaker about similarities and differences between Jews living in India and those living here. “I noticed some similarities,” she said, citing “whole families getting together on the holidays and eating special meals.”
She pointed out that there was more than one heroine in the story, noting especially a woman who helped Koly find a new life. “It’s important to learn about other cultures because not everyone in the world is Jewish,” she said. “It’s important to know about them.”
Both girls said their favorite part of Moriah Reads Day was cooking the Indian food.