If you’ve been eyeing Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee for some time but have trepidation about teaching it, this post is for you. I’m sharing how I approached my whole class Refugee novel study and answering some FAQs about teaching the novel.

teaching a refugee novel study

You’ve likely heard about Alan Gratz’ acclaimed novel Refugee or seen it recommended time and time again in various Facebook groups. Teaching “Refugee” by Alan Gratz can be a powerful and impactful experience for middle school students, and if you’re cautiously thinking about adding it to your curriculum, I’m here to help you make that a reality.

But first, a word of caution: “Refugee” offers students a unique window into the lives of refugees from different parts of the world while providing a valuable opportunity to learn about and understand their struggles. There are complex themes such as displacement, survival, and the refugee experience, which can be difficult for some students to grasp and may be traumatic for others. Be sure to read the novel beforehand and consider the needs of your students before fully diving into a novel study together.

Now that we’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room, let’s jump into the most commonly asked questions about teaching Refugee.

Question #1: How long does Refugee take to read?

Refugee certainly is a longer novel for middle school. It takes hard work, persistence, and strict schedule adherence, but I recommend doing everything in your power to finish the novel in 4 weeks.

More than four weeks becomes too long for students, and interest will wane. That said, if you finish it in 5-weeks, it’s not the end of the world!

Timeline for your Refugee novel study

To finish it in 4 weeks, your pacing needs to be (roughly) 80 pages per week or 15 pages per day (if reading five days). This is about three chapters per day and will take 20-25 minutes, depending on your reading rate. This approach is doable – and most teachers find success with the three-chapter-per-day guideline.

To finish it in 5-weeks, your pacing needs to be (roughly) 63 pages per week or 12 pages per day (if reading five days). This is about 2-2.5 chapters per day and will take 15-20 minutes, depending on your reading rate.

Question #2: Can I just read one storyline, or have different groups read different storylines?

One of the most commonly asked questions about Refugee in Facebook groups is if students can jigsaw read the book – one student per plot line.

You could.

But why would you want to? 

Refugee Lesson Plans

The true interconnectedness of this story comes full circle at the end when Mahmoud & Josef’s stories intersect. I’m not a huge fan of Jigsaw-style learning anyway (I think it leads to shallow understanding), but in this case, you would rob your students of an incredible ending if you pieced it apart.

If your desire to have students read just one plot line is to save time, I recommend reading it aloud, assigning reading as homework, providing additional reading time, or simply reading a different book. 

If your desire to have students read just one plot line is rooted in worry about them being able to follow three separate stories, they will be fine. Most of them, by 5th-6th grade, have sufficient experience with multiple plotlines. 

If your desire to have students read just one storyline is due to text complexity, have them listen to the audiobook. It is available on Epic at the time of writing this post.

Question #3: I want to give my students historical background. How can I easily do this?

There’s a wealth of information to be used in conjunction with the novel! To start, the Author’s Note on page 325 of the hardback provides a “behind the scenes” look at each story. Make sure to give it a read once you’ve finished the book!

refugee novel study

However, if you want to incorporate some pre-reading activities or build background knowledge prior to or while reading the novel, I recommend a few different things. 

If you want a set of informational passages specifically curated for this novel, you can check out the four informational passages I put together on the refugee crisis, the Syrian war, World War II, and Cuba under the rule of Fidel Castro.

With so many resources available, the possibilities are endless. You will (unfortunately) have barely enough time to scratch the surface. Think about providing your students with a few options and then let them explore or even table a topic for an end-of-novel research project.

Question #4: How can we keep track of what’s happening?

With this novel, you have a few options for tracking the important plot, time, and location changes of each storyline.

My personal favorite is a visual timeline. We keep track of the key moments on bunting flags and string them on the wall. Each character gets their own timeline, and we clip on flags as we go along. These are part of my Refugee Novel Activities pack, which you can view here.

use an interactive timeline to track each story in your refugee novel study

If you have a big map in your classroom, consider marking it up! Use color-coded pins to represent each character, and connect the pins with strings. You can even hang little tags on the strings to represent key moments. Just keep in mind that this option will leave small holes in your map.

Finally, if you prefer each student to keep track, you can print out three individual maps (like the ones in the back of the book) and have students place symbols on the map for each key moment. Leave space for a legend so they can briefly describe what happened at each spot.

Question #5: What are your favorite activities or resources to use when teaching a Refugee Novel Study?

Refugee is a remarkable book that is well-loved by both students and teachers. However, when teaching sensitive subjects, it’s crucial to approach the material with sensitivity and awareness. To foster empathy, compassion, and a sense of shared humanity among students, consider incorporating these activities into your lesson plans:

A Step-by-Step Guide to a Refugee Novel Study

It can be tough deciding on a structure for your Refugee Novel Study that allows you to incorporate a variety of skills and experiences. In this section, I’ll share the structure that I found to be successful in my classroom.

My approach involved a balanced mix of in-depth reading, discussion, writing, vocabulary, and various literary-based activities that took place over the course of a week. I allocated 20-25 minutes each day for reading, followed by 5-10 minutes for discussion. Writing prompts, vocabulary tasks, nonfiction texts, and activities like those mentioned above rounded out our daily schedule, giving students the opportunity to develop their skills and gain a deeper understanding of the novel.

I structured our Refugee novel study like this: 






  • Read, discuss, write
  • Time to catch up, explore the resources listed above

Ultimately, I felt this approach to my Refugee novel study incorporated and reviewed a variety of skills that benefited my 6th-grade students and gave them a well-rounded understanding of the book without letting specific skills get dusty!

If you’d like to check out a sample of some of the resources from my Refugee novel study, you can join my newsletter here and download them for free.

Bringing it all Together

“Refugee” is a powerful novel that deserves a place in every middle school classroom. Its themes of resilience, hope, and the human condition are timeless and important for students to understand. By incorporating a balanced mix of reading, writing, discussions, vocabulary, and activities, you can provide your students with a memorable learning experience that will last for years to come.

I hope this blog has given you some ideas, resources, and structures to guide you through your Refugee novel study. Questions? Comments? Drop them below!

Happy teaching!