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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tales of a Fifth Grade Book Club: Part 3-- Echo Pages 1-104

Here we are in part 3 of my fifth grade book club posts and we are finally beginning to talk about the book. Please refer to the other posts in this series and the discussion guide I compiled which includes a summary of the novel.

As I noted in the title of today’s post, we are reading this novel in about 100 page chunks. We meet weekly, these kids are 10 and 11, and this is a voluntary group.

The good thing about reading Echo this way is that the book itself is broken up into three distinct parts. We read half of part 1 for this week and will complete the section next week.

Here are my notes on what we discussed:
  • If you follow any of my book discussion reports I try to start each discussion by asking the participants if they liked, disliked, or were so-so on the book. As I have said before, this is a great way to get people talking about their favorite or least favorite thing right away. It is also an easy way to gauge the general feeling in the room. As the facilitator you then know who is in the minority and make sure they have a chance to talk.  In this case, we are talking about eager 5th graders, so I had 7 REALLY liked it and 1 KINDA liked it.
    • This was perfect because I told the kids I would let the KINDA person go first since he was in the minority and I wanted to make sure he had a chance to talk. They all thought this was a great idea. Phew, because I was worried that they each would be so excited to talk  that they wouldn’t listen to each other.  This allowed them to listen first.
    • My 1 kinda liked participant said he was so upset with the way Friedrich was treated in school because of his face birthmark and conducting in the air to no one that he was mad at the whole story. He was especially mad at the principal for being just as awful to Friedrich. “That is not right!”
    • We then all talked about why the author included such a terrible thing. We agreed that it made us like Friedrich more [which I reminded them is important; the author needs to get us on his side quickly] and it also made us understand how hard his birthmark made his everyday life. He couldn’t even go to regular school. These kids know how much that makes you an outsider, no matter how much they proclaim to dislike going to school.
    • Kids continued to share a few of the things they really enjoyed in this first section, but I will be sprinkling them throughout these notes where appropriate.
  • The novel begins with a fairytale that appears to frame the entire book. We noted that the pages with the fairytale had leaves drawn around the edges. That comes back at the end. We let the kids talk about the fairytale a bit. Here are some of their comments:
    • The fairytale was my favorite part.
    • It made me think the harmonica was magical and mysterious from the start.
    • If we didn’t have the fairytale, when Friedrich found the harmonica we would have been like, “ok, here’s an old harmonica in the old part of the factory,” but now we are waiting for something magical to happen.
    • But Friedrich and his Dad and Uncle are not that troubled by him finding a harmonica which means they do not suspect mystery and magic. That is exciting too.
    • The three separate melodies that led Friedrich to the old harmonica, hidden in a drawer are probably the three girls. And all together they are like an “echo.”
    • I hated the king. He was selfish.
    • The witch wasn’t as cruel as I am used to in fairytales.
    • I am interested to see what happens when the fairy tale comes back.
  • Now on to Friedrich's story. Here are some of their comments:
    • The dad is such a strong person. I pictured him with big muscles because he seems so strong. As a group we talked about this a little. He probably wasn’t very strong physically. He was older, retired, and a cello player, but we all agreed he was a very strong person on the inside, and the author wants us to picture him that way.
    • We talked about Friedrich, his life and how he was different, but obviously, the bulk of our conversation dealt with the harmonica.
    • Friedrich suspects from the start that the harmonica is special because he felt like it called to him and led him to it.
    • There is foreshadowing, as another adult volunteer pointed out. She read the part when Friedrich plays the harmonica as he is walking home and how for the first time he forgot to keep his head down when he passed the school and he even talked to the mean next door neighbor. He felt like it was protecting him.
  • This longer discussion about the harmonica and the powers it may have led us back to talking about Otto’s story which is connected to the fairy tale as Otto finds the book with the fairytale in the forest, reads it, and meets the three orphaned girls.
    • We do not have a date for Otto’s story but it is "fifty years before the great war,” which we explained to the kids was probably WWI. That puts him finding the harmonica as a kid at 1865[ish] and 1896-- the date on the harmonica box that Friedrich finds would be when Otto was an adult.
    • We talked about Otto finding the book on page 3 and it has the title “The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger.” The harmonica Friedrich finds has a big M on it. Are they related?
