Relating Themes in Milkweed to Students’ Lives
It is important for students to be able to connect literature to their daily lives. Without this connection, the literature will not have significant meaning for students studying it. It will lack relevance. A goal in teaching literature should be to approach the text in such a way that students can personally respond to it.
Below are questions which can be used in class discussions or for a final writing project. We envision that teachers will use these questions after the students have completed their reading of the text. Each question has two parts. First, there is a question which relates specifically to the characters or action in Milkweed. Next, there is a question relating Milkweed to the individual students in a secondary classroom. It is our hopes that this sort of questioning will make the book more relevant to students and allows the students to better understand the issues addressed in the book.
In leading a class discussion, encourage the students to treat the characters as if they lived life. Encourage students to regard the characters like family members, next-door neighbors, classmates, or other people they know. Approaching the reading and discussion in this manner will prompt students to uncover the human mysteries of motivation, personality and interaction.
1. Identity is a key theme in Milkweed.
· How does the made-up story of Misha’s life become so important to him? Are there any family stories in your life that are important to you?
· How does his identity change throughout the novel? Does anyone feel that his or her identity has changed over the last few years? If so, why?
· Consider what gives Misha true identity at the end of the book. What gives a person an identity? Are there any traits which you consider to be part of your individual identity?
· Discuss Uncle Shepsel’s efforts to renounce his identity as a Jew. Have you ever tried to become someone you are not? If so, how did you feel? How did others treat you?
2. Survival is another key theme in the book.
· Uri advises the other boys that one important survival skill is remaining invisible. Why does Misha have a difficult time remaining invisible? Have you ever tried to remain invisible? What circumstances would prompt you to try to become invisible?
· What other survival skills do the boys employ to live in the ghetto in during WWII? Do you feel like you need to employ any such skills to survive? How are they different from those the boys employ?
· What does Misha teach the Milgroms about survival? What does it mean “to survive”? Is it enough to just survive?
· What poses the greatest threat to the survival of the Jews in the ghetto? Are there any threats in your life?
Note: Alternatively, these questions can be used at the end of the unit as essay questions to assess students understanding of the material.
A unit plan that creates a dynamic classroom should include activities which address the four different approaches to learning -- lecture, whole-class discussion, group work, and individual work. This activity can be used as either an individual activity or as whole group discussion.
Additionally, this activity allows students to discover the fundamental themes of their lives. Students need to relate lessons to their own lives. When students can relate to lessons, they are more willing to invest themselves into the learning process. Finally, this activity corresponds to the IRA/NCTE Standard which states that students should draw on their prior experiences as they comprehend, interpret, evaluate and appreciate texts.
For more information seeMilner, Joseph O. and Milner, Lucy F.M. (2008). Bridging English (4th ed.). Upper SaddleRiver, NJ: Pearson, page 46.
And see Stock, Patriciq Lamber (1995). The Dialogic Curriculum.
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Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
About the Book
Young Misha Pilsudski lives on the streets of Warsaw, Poland and struggles with his identity. When he enters the Jewish ghetto and sees firsthand the evil acts of Hitler's Nazi soldiers, he realizes it's safest of all to be nobody.
Milkweed, opens in 1939 and tells the story of a homeless, nameless boy — a "nobody" — until he takes up with other street kids and embraces the identity of a gypsy named Misha Pilsudski. Misha is fascinated by the Jackboots, and spends his days stealing food for himself and the orphans. When he meets Janina Milgrom, a Jewish girl, and follows her family to the Jewish ghetto, he loses his fascination with the Nazi soldiers. He slips in and out of the cracks of the walled ghetto, getting food for the Milgroms. For the first time in his life he has a family until resettlement and deportation snatch them away. This good-hearted boy is once again a "nobody" and eventually makes his way to America, carrying only the memories of his adopted family with him.
About the Author
Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honor Award for Wringer. He has written many other award-winning books for young readers, including Stargirl, Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, and Crash. Spinelli has been touched by the Holocaust since his childhood. In writing Milkweed, he questioned his own credentials in writing a Holocaust book and then remembered what he has told young writers for years: "Write what you care about."
For more information about Spinelli, check out AdLit's Books & Authors section for a video interview with the author and other resources.
For more information about the Holocaust and lesson ideas, check out the following articles: