Fourth Graders Learn Empathy in Project Based Learning Unit


The fourth grade study of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal winning book Number the Stars is for many students a first exposure to the harsh circumstances faced by Jews during Nazi Occupation. Through the eyes of innocent ten-year-old Annemarie, the historically accurate novel, set in 1943 Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, tells the story of the commitment of the Danish Resistance to assist fleeing Jews. The country-wide dedicated effort of the Danes which resulted in more than 7,000 Jews safely escaping the country and fewer than 500 being captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. While the book is written in simple language, it conveys a very complex situation rife with deep emotions.

St. John’s fourth grade team, including the music, drama art faculty and school librarian, recognizes the valuable opportunities Lowry’s book provides for investigating this difficult time in world history. Students learn that heroism is sometimes about everyday people; even children have the power to make an important difference by doing the right thing. This is a significant realization for students to make, particularly at this age.

This project-based learning exercise is an artistic extension of the book. Over the course of their months-long study, fourth graders gain an ever-expanding vocabulary for understanding and articulating the emotional connections they make with the characters they meet in the book. Students’ work includes reading the book, which they are encouraged to do along with their parents, as well as creative writing, dramatic, artistic and musical interpretation As a first step, students are given a historical perspective to begin their study and reflection. Together, each fourth grade class writes and performs a musical production that examines the experiences of Jewish children living under the Nazi regime. Students develop a “word bank” of descriptive words that capture the emotions expressed in the book.

“What touched you?” is a question posed to prompt student reflection. Within group discussion, these words become themes and phrases which become lyrics. In short order, students are ready for the next step, putting their poetry to music.

“What does this sound like?” students begin to add another dimension to their work. Even math comes into play as chords are developed and the right key for their song is discovered. The chorus resounds with overarching themes students derive from their study of the book. One profound message from this year’s production: “No one can number the stars when all are silent.”

Once the musical framework takes shape, individual student monologues are written and staging is undertaken with the direction of the drama teacher. Students come to understand the monologues as much more than words they have committed to paper. They learn the nuances of emotion which in turn helps each student internalize the experience and gain a deeper appreciation of their character’s humanity.

Art is also important in the project Number the Stars with a unique opportunity to integrate digital art and also give students a meaningful way to continue to delve into the emotional circumstances of their study. Using the word bank students randomly select a word, literally drawing it out of a hat. Students then had the challenge of expressing their emotion through a personally selected arrangement of objects, nature, or people. Utilizing photography alongside iPad apps, students were able to translate emotion into art.

Ultimately, students are immersed in introspective work through which they gain a richer, deeper perspective than a simple history book report provides. The multi-dimensional layers of the experience give every child an opportunity to find their voice. For some, this is the spark they need to pursue a passion for history. Many discover new-found creative writing skills. Some come to realize that singing is an important vehicle for their self-expression. For others, the experience of standing on a stage becomes empowering. All learn to work together as a closely-knit team appreciating the contributions of every classmate.

The process of undergoing this exploration yields the most valuable lessons as students gain empathy for the children in the book and pride in their own accomplishments. When the study is finally completed, students look back at the process with both a sense of awe and deep accomplishment.