    • We started making predictions about the harmonica:
      • Otto from the beginning is a “messenger” of the harmonica and its magic leaving it for someone who needs it to find. In the fairytale there is talk about the harmonica saving someone from death.
      • At the end of the section we read, Friedrich is facing possible death due to his epilepsy. The harmonica will save him. He needed to find it. That’s why it called to him.
  • Which leads us to the danger Elizabeth brings up. When she comes home from nursing school she announces she has joined with Hitler and needs the entire family’s papers to prove they are 100% German. But the papers show that Friedrich not only has a disfiguring birthmark, but also for the first few years of his life, he had seizures. Elizabeth explains that this is an example of an inherited disease that Hitler wants to erase and that she has to report Friedrich. He will need to be given an operation so that he cannot have children-- an operation which could kill him. You can imagine this turn of events led to much discussion. Also, as the adults, we needed to add some more detail and clarification for them. Here is what happened:
    • The kids were shocked at Elizabeth.  How could she join Hitler? How could she turn her brother in?
    • As one girls said-- It sounded like before she went away to school she was like the sister in Wonder who was always telling Auggie that despite his disfigurement, he was perfect “the way you are.” Elizabeth seemed to be like that for Friedrich all his life, but now she finds him lacking. This was upsetting. [And yes, the kids made readalike connections on their own. Yay.]
    • First, we took care to remind the children that we are in the future of this story. We know how terrible Hitler was, but the characters do not yet. Some of them, like the Dad, suspect though.
    • The author is using our knowledge to make the situation even more tense. We know Hitler would kill Friedrich, not just make his unable to pass his genes on. This makes us even more mad at Elizabeth.
    • We also talked about propaganda.  2 of the boys got a dictionary, looked it up and read the definition. We discussed how Elizabeth is under the influence of propaganda, but that anyone can be at anytime. This led to some discussion about Donald Trump which led the kids off topic. [For reference, Trump has been a bit of a comic relief to these kids for months.] We steered it back to the book.
    • After providing this guidance we asked the kids again, “Why would Elizabeth choose Hitler over her family?”
    • They were able to focus a bit more now and had some good answers, such as, she wanted to advance her career, she thought it was the right thing to do, she was trying to help make things easier for her brother when Hitler became totally in charge. In fact, her argument that it was better to be open about his epilepsy, which had been hidden from Friedrich and her until that moment, was much better than being caught hiding it was a very good argument.
  • We left things just as Elizabeth was taking the papers and heading back to Berlin. We asked the kids to make predictions:
    • Friedrich is going to need the magic of the harmonica to get out of this.
    • I think he may go to the forest to escape. That’s where Otto first found the harmonica and on the cover three kids are in the forest. There are 3 parts to this story.
    • I think each section will have a kid who needs to be saved by the harmonica.
    • I think that the end of Friedrich’s section might not be happy, but I think [and hope] the whole book ends happy.
      • I did not say this to the kids, but I thought this last comment was extremely insightful. This young man understood the gravity of the situation and knew it would need more than magic to be resolved well.  But also, the fairytale at the start is pretty dark, so it does set up the reader for more darkness. We will have to see.
  • A few final thoughts:
    • The kids loved being encouraged to write in their books. They underlined words, highlighted passages, and were eager to read from the book.
    • An example was one girl who underlined a passage on page 91 after Elizabeth shared her news of becoming a Hitlerite to the Uncle and it said, “ His eyes filled with something Friedrich couldn’t decipher-- pity or fear or apprehension? We talked about how much this line expressed about what may come later in the story and how all of those feelings were correct.
    • Overall, I think encouraging the kids ahead of time to write in their books primed them to interact with the text in a way that they wouldn’t have without this encouragement. They were ready from the first moment of our meeting to start discussing the issues and not just to rehash the plot.
    • In fact, one of the other parent volunteers said, “you know, you can write in any of your books [that you own] at home if you like it. I think they may in the future. And I think it is a good way to remind them that reading books may feel like a passive activity, but in reality it is a very active experience. I hope this is a lesson that follows them throughout their life.
Next week, we will finish Friedrich’s part of the novel and I will have another report.

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