Students Answer: What Does Beautiful Really Look Like?

It was early in the fall. As I distributed student portraits from picture day, I heard several of my 10-year-old students whispering things like “Eww, look at how shiny my forehead is”; “I hate my smile”; and “Ugh, I don’t like seeing my picture.” I was struck with a sadness that invaded my thoughts for weeks. How did society get to the point where even fifth-graders thought their value was based on appearance? How could I help change this?

I immediately started planning an original literacy unit for my ELA class based on the theme “What does beautiful look like?” I wanted students to read, reflect, and possibly be transformed by new thinking. I also wanted to make sure that I was teaching skills and concepts aligned with CCSS.

Using the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I planned instruction for analyzing overall structure and character perspective (RL.5.5 and RL.5.6, respectively).  I wanted to teach students to look at how ideas and concepts relate within and among texts and to “Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably”  (RI.5.3 and RI.5.9). This is where Newsela came in. We know that rather than teaching literacy skills in isolation, they are best taught through larger concepts, or themes. It was easy to find plenty of articles about people who confronted challenges and overcame hardship, people who have tried to make the world a better place, and people who are changing perceptions about what beauty looks like.

For this particular unit, students read and discussed several Newsela articles. Some of the articles came from the Text Set “Redefining Beauty Standards”. Some articles that students analyzed were: “Beautiful art blooms on ugly Afghan walls”, “Art student tries to help the homeless by redesigning their signs”, and “Opinion: Ignore the bullies and dare to be different, Jeremy Lin says. Students also read self-selected biographies, searching for stories of hardship and perseverance.

At the close of the unit, each student wrote an essay about how their thinking changed during the unit, and which texts contributed to their new thinking. They started off as simple essays of the five-paragraph variety. The introduction was to explain what they used to think beautiful looked like, and the conclusion was supposed to explain how they perceive beauty now. This is where things really started to get beautiful. “Mrs. Hoffman, can I add a paragraph about another book we read in class? The Last Stop on Market Street really changed my thinking, too.” “Mrs. Hoffman, may I write about more than one article?” “Mrs. Hoffman, can I add a paragraph about someone I know who has a story of hardship and perseverance?”

When the time came for me to read the essays of my fifth-graders, I was amazed. Each individual student articulated changes in his or her thinking about beauty. As I read, I could hear their voices, and was inspired to do something to pull their voices together. I decided to create a video compilation of the essays, in which each student shares a part of his or her own writing. One student wanted to be seen, but not heard, and two students wanted to be heard, but not seen. They figured out how to address this on their own. Students recorded each other and I edited it all into iMovie. Using only their words, their sentences, and their voices, this turned out to be a beautiful story of how their thinking has transformed.

Julie Hoffman is an ELA educator from Somonauk, Illinois. Follow her on Twitter at readeologist.