Best Read Aloud You’ve Never Heard Of: The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea

My school’s population is approximately 8% Hmong American. When I select books to read aloud in classrooms, I am intentional in choosing literature that accurately reflects my school’s diversity. If I only shared stories that primarily featured one race or culture, I would not be giving my minority students quality opportunities to put themselves within the context or characters of the book. Also, students from a different culture can add unique perspectives to these types of stories that would otherwise be undiscovered. It allows them to be the experts in the classroom.

One of my favorite books about the Hmong culture and their history is The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea. Here is how I have shared this story with 3rd graders in the past.

Before Reading Aloud

I begin by sharing the backdrop for this story. One of the first pages has a small map of Southeast Asia. I explain that America went to war with Northern Vietnam, fighting alongside the Southern Vietnamese. I do my best to explain the concept of “communism” when I answer the inevitable question, “Why were they fighting each other?” I finish the one minute history lesson by concluding that American troops eventually pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the Southern Vietnamese at the mercy of their enemies to the north. This led to many being forced from their homes to find another place to live, namely America. When I consider whether this may be a little over their heads, I go back to a quote by Regie Routman: “I have never been in a classroom where the expectations were too high.”

During the Read Aloud

This historical fiction everybody book is about a girl and her grandmother in the 1970s, both refugees living in a camp. To pass the time and to make money in order to purchase plane tickets to America, they make story cloths called pa’ndau. This is their culture’s way of sharing their history.

As I read, the story switches from the present day to the past, when the main character dreams about the death of her parents. At this point, the illustrations switch from watercolors to stitching, just like the pa’ndau. I ask the class, “What do you notice on this page?” If the students don’t initially see it, I rephrase with, “What is different about this page when compared to the previous pages? Why do you think the author make this change?” 3rd graders’ typical responses are a) the setting is now in the past and b) the main character is starting to think about her own story cloth.

After Reading Aloud

If there are Hmong students in the classroom, I try to solicit some responses from them. They usually have at least a little knowledge about what a pa’ndau is. They may even share their experiences observing a story cloth being made. At this time, I point out that we has a story cloth in our school.

I encourage the students to take a few moments at a later time to “read” it and see if they can understand this family’s journey from Southeast Asia to America. To extend the story, I could take this photo and post it on the SmartBoard. We could zoom in on different aspects of the pa’ndau and jot some ideas down about what we think is trying to be conveyed. From there we could do a shared writing activity that tells this story in words based on our observations. If you are trying to address the Common Core, using primary resources like this is a great way to go.

Related recommended read aloud: Dia’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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