Sunday, September 18, 2016

Armchair Travelers unite! Challenge your students to read around the world

Armchair travelers unite! Get your middle schoolers involved in the Read Around the World Challenge! How many countries can you read? This photo is one of our books--Grandfather Gandhi, which is one of our four titles representing India.
Next month, I will challenge my middle school students to read picture books about countries around the world. I have been planning this project for months, but it's been kicking around in the back of my mind for years. Back in April, I purchased around 100 multicultural picture books for older students. Back then, I didn't really know exactly how I wanted to do this; I just knew it felt necessary for my students.

This post is the first of a two-part series. Today, I am focusing on why I'm doing this, set-up, and an overview of how the challenge will work. When this project launches in a couple of weeks, I will post the second part, which will detail how I'm promoting the challenge in my school, problems I've encountered, and how my students and faculty are receiving it.


Be an Armchair Traveler! We have 67 countries represented through our picture books. Can you read them all?


1. Increase the "cool factor" of our fabulous picture book collection.

Picture books are not just for preschoolers! This is a misconception I fight constantly. I encounter picture book resistance from students, from parents, and even from some teachers and school administrators. Most of these objections come from people who haven't read a picture in a long time. I will agree that many picture books are targeted at a very young audience, but there are many, many picture books in recent years that are targeting older audiences, even adults. I am convinced if my picture book nay-sayers took a few minutes to read Patricia Polacco's tearjerer Pink and Say or Elvgren's resistance story The Whispering Town, they would change their minds about picture books pretty quickly.

2. Increase general reading among my huge ELL population.

I am in an international school where less than half of my students are native English speakers. The majority of our student body are students whose English language skills vary widely. We have some students who speak little English and must focus to understand even the most simple instructions from their teachers. Other students are learning English as their third or even fourth language. Some of our students have grown up around so many languages that they do not have one dominate first language.

Like graphic novels (also fabulous with ELLs!), picture books have lots of pictures to accompany the text, making them more accessible to ELLs.

3. Increase general knowledge of the big, wide world.

My school has students and teachers from something like 60 countries worldwide. Many of my students have parents who originate from two different countries. Many of our students hail from families that can afford to travel internationally during holidays.

And while all these things are true for my students, I doubt many of them really understand the culture and history of most of the countries they visit. They visit these places because of their touristy beaches or their incredible skiing or outdoor sports environments. But do they leave the pristine beaches and posh hotel rooms and travel into the heart of the country? Do they know how the average citizen there lives? What do they eat? What do they do all day long? Do children go to school, and if so, what are the conditions like? What is the political climate? Is there freedom? Chances are very good that my students, even if they have visited these countries, could not really answer these questions.

Students will record their reading on this sheet. When front and back are printed, there is room to record 25 titles. I included the TPT link for all the materials I used for this project at the bottom of this post.

4. Give context to current events.

This past summer, a military coup briefly overtook the government of Turkey. The United Kingdom voted to break away from the EU. Venezuelans encountered widespread food shortages and violence in public schools. Bombs went off in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and many other Middle Eastern countries. There is an ongoing famine in northern Nigeria killing thousands of refugee babies and children.

Our students might hear about these things in the news. They may see images on TV. But what is really happening there? Why is it important? How does it affect the people who live in these countries? Picture books featuring a story about a child or teen in another place can help give the news a face.

I would never send my children into dangerous situations, but I can find picture books about war-torn regions to help them understand that the faces and places they sees on the news are real. I don't want to scare my children, but I don't want to raise kids whose heads are perpetually stuck in the sand. Giving the news a human face helps develop empathy in children, and we will never see any change in the world if our kids only know what's happening on their block and in their school and on YouTube videos of people playing online games.

5. Understand other cultures.

Most people in the world do not live like our students do. They may have a different religion or no religion. They wear different clothes. Their climate might be hotter or colder or wetter or drier. They may ski to school, or ride on a boat, or walk 10 miles through thick brush. Or they may not go to school at all. Maybe they eat foods our students would never consider, or maybe their beliefs mark the foods our kids love as 100% off limits. Maybe they don't have the freedom to speak out against injustice. Maybe they've never heard of the internet or TV or the Kardashians.

When I read the Comments sections of international news stories, I see the need for people to connect with the human experience beyond their own backyard. While our students may not ever visit another country, it's still good for them to experience other places and people and ideologies, if only through a book. For many students, that picture book about poverty in Uganda may represent their entire knowledge of life of regular people in Uganda.



Order Your Books

Unless you already have lots of multicultural picture books representing lots of different countries, you will probably need to order some or many new ones. I am constantly on the lookout for new countries to add to my picture book collection, and to be honest, I've had a great time researching them! My advice for ordering books is to be deliberate if there are certain countries you are looking to add.

Things to consider:
  • Where are your students from? Do you have lots of students from Central American countries? Does your school service any immigrant communities? Do you have any refugees?

  • What countries have been in the news lately?

  • What historical periods are studied at your school, and how can your picture books help enhance these periods? What countries are affected?

  • What human-rights issues are important to your students? What is the status of these issues in other countries?
  • What traditional stories do your students know? Is there a version from another culture? Though there are tons of Cinderella stories from other countries. I also looked for lesser-known stories like Raama iyo Boqorkii Cirfiidka = Rama and the Demon King (India) and Kraken-ka the Komodo Dragon : A tale of Indonesia.

