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Classroom Happenings: The Power of Literature

The Steward School
Bringing stories to life
Spartans of all ages are encouraged to make connections between what they experience in the classroom and the world beyond campus. The books they read, for example, can transport them to new places and foster meaningful discussions. 

When Upper School History Teachers Jim Haske and Jalyn Wheatley wanted to expand their Global Issues students’ interest in reading, they decided to read the historical fiction novel “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys. 

The novel takes place in East Prussia in 1945 at the end of World War II as the Soviet Army is advancing west. Set against the backdrop of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military transport ship, the book follows the lives of four young people and explores themes of love, hope, and survival amidst the chaos of war. 

A Deeper Understanding 
Mr. Haske and Ms. Wheatley collaborated with Middle School/Upper School Librarian Crystal Hamlin, who provided the ninth graders with copies of the novel, plus supplementary resources (articles and videos about Ms. Sepetys’ research and writing process, the true history of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship, and the secret Amber Room that was discussed in the book) to further enhance their reading experience. 

Ms. Wheatley said, “It’s fascinating that such important historical events are hidden; I had never learned about the Wilhelm Gustloff! It’s great to be able to use historical fiction to bring these stories to life.”

The plot is not only gripping for students, but “it also allows them to make connections to their unit of study related to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine,” said Mr. Haske. “‘Salt to the Sea’ helps them develop a deeper understanding of the concepts of conflict and forced migration, and the perils of being a refugee.” He added, “Ms. Wheatley and I took a risk by adopting this novel. We were not sure if students would love it, but the majority of them did! They didn’t want to stop reading it, and some students have pursued other novels by Ms.Sepetys.” 

Lourdes Olivencia ’27 said, “What I found most interesting about the book was how the author could take all of these different stories, backgrounds, and perspectives and merge them into one compelling journey. I enjoyed seeing the characters finally meet toward the end of the book and watching them grow.” 

Ms. Hamlin looks forward to having next year’s ninth graders read the book. 

“We also plan to invite the author to meet with our students virtually,” she said. “When students have the opportunity to meet authors, it adds a new dimension to their experience. They learn about the author’s career path, ask questions, and share their perspectives on what they’ve read. It’s a great way to make an even stronger connection with literature!”

(photos by Ada Long '25, Morgan Smartt '25, and Wesley Walsh '24)

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