Rockwern Academy students dive into all-school book reading with empathy as a goal

Rockwern Academy students dive into all-school book reading with empathy as a goal
Posted at 4:00 AM, Nov 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-07 07:42:37-05

This is the third in a series of stories that will follow the progress of the collaboration between Hays Porter Elementary School and Rockwern Academy.

KENWOOD -- Rockwern Academy preschoolers clamored to drive their new cardboard bus. Eighth graders pondered the use of dark and light imagery to project feelings.

And students in every grade in between engaged in exercises of their own based on two books that they're reading along with students at Hays Porter Elementary in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood.

The all-school, two-school read at a suburban Jewish academy and a Cincinnati Public School that mostly serves African Americans from low-income families is designed to build bridges between communities that are just 14 miles apart but rarely intersect.

Leaders of both schools can't tackle the divisions that threaten to tear the country apart on the eve of the presidential election. But they can and will give their students the chance to walk in different shoes.

"Each story is remarkable, but they lean on each other and support each other, and they're really neat works," said Danielle Levine, an English teacher of sixth and eighth graders. "I'm really hoping that they'll gain the idea of (the Judaic concept of) Tikkun olam -- repairing the world -- this responsibility to help. And each story has its own lesson about repairing the world and making it a better place."

The schools are reading "Last Stop on Market Street" and "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm."

"Market Street" is about a boy and his grandmother who take a bus every Sunday to and from church.

"Last Stop on Market Street"

When the boy begins asking questions like why he doesn't have an iPod like another boy on the bus and why they have to get off the bus in a part of town that's not as pretty as others they pass, his grandmother answers every question by pointing out the beauty or wonder in everyday things.

"Rhino" is a story within a story about a rhinoceros who suffers great personal loss in a storm and is slowly healed by different animal friends who rally around him. 

A page from "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm."

Eliana Clayton, 9, likes "Rhino" the best.

"It shows how it feels to trap your feelings and not expressing them," she said. 

Clayton is excited to be a pen pal -- "I get to know a new person I've never met before -- and sharing the book with her 5-year-old sister. 

"I think that having an all-school read is a good opportunity for the whole school, and if you have a sibling then they can come home with you and talk about it," she said.

Julia Weinstein, Rockwern librarian, has worked assiduously since June to organize the two-school read. In late October, she received good news about a special event surrounding the reading. 

"We found the funding to bring the authors, Matt de la Peña and Susan Bernardo and an illustrator, Courtenay Fletcher to visit both Rockwern Academy and Hays Porter Elementary School," she said. "We are thrilled."

The schools are working on a plan to have the students from each school to the other school so that they can talk with the authors together.

Rockwern fourth-graders participate in the all-school reading. Photo by Bob Driehaus.

Amber Feldman, who teaches preschool for 3-year-olds, built a bus out of cardboard and painted it to look like the one in "Market Street." It's big enough to stuff about four little people into at once, and it's part of an effort to slowly introduce the book to the children through images. 

"We're looking for differences and similarities," she said, like comparing shoe sizes and placing pictures around the classroom of people of different cultures and ethnicities. 

"We're going to take it further throughout the year," Feldman said. 

The project is inspiring giving at Rockwern. Two former students, Sam and Calvin Miles, will celebrate their b'nai  mitzvah by raising money to help build Little Libraries and stocking them with books around Hays Porter. The libraries will be free-standing structures where students and neighbors will be welcomed to borrow books in the hope of increasing access to reading. 

The two schools are working on multiple outreach efforts, including a pen pal program and chatting by Skype or FaceTime. 

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