Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Using "The Seventh Wish" in the Classroom

I'm that teacher.
I'm the teacher in Maine who read Kate Messner's newest novel, The Seventh Wish, to all my students. Twenty-three 5th graders and twenty-two 6th graders.
I'm the teacher who said to my colleagues: You need to read this now, and we need to think about how to use it with our students this year, even though it isn't published yet.
Now all of our fifth and sixth graders have read The Seventh Wish.

And our students are all the better for it.

I read The Seventh Wish in October. October 14, the very day the advanced reader's copy (ARC) arrived from Bloomsbury as part of Kate Messner's kid-blurb project. I knew I had lots of Kate Messner fans in my two classes who would be lining up to read her much anticipated "next book." (Me too, if we're honest.) So I cleared my agenda for the night and hunkered down.

I was entranced by the natural beauty painted in the opening descriptions of the magical ice flowers on the lake and I was wrapped up in the adoration that Charlie had for her older sister, Abby. I enjoyed getting to know Charlie and her middle school world. I liked her. She reminded me of kids I know. Kids like mine who sit at my tables each day. Kids who want more than they have--be it understanding, attention, courage, or a solo dress for Irish dancing. Kids whose relationships with their real life heroes--older brothers and sisters, parents, babysitters--are everything to them.

I was enlightened, too. Aware that the book would also address the topic of addiction, I saw the signs as they played out, and then I learned. I learned about a life experience different than my own. Charlie's experience with her sister's addiction let me see the challenges and complications of addiction on a user's loved ones through her eyes. Deception. Brokenness. Sacrifices and loss. And that was when I knew there was a discussion to be had with my colleagues about plans for our Healthy Choices unit. On that first read, I had texted my colleagues, "We need to use this book," before I had even finished reading.

The next morning, our conversations started about how we would incorporate The Seventh Wish into the unit, which also included nutrition, digital citizenship, peer pressure, and the D.A.R.E. program. I passed my ARC along to my colleagues. Soon we were discussing this addition to our curriculum with the D.A.R.E. Officer himself. We put The Seventh Wish ARC in his hands. We asked him to please read it, too. We knew there would be lots of conversation, and we anticipated questions. Almost certainly questions we didn't know the answer to or for which there isn't an answer. But we were ok with that. We would do our best to respond to students, to consult resources (like Officer Jack) to investigate further, or we would grapple with those questions without an answer together.

We consulted with our administrator, to whom I also loaned a copy of The Seventh Wish. We revised the traditional notification letter that parents have received at the beginning of D.A.R.E. lessons for as many years as the program has been part of our school. And, we acknowledged that students would be talking about big topics and supplemented the letter with sites and ideas for families to have conversations with children about drug use and addiction.
D.A.R.E. lessons happened weekly in the students' STEM classrooms. In Humanities, we read The Seventh Wish daily for read aloud. Here's what happened:
  • We researched ice flowers.
  • We watched Riverdance videos (and amateur feis videos, too).
  • We weighed out our own winners of the "thinking of a word" game.
  • We laughed together over Charlie's haphazard wishing and Bobby's hopeless crush and Drew's Lake Monster routine.
  • We decided we'd like to try eating insects to know what that's like. (And we did.)
  • We pondered Mrs. McNeill's words of the wiser on each trip onto the ice.
  • We talked about friendship, and our wishes for others, and secret-keeping.
  • We connected the information we learned in D.A.R.E. to the actions and effects of Abby and her heroin use.
  • We asked questions--thoughtful ones--and considered the human aspect of drug use as a choice and addiction as a disease.
  • We built empathy and understanding for individuals and families facing the obstacles of a loved one's substance use.
  • We internalized the power we have to make our own choices, to know and understand more fully what the consequences of our choices on ourselves and others.

See, when I read The Seventh Wish in October, I saw an opportunity.
The Seventh Wish is as much an example as any other that we are classifying as "windows and mirrors." The life of the Brennan Family is the life of many families today, even though we wish it weren't so. Some of my students live inside The Seventh Wish. Probably most don't. But this brave and honest book let us all be at times inside and outside of the story, providing us a safe distance and enlightened perspective to have important conversations about lots of big themes for kids, one of those being addiction. In reading The Seventh Wish together, we had the opportunity to open the door to unheard conversations, to say to our students, "It's ok to talk about This Big Thing here. It's ok to ask questions. We'll talk about this with you."

I don't think my students understand the adult perspective that the subject of heroin (or other substance) use is "too heavy" for them. They would disagree openly. They would argue that they want to know about "the hard stuff."
I know they would.
They did.
When one classmate shared with the others that Kate Messner's school visit to a Vermont school was cancelled because the book was "too heavy" for the 4th and 5th graders there, my students were vocal.

Kate Messner is a familiar and much-loved author to my students with a reputation she's earned by publishing many books that they have read and loved and grown from. The students trust Kate as a middle-grade writer who will invite them into the story and lend them characters to befriend, take them through trials and troubles, and will bring them out the story's end knowing something a little deeper or having learned something about themselves they hadn't thought about before. The same is true for The Seventh Wish. She writes the truth about characters (like our students) and a world that includes harrowing truths (like ours). She sizes up her research and knowledge of the subject and writes it to be perfectly fitting for her middle-grade audience. The Seventh Wish is gentle in building readers' investment in the story and conflict, but the serious nature of the topic of addiction is not dulled or downplayed, speaking solidly to Kate's respect for her readers.

What was the impact of reading The Seventh Wish with our students?

Traditionally D.A.R.E. program has students complete a formulaic five-paragraph essay as a requirement for graduation. With Officer Jack's support, our 5th grade team revamped the culminating reflection and asked students to write a letter to their 18-year old selves beginning with "Dear Future Me." This year's end-of-unit writing was some of the most personal and convincing evidence that students internalized their learning. Tracings of The Seventh Wish appeared in almost every student's letter. As a teaching team, we isolated one-line excerpts from each students' letter, filmed these lines, and compiled their reflections into one collaborative letter that we set to music.

Take a look.


  1. This is amazing. What a great learning opportunity for Ts and Ss! I love that you adapted DARE to make this even more impactful and meaningful. I will be sharing!

    1. Thank you, Julie. I really had no reservation in suggesting we incorporate "The Seventh Wish" into our curricular goals. I knew it would be our work to make sure our conversations were supported, steeped in compassion, and that we modeled empathy in our discussions, but then, isn't that the climate we want as we grow our learners towards independence and good citizenship anyway?

      Thanks for reading and sharing.