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Creativity Abounds in Middle School Humanities Project

Seventh graders dug deep to demonstrate their understanding of award-winning novel “Refugee.”
After reading “Refugee” by Alan Gratz, Ms. Kymberli Rivers encouraged her students to talk about what they learned about the lives of the three 12-year old refugees the book centered around. The seventh graders, many of whom are 12 years old, shared what they had in common with the characters; Josef, a Jewish boy living in 1938 Nazi Germany; Isabelle, living under Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy trying to survive a civil war in 2015.

Classes held their first Harkness discussions, talking about which characters they connected with most (Mahmoud and Josef), and drew parallels between the three stories. They discussed the similarities and differences between the lives of the fictional young adults and themselves, often commenting on how impressed they were with the strong character they displayed.

“One thing they had in common was that they never gave up,” said Hayden Hornback ’26. “The world would be so much better if we could all be that selfless.”

Students then brainstormed ideas of how to connect and express their own personal understanding of the stories and the underlying concepts. They were encouraged to create their own explanation in a way that best displayed their comprehension of the work. Ms. Rivers gave  the students no limitations and had no preconceived ideas of what her students would produce...and the seventh graders brought their A-game!

Projects included a hand-drawn graphic novel, a three-dimensional wire sculpture, a stop-animation movie, illustrations, Jeopardy-style games, paintings, narratives, dioramas, and videos. Two truly unique projects stood out—Marcella Byzewski ’26 created a budget outlining the finances Mahmoud’s family needed during each stage of their escape, and an intensely moving retelling of Josef’s story, set to “Ballade no. 1 op. 23”  written and recorded by Katya Sommers ’26. 

“It is important that students learn to connect to stories of other people,” said Ms. Rivers. “I am proud of how my students dove in head first—this was their first Harkness experience—and after a lot of hard work, they created amazing projects full of empathy, understanding, and compassion.” 

The Out-of-Door Academy

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