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One thing I absolutely love about using novel studies in middle school ELA is using the power of fiction to help students develop a stronger sense of empathy. After all, novels give the reader a chance to see through a character’s eyes and gain a greater understanding of their experiences. With this in mind, I think that teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a great choice for middle schoolers.
This well-rounded and honest story focuses on 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who has Treacher Collins syndrome – a genetic condition which has left his face disfigured. While Auggie has been homeschooled by his mother for several years due to his medical needs, his parents enroll him in Beecher Prep, a private school, for the beginning of the fifth grade.
I love teaching Wonder for so many reasons, including its many relatable themes. This novel offers a masterclass in empathy-building, compassion, acceptance, and anti-bullying. I also find that students tend to relate to Auggie’s desire to want to fit in with his peers, rather than stand out.
If you’re looking to make the most of this powerful novel in your middle school ELA class, here are eight of my most creative tips and activities for teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
At the end of the first part of the novel, August (dressed in a Halloween costume that conceals his identity) overhears his friend Jack talking about him. He feels completely betrayed when he hears Jack say that he is only friends with Auggie because the principal asked him to be.
When teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I like to introduce a creative assignment that allows students to take on the perspective of different characters. In the Advice for Auggie task, invite students to consider what advice they think different characters would give to Auggie. This advice could either include ideas about what he should do when he goes back to school, or how he could deal with the situation with Jack.
To help students get started, I like to provide a graphic organizer with sections for four different people (or groups of people): Auggie’s parents, the principal, Mr. Tushman, Auggie’s friend Summer, and Auggie’s sister, Via.
In Wonder, another key character is Auggie’s older sister, Via, who is in her first year of high school. Via is the focus of Part 2 of the novel, where we learn more about her struggles being Auggie’s older sister. With so much of her parents’ attention wrapped up in her brother’s medical needs, it’s easy to see how Via feels overlooked. In her new school, Via begins to experience newfound freedom and independence – nobody knows anything about her home life, or who her brother is.
As students wrap up the second part of the book, I love to introduce a creative writing assignment where they can write a diary entry from the perspective of Via. Here, I remind students that a diary entry is the perfect place to explore thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions. They can feel confident revealing Via’s innermost thoughts because a diary isn’t intended to be read – it is personal!
The third part of the novel is told from the perspective of Summer, the kind girl who eats lunch with August every day. Here, students learn that while Summer initially sat with Auggie because she felt sorry for him, she continues to spend time with him every day because she genuinely enjoys his company.
When teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I like to remind students that Summer is the only student at Beecher Prep who has been truly kind and a friend to Auggie since the beginning of the book. With this in mind, it’s time to introduce students to the WONDERful Acts of Kindness Task!
I like to begin this activity by providing students the opportunity to brainstorm various random acts of kindness they could perform at school, at home, or in their wider community. Next, I challenge each student to perform three random acts of kindness and pass along a “WONDERful Act of Kindness” card to the recipient, urging them to pay the kindness forward!
Finally, I like to encourage students to reflect on their experiences. In a brief piece of writing, I ask them to describe their random acts of kindness and the reactions of the recipients. To wrap up, students can also explore their own feelings about performing acts of kindness for others.
The fourth part of Wonder centers around the character of Jack, who has complicated feelings about his developing friendship with Auggie. He is also conflicted about his ongoing friendship with Julian, who goes out of his way to mistreat Auggie.
As Jack navigates the tricky world of middle school friendships, I love to use this as a teaching opportunity to help students examine the wider themes of Wonder. I find that song lyrics make complex feelings more accessible to students. In this part of my Wonder unit plan, I break students into groups of five and give them a collection of song lyrics to read (with corresponding music videos).
These songs include:
Then, for each song, groups use a provided graphic organizer to select a line from the lyrics and explain how it relates to one of the themes in Wonder.
In the fifth section of Wonder, readers are introduced to Justin, Via’s new boyfriend. Students can use the character of Justin to learn about different perspectives. Justin’s section is written informally (hardly any capital letters are used). Justin offers a unique look at Auggie and Via’s family from the perspective of an outsider. While this section is quite short, I find that it helps students get a better sense of all the characters in the novel, including Justin himself.
This presents a great opportunity for students to practice their character analysis skills through a creative activity! When teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I share that you can learn a lot about a person by their internet browsing history. To this end, I like to ask students to imagine the top four websites (real or imagined) that Justin would most frequently visit during this part of the novel. Of course, they need to justify their thinking using examples from the reading.
I couldn’t write a blog post on creative activities for teaching Wonder by R.J. Palacio without mentioning Mr. Browne’s precepts! Every month, Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne, shares an important precept – an idea or quotation to help drive moral thinking – for students to reflect on.
I love encouraging students to consider Mr. Browne’s precepts from the novel and to come up with their own words to live by! To introduce this idea, I print out poster versions of the various precepts from the novel and hang them around the room. Next, I have students visit each precept poster and discuss its meaning. From here, I distribute the template for Precept Postcards, where students can create their own precepts and explain the meaning behind their words.
Precept Postcards make an eye-catching bulletin board display in your classroom – you might even find you want to keep them up all year long!
Each section of Wonder begins in the same style, with illustrations and quotes to represent different characters in the novel.
As students navigate through Part 7, I encourage them to embrace their creativity by creating a self-portrait inspired by the art in Wonder. In this part of my Wonder unit plan, I ask students to create their own self-portraits inspired by the illustrations in the novel. Under the self-portrait, I ask them to write a quote that represents them.
Like the Precept Postcards, Wonder self-portraits make a great display. Try putting the portraits up in the hallway outside the classroom, so other classes can enjoy them as well!
During the eighth and final section of the novel, I like to encourage students to consider some of the bigger ideas in Wonder. One concept that I like to focus on when teaching Wonder is R.J. Palacio’s use of symbolism, especially Auggie’s astronaut helmet.
To help students get a strong understanding of symbolism in the novel, I have them consider the astronaut helmet from four different characters’ perspectives. Auggie, for example, views the helmet as a shield that protects him from the pain of the outside world. But for other characters, like Miranda, Auggie’s mom, and his dad, the helmet has other meanings. I like to have students explore this idea even further by recording their thoughts in different sections of a graphic organizer, using evidence from the text to support their thinking.
There you go! If you’re teaching Wonder in your middle school ELA classroom this year, I hope this post gives you some fresh ideas! You can grab a ready-to-use novel unit plan with everything you need for teaching Wonder below:
Looking for more middle school novel studies? Bundles for Refugee by Alan Gratz and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan are also available in my store!
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