4th and 5th Grade Book Club: Paper Wishes, by Lois Sepahban

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After the success of our last book club, I needed a fun and creative idea to keep the momentum going. It was time for 5th grade to have a chance to meet and discuss again, and I knew that this grade had something special – a unique enthusiasm for reading and the ability to hold deep, meaningful discussions about text. I also knew that they were a creative force with energy to spare. I wracked my brain trying to come up with a creative plan for them when it hit me – why am I the one doing the planning? Why not let them do it? Since fifth grade was so passionate and capable with their reading and discussion, why not let them put a book club together for younger readers?

A book club planned and facilitated by students, for students. From that premise, the idea took off. For our text, I chose the book Paper Wishes, a new novel from author Lois Sepahban. Set in the student-beloved backdrop of WWII but telling a unique story, this timely and thought-provoking novel was a perfect fit for our students. Here is a short summary from Amazon.com:

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her and her grandfather’s dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat and gets as far as the mainland before she is caught and forced to abandon Yujiin. She and her grandfather are devastated, but Manami clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can reclaim the piece of herself that she left behind and accept all that has happened to her family.

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-8-48-10-amI shared our new book club choice with students using this short video. When I told the fifth graders about the book, they were excited: But when I informed
them of the really exciting news – the fact that they would be the ones planning and facilitating the book club, with fourth grade students as their guests – I could hardly believe their enthusiasm. 5th grade planners and I met once a week to brainstorm ideas, create teams, and make our plans into a reality. We had 30 fifth graders sign up to run the club, so we had quite a crowd – and they had TONS of ideas! One thing was clear right away; they loved the feel of our Booked book club, and wanted the Paper Wishes gathering to have the same exciting, immersive feeling, with multiple stations and lots of room to move and play. I let the fifth grade planning committee know that I had high expectations – they would need to do research and preparation outside of our group planning time if they were going to pull off all of their big plans. And prepare img_4367they did! Planners initially filled an entire whiteboard with ideas for book club stations, but we finally landed on four stations that connected to our favorite parts of Paper Wishes:

  • a Japanese tea ceremony like the ones Manami’s family treasured during their time in the internment camp
  • art and origami like Manami used to share her paper wishes with the wind
  • a station of WWII books and a “prison-like” experience to help readers understand what characters went through losing their homes and living in camps
  • an outdoor station to give participants a chance to play baseball, Ron (Manami’s brother)’s favorite game

img_4360Over the next three weeks, we held in-class planning sessions, a lunch meeting, and lots of before- and after-school sessions. Two students brought materials from home to recreate the feel of a prison, allowing readers to experience what Manami’s family felt when they were forced from their home. They worked hours after school in the library to get the details just right. Another group made paper lanterns to string above the tea ceremony,  then took them home to spray paint them to match their color scheme. Student volunteers borrowed materials from patient teachers all over the school (thank you!) to get the library just right. As word spread about our book club plans, fourth grade sign-ups came pouring in, and before we knew it, we had 30 fourth graders registered to participate. In case you’re keeping track, that’s 30 fifth graders, 30 fourth graders, and one grinning librarian!

img_4433Finally, the day arrived. We spent all morning transforming sections of the library into our stations, setting up furniture and finalizing materials and details. Fourth graders arrived to a short introduction from me and a sign pointing them to their activity choices. For the first 20 minutes of our meeting time, fifth graders manned their chosen stations while the fourth graders rotated freely. They got to relax with tea and Japanese music in the tea ceremony, create a paper lantern at the origami station, and do their best to figure out the combination and escape from the hand-made “prison”. Students waiting in line for an activity had the option of watching a WWII slide-show documentary playing nearby or browsing through a selection of WWII books on display. Out in the courtyard, a team of fifth graders kept a baseball game going as fourth grade readers cycled in and out, taking a turn at bat just like Ron did to keep his spirits up while trapped in the camp.

img_4465For the last 25 minutes of our meeting, readers broke into small groups and sat to begin discussing the book. Fifth grade planners had created a list of open-ended discussion questions to kick-start conversation within their small groups. Teachers brought a pizza lunch around to participants as they discussed the plot, characters, and feelings about Paper Wishes. This was an emotional story, with a lot to talk about – and I heard some great conversations happening around the room. After our club concluded, fifth graders agreed that the discussion was the hardest part of the day. They said that staying focused amidst the excitement, keeping the conversation on-topic, and getting readers to open up about such an emotional story was harder than they expected. As a teacher and frequent book club discussion leader, I’m sure I have no idea what they’re talking about 😉


img_4455Paper Wishes
was my first experience with a student-created, student-run book club, but it won’t be my last. I had a great time throughout the process watching my fifth graders research, plan, and collaborate on book club details. They had to problem solve, think critically, stay flexible, and work hard to cooperate. With such a large planning committee, it wasn’t always easy to reach a consensus or to keep the group on task – but they worked hard and took complete ownership of the project. It was their team, working hard to share their take on the story, creating their day. I hope they are as proud of their hard work as I am. I used to think that the best part of my job was helping literature to come alive for my students. That has now been dethroned by the joy I felt watching my students work hard to make literature come alive for each other.

Thank you to all of the students that worked, planned, and read to make our Paper Wishes Book Club possible. Your work inside and outside of school hours created a unique and rewarding experience that your guests will remember for years to come. An additional thank you to fourth and fifth grade teachers for being so flexible and supportive, creating enthusiasm in your classes, and volunteering your time. We couldn’t do it without you!

Learn more about author Lois Sepahban here.

Like this book club? In case you haven’t heard, I’m kind of a book club nut. Read more about our wacky, wild, and one-of-a-kind book clubs here

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