Lesson by Donnie Rotkin and Jody Sokolower
Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story is a beautiful children’s book by Malak Mattar, now a world-renowned artist, who grew up in Gaza. It’s a thoughtful, hopeful, age-appropriate introduction to current events in Gaza for children. This lesson is aimed at 3rd to 5th graders, but can be adapted for younger or older students. (Note: In case you can’t easily get a copy of Sitti’s Bird, here is a YouTube of a young Palestinian girl reading the book to us. If you have Arabic-speaking students in your class, you may want to use this video, which includes the text read in both English and Arabic. The book starts about 9 minutes in.) At the end of this lesson is a slide deck you may want to use as you teach the lesson. It includes links to the video of the book.
As you begin, please be aware that talking about Gaza may be charged for students for a range of reasons, including family connections in Palestine or Israel, demonstrations, and conversations in their homes. Students may have violent images in their minds from the media. Many Palestinian, Arab and Muslim youth are feeling targeted by the way Palestinians are being portrayed in the media. Lean into your strengths in discussing other difficult topics with your class.
- Tell students something like: “We’re going to read a book that you may have different ideas and feelings about. Remember our class agreements about listening to each other with open hearts and minds (or however your class agreements are phrased. Reference other intense discussions if that’s helpful.) I know this might be hard for some of you, but I’m right here to help.”
- Ask students if they have heard that there is a war in Gaza, which is part of Palestine.
Ask: What questions do you have about that?
- Show students maps of the region and of Palestine/Israel. If you have a standard world map, you can show students how differently Palestine is represented on standard maps.
Tell students: The book we’re going to read is Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story. It’s about Malak, who lives in Gaza, which is part of Palestine. Malak wrote the story herself. It’s about when she was a few years older than you.
- Pre-reading question:
Tell students: “When you feel sad or scared, is there something that makes you feel better? When I feel sad, sometimes it makes me feel better to . . . . ”
“Share your idea with a reading buddy.”
“Who would like to share with the class?”
- Tell students: “In the story, Malak is sad and scared, but she finds a way to make herself feel better. Let’s find out what happens.
“I’m going to read the story all the way through. You might have lots of questions or ideas about that. Don’t worry. Once we finish, we’ll read it again and stop and talk about all your questions and ideas.”
- Read (or play) the story all the way through. Remind students they will have a chance to ask questions and say what they think and feel in a few minutes.
- After you finish the story the first time, ask the class basic comprehension questions:
- Why was Malak scared?
- Why couldn’t she go to school?
- What did Malak do that made her feel better?
- What happened to Sitti’s home?
- Why couldn’t Malak go to the international show of her paintings?
- Then read (or play) the book again, stopping when students have questions or ideas they want to express. Be sure to talk about:
- Why does Malak ask, “Sitti, are we in a cage, too?”
As you can see on the map, Gaza is a narrow strip of Palestinian land on the Mediterranean Sea. It is surrounded by fences and walls that were built by Israel. Israel says it needs the fences and walls to keep it safe. Israel controls all the gates—except one controlled by Egypt. They have ships in the ocean that control who can come into or leave Gaza, too. So all the people of Gaza, including Malak and her family, are completely cut off from the rest of Palestine and the rest of the world. Even before the war happening now, people in Gaza had a lot of trouble getting clean water, books, medical supplies and food.
Having all those fences and walls, and not being able to leave—do you think that makes Sitti feel like she is in a cage?
- What are the explosions?
The explosions are bombs. Bombs are big, noisy, powerful blasts that blow up buildings and kill people.
- Why can’t Malak go to school or leave her house for 50 days?
Malak wrote Sitti’s Bird about her experiences in 2014, when Israel bombed Gaza and then sent in tanks and soldiers for 50 days. Many Palestinian people, including 547 children, were killed. More than 100,000 people lost their homes, like Sitti does. It was a terrible time, but not as bad as the current war.
- Why can’t Malak go to the international show of her paintings?
Israel controls who can leave Gaza to visit a different country, and who can come to visit Gaza. They wouldn’t let Malak leave for her art show. If we wanted to go visit Gaza now to talk to children there, Israel would not let us in.
- Where is Malak now?
When Malak got the highest grades of any student in Gaza and the second highest grades in all of Palestine, she was lucky enough to be able to study in Turkey and to travel to other countries. Right now, she is studying art in London, England. Here’s an article about that.
Here’s a video of Malak talking about writing Sitti’s Bird.
- What is happening in Gaza now?
Right now, there is a terrible war happening in Gaza. Fighters in Gaza, who were angry about how Israel has been treating people in Gaza, broke down the wall and killed many Israeli soldiers and Israelis who were at a music festival. They took 220 Israeli people hostage and took them back to Gaza—they wanted to trade them for Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
This made many people in Israel feel scared and furious. They say they have to make sure that fighters from Gaza can’t attack Israel again. With lots and lots of bombs, they have destroyed half of the houses in Gaza, and many hospitals and schools. More than 11,000 people have been killed. There is no more clean water, and very little food. People all over the world are telling Israel to stop the war and open the gates and fences.
Everyone needs to feel safe, right? How can people in Israel and people in Gaza be safe?
- “Malak still uses art to share her feelings about Gaza. On her instagram, we can see pictures of Malak and some of her paintings.
“This is your chance to make a drawing about the book or something it reminds you of. If you want to write about the book instead, that’s fine. Or you can do both.”
- Give students a chance to share and talk about what they drew/wrote.
Here is a slide deck you may want to use as you teach the lesson.