Make the books accessible and easy for students to find.

Grandfather Gandhi spine label, using the printable Asia labels below.Once you have received your beautiful new books, you need to make it easy for students to find them. I've spent the past two weeks labeling each of my multicultural picture books with a country flag (top of the book spine) and the name of the country (on the front cover, near the flag). This step is important because many picture books will not have the country's name in the title or the description. Even a catalog search for the country does not always bring up the picture book(s) I got for that country.

Decide how you will promote this with your students.

All summer, I debated on having a prize incentive for this project. I thought about offering a prize drawing for reading a continent or for reading a certain number of countries. I thought about creating small stickers to represent each country, then students could get a "passport stamp" for each country they read.

Ultimately, I have decided to scrap the prize incentives altogether, at least for now. No, some students will not participate. Some will read a few picture books and give up on the challenge. But I really do think many of my students will get into the challenge. Picture books are short and visually interesting. Most can be read silently in under 10 minutes. I will read some of the books when classes come to the library for their bi-weekly library lessons. In short, I think I will have lots of student interest without offering any prizes or gimmicky incentive at all. I think many students will do this challenge just because it's FUN and not terribly difficult.

Curious about the USA books?

Yes, there are thousands and thousands of books that could possibly represent the USA. I'm guessing here, but I would imagine that the vast majority of the world's picture books written in English come from only a few countries--the US, the UK, and Canada.

So what did I choose for the USA?

Well, I wanted to pick books that represented the US as a country. That embodied our freedom, our independent spirit, our diversity, and our beautiful landscapes. I also didn't want the USA books to be white-washed or to paint a too-perfect picture. It was very difficult, and I'm sure not everyone will agree with my choices. They were:

The Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Pena)
I chose this book because of its multi-cultural characters and its rich portrayal of city life. This story of a boy and his grandmother's trip across a big city (New York?) realistically portrays the wide assortment of people and socioeconomic statuses that make up a big city. I loved this book so much that I wrote up some lesson ideas on ways to use it with older readers.

John, Paul, George, and Ben (Lane Smith)
This choice is a bit cheeky, considering I work at a British international school in China. But this title about America's founding fathers and how they helped win our independence from England could spark some interesting discussions about point of view and who writes the history books. In case you are interested, our British teachers refer to the Revolutionary War as "The American War for Independence."

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Fight for Desegregation (Duncan Tonatiuh)
I chose this one because of our middle school's upcoming production of Hairspray. I am really excited about this production because my son has been chosen to play Edna Turnblad, the part made famous by John Travolta. Because our little actors hail from all corners of the world, some of the teachers put together a presentation to explain the segregation
themes and language in the play. Many knew nothing at all about civil rights in the USA in the 1960s. None of them (not even my American son) knew what segregation means. Enter this book, which tells the true story of Sylvia Mendez, an Hispanic girl who, 10 years before Brown vs. The Board of Education, fought for desegregation of "whites only" schools in California.

America the Beautiful (Katharine Lee Bates)
In Chinese, America is called Měiguó, which means "beautiful country." One of our British teachers told me last week that most Americans didn't have a passport because, well, why would they? They have everything right there--beaches, mountains, open countryside. No matter what the world may think of America, no one can argue that the American landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. I seriously
cannot tell you how much I miss my big Texas sky! This book is a perfect choice because it is a famous poem and patriotic song with colorful background illustrations that show just how beautiful the American landscape truly is.

Up next...promotion and kick-off!

So what am I doing to promote the Challenge? Well, to be frank, I'm not entirely sure at this point. I know I will kick-off the Challenge during our library lessons after our Fall Break. I plan to put together a presentation about my inspiration for the Challenge (a British journalist who did a similar Read Around the World project) and telling students about some of the books.

I'll probably also do some sort of "Did you know...?" trivia about country names and controversial divisions. Did you know, for example, that in 2015, the Czech Republic was renamed Czechia? Do you know why some countries say Myanmar and others say Burma? Did you know that China claims both Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China? Do you know what modern-day countries made up Ancient Mesopotamia?

I'll also be reading the books aloud to my students. I'm thinking I'll give them a choice of three countries to "visit" today, and I will read the book that represents the country they select. This will also likely involve some background information and photos of the three countries, so I'm sure my Humanities and World Geography teachers will really love me with this project!

Stay tuned for the next part of our Armchair Travelers series, which I will post in October (once I figure out exactly how this will all go down!).

Kit: Armchair Travelers Unite! Read Around the World Challenge ($4 on TPT)

Link to this kit at my TPT Store


  1. We are doing something similar in elementary - We've got a big world map up, and displays of books from each continent, I'm encouraging students to read around the world, snap a picture onto a padlet and put a sticker on the world map of where they've read a (picture) book from.

  2. I love the idea for this program. Were there any websites or lists you used when doing your book ordering? Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Hi, Kerry, I used a LOT of resources for this project--Goodreads, Titlewave, Googling "picture books about ____ (insert country)," Pinterest (I have a Pinterest board full of multicultural booklists..., students and teachers from my international school...The thing that I noticed most is that a lot of countries have picture books, but you can't always find them by the country name. And many, many of the multicultural picture books were written by Americans, Canadians, British, and Australians. Chinese and Indian writers are well-represented as well.


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