Standard Lesson

Cultural Connections and Writing for Change

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Awareness and true understanding of other cultures can create the desire to take action. In this lesson, students learn about Palestinian Arabs. After exploring the culture in a book and online, students identify a current social issue that concerns them. In a formal letter written to an appropriate official, students identify these issues and discuss suggestions of ways the problems might be addressed.

From Theory to Practice


  • Literature helps learners develop, understand, and appreciate the culture of others.
  • One way to make a strong stand for equality and justice for all groups is to add good books to the existing curriculum.
  • Using books about Arab culture validates its importance, offers an opportunity for non-Arab students to be introduced to a new culture, prevents stereotypes from forming, and helps students develop a broader and deeper understanding of peoples of the world.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • One or more copies of Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye (Aladdin, 1997)
  • One or more copies of Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty (Dragonfly, 2010; optional)
  • One or more copies of The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2005; optional)
  • One or more copies of Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (Sandpiper, 1995; optional)
  • Chart paper
  • Envelopes and stamps
  • Computers with Internet access




1. Obtain and familiarize yourself with the book Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye. In this book, an Arab-American girl named Mona visits her grandmother in the West Bank. Although the two do not speak the same language, Mona discovers many connections. When she returns home, she writes a letter to the president encouraging world peace.

If Sitti's Secrets is not available, this lesson could be adapted to other children's books set in the Arab world. Suggestions include but are not limited to:
  • Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty (Knopf, 2004). This graphic novel tells the story of Alia, an Iraqi librarian, who knows that the library which houses thousands of irreplaceable books will become a military target. She begs the local authorities to intervene and protect the books, but they will not. Ultimately she and her neighbors smuggle over 30,000 books to safety.
  • The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2005). The same story as in Alia's Mission, but using simpler vocabulary.
  • Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (Clarion Books, 1995). The central figure in this book is 10-year-old Sami who has lived in a war zone all of his life and who takes action against war by spontaneously joining hundreds of children carrying banners pleading for peace.
You will need to either have a classroom set of the book or several books for students to share. You may also choose to read the book to your students if multiple copies are not available.
2. Visit Lines in the Sand to get background information on Palestinian culture and the Arab-Israeli conflict. You may also want to do your own research for information about the Palestinians, although it is imperative that you preview any online resources related to Palestine before using them in the classroom because many of these resources are deeply troubling and inappropriate for children. If you know anyone in your community who is Palestinian or of Palestinian descent, it would be instructionally appropriate to invite that person to visit the class to share their knowledge as well.
3. Students complete a Venn diagram activity during Session 2; you may choose to use an online or print version. If you will be using the online version, visit and familiarize yourself with the interactive Venn Diagram tool and bookmark it on the computers students will be using. If necessary, reserve time in your school's computer lab.
4. Visit and familiarize yourself with the Letter Generator tool. Make necessary arrangements to have students use it during Session 4 and bookmark the tool on the computers students will be using. Make a copy of the Persuasive Letter Rubric for each student in your class.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Interpret illustrations by predicting setting, tone, story, and cultural attributes
  • Gain knowledge about a culture through shared reading and individual reading about Palestinian Arabs
  • Analyze what they have learned about Palestinian Arab culture and what they know about their own culture by using a Venn diagram to identify and draw parallels between their family and a fictional family
  • Demonstrate understanding of the problems they have read about and issues in their own lives by identifying a social issue that needs to be addressed
  • Learn the elements of a persuasive letter and then apply what they have learned by writing a well-written, properly formatted persuasive letter to an appropriate official
  • Work collaboratively to brainstorm ideas and write a finished, polished product

Session 1

1. Show students the book Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye (distribute copies to students if you have enough). Explain that this story takes place in Palestine. Ask students if they know where it is; you might ask someone to point it out on a map or globe.

Further explain that the people they will read about are called Arabs. Suggest to students that as they read the story, they look for similarities and differences between the culture represented in the book and their own culture. Ask children whether they are of Arabic descent or whether they have any friends who are.
2. Additional talking points for a prereading discussion include:
  • Discuss the front and back covers of the book by asking:
  • What do you think the book might be about?
  • What is happening outside the window?
  • What do you think the girl is thinking about?
  • How is the girl like you? How is the girl different from you?
  • Look at the inside cover. How is the little girl being silly? What are some things that you do that are silly?
  • On the first page, Mona is thinking about her grandmother. Why do you think the illustrator drew a world map on the page?
  • Mona calls her grandmother "Sitti" which is Arabic for grandmother. Have children share names they have for their grandmothers. The pictures show where Mona's Sitti lives and how she dresses. Have students describe the similarities and differences between Sitti and their grandmothers.
  • Mona's grandmother calls her "habibi" which is Arabic for "darling." What are some names your grandmothers call you?
  • Mona will also talk about her cousins. Their names are Fowzi, Sami, Hani, and Hendia. What are some of your relatives' names? In the story, Mona and her cousins play marbles. What are some games that you play with your relatives?
  • Page through the book and find the hidden images within the illustrations. Allow for individual and unique contributions. Images to look for include (but are not limited to): a globe, the ocean, fish, a city, family faces in the leaves of the tree, the desert in the sheets, barbed wire, Arabic writing, and planets. Wonder aloud with students about messages the illustrator may be trying to communicate with these symbols.
3. Following this discussion, read Sitti's Secret aloud or have students volunteer to read. Have them develop and generate observations and questions they may have about its content. List their questions and comments on the board or on large chart paper that can be displayed until the end of the lesson.

