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.

refugee novel study

A Novel Approach to Novel Studies

A little while back, I shared my approach to using novel studies in intervention. You can view the original post here. I built my Refugee novel study in a semi-similar way with fewer “quick comprehension checks” that reduce novels to a series of multiple-choice questions and more open-ended, critical thinking tasks. However, I also knew this novel would require a more sensitive and cautious approach due to the nature of the book. 

After reading the book cover to cover, I had it marked up with an entire pad of sticky notes filled with ideas for instruction. I jotted anything that came to mind, then sorted and grouped the sticky notes by idea and/or tasks. Here are the purposeful learning tasks and activities that emerged:

  • A comprehensive list of vocabulary words and a variety of vocabulary activities such as a Frayer-Model vocab log, context clue worksheets, a Twitter “tweet” activity, and a word search for early finishers.
  • A writing journal packed with 22 quick write prompts to be used as warm-ups, wrap-ups, early finisher tasks, or extensions.
  • Four paired informational passages that provide critical background knowledge to complement events in the novel. Each passage has an informational standards-based comprehension check.
  • Literary-based activities to use throughout the novel, such as a compare and contrast task, types of conflict task, plotlines for all three characters, an interactive timeline, and a character analysis foldable. 
  • A research-based one-pager.
  • “Zentangle” style listening pages for students to color while listening.
refugee novel study

The way we structured our novel study was pretty close to this: 

Monday:

  • 20-25 minutes in novel
  • 5-10 minutes to discuss
  • Writing Prompt
  • Vocabulary Task

Tuesday:

  • 20-25 minutes in novel
  • 5-10 minutes to discuss
  • Writing Prompt
  • Paired Informational Text (Build background knowledge)

Wednesday:

  • 20-25 minutes in novel
  • 5-10 minutes to discuss
  • Writing Prompt
  • Literary-Based Activity

Thursday:

  • 20-25 minutes in novel
  • 5-10 minutes to discuss
  • Writing Prompt
  • Literary-Based Activity

Friday

  • 20-25 minutes in novel
  • 5-10 minutes to discuss
  • Writing Prompt
  • Catch-up

Ultimately, I felt that this novel study approach 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 certain skills get dusty!

If you’d like to check out some of the resources from my Refugee novel study for free, you can enter your email address to join my newsletter and download them. (I promise not to spam you). 

Now, to answer some of your burning questions.

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

I recommend doing everything in your power to finish the novel in 4 weeks. Anything longer than that will be too long for students and interest will wane. That being said, if you finish it in 5-weeks, it’s not the end of the world. 

To finish it in 4-weeks, your pacing needs to be (roughly) 80 pages per week, or 15 pages per day (if reading 5 days). This is about three chapters per day and will take 20-25 minutes depending on your rate of reading.

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

Timeline for your Refugee novel study

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

You could.

But why would you want to? 

The beauty of this story is how they weave together with such a powerful ending (Mahmoud & Josef’s stories, in particular). I’m not a huge fan of Jigsaw-style learning anyway (who wants the cliff notes instead of the real thing?), but I think you would be robbing students of an incredible story if you took it apart.

If your desire to have students read just one storyline is to save time, I recommend reading a different book. 

If your desire to have students read just one storyline 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.

Refugee Lesson Plans

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

Man, I love this question. There is so much great stuff to teach with this novel! First of all, at the back of the book in the Author’s Note (page 325 of the hardback), Gratz provides a lot of information about each story. This is definitely worth reading once you finish the novel. 

However, if you want to build background knowledge prior to reading the novel, I recommend a few different things. 

  1. I put together four informational passages on the refugee crisis, the Syrian war, World War II, and Cuba under the rule of Fidel Castro. You can view them here.
  2. CommonLit has some great resources as well. 
    1. Diary of a Teenage Refugee
    2. Jewish Refugees on the St. Louis
    3. Introduction to World War II 
  3. Refugee by Brian Bilston
  4. Two Billion Miles has an interactive journey online.

There are so many different paths you could take with this novel. You can’t possibly do them all. I like to provide the essential background information students need for the novel and then give them choice on their end-of-novel research topic. 

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

You can do this a few different ways, all depending on how much time you have!

I like a visual timeline. We record the key moments (meaning plot, time, or location changes) on a bunting flag and hang them on a string on the wall. Each character has their own timeline, we just clip flags on as we go.

Another fantastic idea, if you have a large map in your classroom, is to mark the map. Place color-coded pins on the map (one for each character), and connect each pin with a string. You can hang little tags on the string for key moments (just hole punch a small piece of paper). This is definitely smaller and will leave holes in your map ?, so keep that in mind before you choose it. 

Finally, if you want each student to keep track, you can print out three individual maps like those found in the back of the book and have students place a symbol on the map for each key moment. Off to the side, leave space for a legend so they can briefly explain what happened at that spot.

Refugee Novel Activities

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

While Refugee is a wonderful book that students and teachers enjoy, it is our job to be mindful and cautious about how we “engage” students with sensitive content. Teaching with trauma in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to engage in activities that promote empathy, compassion, and shared humanity. Here are some ideas:

  • Read the section “What You Can Do” at the end of the book and research the different resources/organizations
  • Research the current state of the refugee crisis
  • Check out the activity guide provided by the UN Refugee Agency
  • Check out some of the resources I mentioned throughout this post (linked below), or find them on TPT here.

Ready-Set-Teach

I hope this blog has given you some fresh ideas and resources to use for your Refugee novel study! Don’t forget to download your free Refugee activities by entering your email above. If you want to look into any of my teacher-created resources, you can check them out below.

Let me know if you have any follow-up questions in the comments below, on IG or FB, or feel free to reach out at info@heynatayle.com. I’m always up for a good conversation about teaching reading to middle school kids. ?

All the best, Natayle