Friday, July 11, 2008

Homes and Families

I knew it was a real gamble. How would children in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence deal with a read-aloud theme of “Darfur”? Even if we managed not to mention the rape, burned bodies, or other atrocities, focusing instead on the resulting homelessness and loss of parents, would these children who have experienced their own atrocities freak out or would they identify with the plight of children halfway around the world?

I must say the children in this shelter have a mixed track record for their participation and their attentiveness during the Thursday night read-alouds. Sometimes I feel good if I have engaged even one small mind for 10 minutes. They range from 3-year-olds who are mostly content to sit on your lap and play with your hair to a precocious 7-year-old girl who was recently suspended from school for beating another girl up to 8-year-old boys who are heavily into basketball and video games.

After we had done the usual introductions and read over the rules (raise your hand, don’t hit anyone else, have fun, and (my rule) treat the books lovingly), a 5-year-old boy gave me the perfect entree for the evening’s topic when he said, “In school we’re talking about houses around the world.” So I began, “Halfway around the world in Africa, in a country called Sudan, one group of people are being very mean to another group, including making them leave their homes.”

And then we began reading Mary Williams’ book “Brothers in Hope,” which is the story told by a Sudanese boy, whose village is burned and who loses his family. It begins,

I was far from home attending my animals when my village was attacked. I could hear bangs like thunder and see flashing lights in the distance. Suddenly an airplane was circling above. Clouds of dust rose from the ground and bullets began to rain down on my herd. Many of the animals were killed. Others ran away in fear. I ran back to my village to find my family, but everyone was gone. The houses were burning and everything was destroyed.

At this point the 9 little faces in my audience were mesmerized in a way I had never before seen. They stayed totally engaged through the next 20 minutes as we learned how the young boy had banded with other such boys and they had walked first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya in search of safety and shelter and food. It talks of what the boy learns along the way and how he always carries the words of his father with him on his journey, “Garang, be brave. Your heart and mind are strong. There is nothing you cannot do.” And Garang is very brave as he becomes a surrogate parent to 5-year-old Chuti. There is no fairy-tale ending with families reunited and safely back in their homes, but it does reflect the love and dedication of those trying to help boys like Garang and Chuti and the small successes they learn to treasure.
The next book focused on the problem of drought experienced by much of Africa. “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema is a lilting folktale which begins,

But one year when rains
were so very belated,
That all of the big wild
creatures migrated.
Then Ki-pat helped to end
that horrible drought –
And this story tells
how it all came about!

This is Ki-pat,
who watched his herd
As he stood on one leg,
like the big stork bird;

The children couldn’t wait to find out how Ki-pat had made it rain on the Kapiti Plain.

Their activity for the night took them back to the lost boys of Sudan. Each child was given a canvas square and fabric markers. I asked them to draw something that might make a child in a refugee camp feel happy. Their canvas squares will be sent to a camp in neighboring Chad where children from Darfur will decorate the other side. Then the squares will be joined together to help make a tent to give shelter to people who have lost their homes.

It turns out homes and families are just as important here as they are in far-away Africa. It was a sobering read-aloud, but one that caused each of us to think about homes and families, here and there.


Blogger Kristin said...

I've never seen the kids so attentive. You did a great job!

3:39 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- You and our new volunteer Joe were a tremendous help in providing the tactile security that many of the children need. I came away feeling good about what the 3 of us had done last night! The kids were exceptionally well-behaved.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Kids recognize and identify with far more than we realize. Something in those stories struck a chord. There's no point in sugar-coating what people are capable of doing to one another. A far better approach is the one you're taking - offer them some hope for their situation. Good for you!

7:59 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

sounds like you hit them (pardon this pun) where they lived. Kiddos are much more empathetic than we often give them credit for. They probably related to the losing of the homes and the wander-ness of the boys in the first book. Bravo for a really good lesson plan (feels pretty awesome, doesn't it?)!

7:01 PM  
Blogger steve said...

When I first started reading this post I thought 'Thats a helluva thing to read to kids" but ya know the days of 'Rebecca of sunnybrook Farm " and the boxcar kids" are probably way out of touch these days. even ol Ribsy, the dog that made his way 1000 miles to get back to the boy that loved him....
probably just smacks pure BS to kids like you are reading to...they know whatup...

By th by...i ran across a Jewish childrens writer from early this century I think...charming stories...the one that sticks out was "The Story of the Birds".

2:28 PM  

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