Session 2

1. Have students use either the print or online Venn diagram to compare their own lives and culture to that in Sitti's Secrets. Items for comparison include but are not limited to language, food, dress, games, and household chores.
You may have students work in heterogeneous groups of three to five for this activity; however, guide them when necessary as they complete their work. Remind them to refer to the items listed on the chart paper or board from Session 1.
2. Conclude this activity by having students create a poster that illustrates the comparisons between their families 'and Monas family. Discuss with them what they might want to show on their posters, for example activities they do with their grandmothers, how they play with their relatives, if they cook or bake with an adult. Display the posters in an appropriate area. Note: The posters are a creative activity with no formal assessment.

Session 3

1. Briefly ask students to brainstorm why they think Mona wrote a letter to the president and what she hoped to accomplish. Have them share their ideas about why they think Mona wanted to write this letter. Accept all answers and make note of them on the board; however, guide students towards the idea of Mona wanting to have her voice heard by someone who might be able to impact the outcome of her concerns.
2. Ask students to think about a topic they might want to write a letter about. Discuss things happening in your school, town, or region as well as national issues. Allow students to share and discuss their ideas and record them on the board or on chart paper. Guide them in verbalizing their concerns. Once you have a list of topics on the board, ask students to choose one from the list to write about.
3. Talk about the person to whom they think their letters should be addressed. Suggested questions include, but are not limited to:
  • Why did they select that person to write a letter to?
  • How can he or she have an impact on the situation?
4. Explain to students that they are going to write a letter about an issue of their choosing. Distribute and review the Persuasive Letter Rubric. Go over the correct format for a business letter. Students need to know that their letter will have a heading, inside address, salutation, body, closing, and signature. Ask them to compare the letter they will write with the letter Mona wrote. What will be the same? What will be different?
5. After discussing the business-letter format, assign students interested in similar topics to groups. Tell each group that they are going to write and mail a letter to an official involved with their selected issue. Guide the students in planning their letters. They should state the issues focusing on why their issue is important to them or their community and provide suggestions for solving the identified problem. Remind the students that the purpose of their letter is to persuade the recipient to help.
6. Give students time to work in their groups and write a rough copy of their letter using the rubric as a guide. Wander the room to informally support and encourage emerging ideas.

Session 4

1. Students should proofread, revise, and refine their letters; you will approve each letter before it is written in final form. In addition, have students refer to the rubric when completing their final draft.
2. If you have computers available, have students use the Letter Generator tool to type the final copies of their letters. If this is not possible, the letters can be handwritten. All group members will sign the letter and each group will address its stamped envelope. (The return address should be the school address, not a home addresses, to avoid families being placed on an organization's mailing list.)
3. Mail the letters. Tell students that if answers are received, you will take time to share them with the whole class at an appropriate time. Tell students that it is possible every letter will not receive a response and they should not be disappointed if that occurs.

Session 5

Bring students together for a reflection session. Points for discussion include:

  • Contrast ideas that students may have had about either Arabs or people who live in Palestine with ideas they now have.
  • Review the lives led by Mona's extended family and their families.
  • Review social concerns about which students wrote, the reasons they felt concerned, and the reason they thought the person to whom they wrote was a good choice. Allow them to explain the outcome they hope their letter will influence.
  • Allow students to volunteer things they learned as a result of these sessions. Attempt to ascertain whether they view anything differently. Display their thoughts on the board or on chart paper that you leave up for several days.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Use the Observational Checklist to assess student participation and knowledge when discussing the story, talking about the Palestinian/Arabic culture, generating ideas for the Venn Diagram and letter, and evaluating cooperative learning.
  • Assess students’ letters using the Persuasive Letter Rubric.
  • Use the concluding session to help informally assess how well students have learned about the culture of Palestinian Arabs and how well they understood the purpose and method for writing a persuasive letter.