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RACINE COUNTY — Over the past few weeks, 9,000 local students headed to the theater to see a book they’d read come to life, thanks to SC Johnson’s latest literacy program.

Earlier this year, the company provided all of those fourth- through eighth-grade students who attend Racine Unified schools, as well as parochial and independent schools east of Interstate 94 with a copy of the book “Wonder.”

After the students read the book and worked through related curriculum, SC Johnson funded field trips for the students to watch the movie version of “Wonder” at the Marcus Renaissance Cinema in Sturtevant.

“Wonder” is a New York Times bestselling book by R.J. Palacio that was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. The books tells the tale of a boy with facial differences attending a mainstream school for the first time. The movie version was released in theaters on Nov. 17.

Kaylee Gaines, a sixth-grader at Gilmore Middle School, 2330 Northwestern Ave., said her class read through part of the book chapter by chapter, sometimes stopping to learn new words.

“I thought the book really meant something to people who are getting bullied,” she said.

She said after reading the book she plans to act differently toward her classmates by being kind, and not basing her actions on someone’s appearance.

Tyler Lynch, another sixth-grader at Gilmore, said he enjoyed thinking about the viewpoints of the various characters in the book.

“It was good because they didn’t just focus on the main character,” he said.

Shifting behavior

The curriculum going along with the book, provided by myFace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of patients with facial disfigurement, was different for the younger and older students. Younger students learned the concept of “choosing kind,” while older students focused on empathy, inclusion and acceptance.

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“One of the benefits that we’ve seen right away is students shifting their behaviors,” said Eric Gallien, Racine Unified’s deputy superintendent. “They’re more aware of their actions and how it impacts their peers.”

One Racine Unified student witnessed a fellow student taking candy away from another classmate. The next day the witness spoke up about the incident, and also shared some candy with the classmate.

“In the middle school we’re seeing students step up and speak up for their peers when empathy is not being shown,” Gallien said.

Focus on literacy

Amy Winter, manager of global community affairs at SC Johnson and manager of the “Wonder” program, said the company has received an outpouring of appreciation for the program, including hundreds of thank you notes every day. However, Winter doesn’t want the company’s focus on literacy to be lost in the excitement.

“Obviously the messages of ‘Wonder’ of acceptance, inclusion and choosing kind are important for the Racine community and all communities to embrace and understand, but ultimately I think this ‘Wonder’ program is just another step in our focus on literacy,” Winter said. “We really believe that literacy achievement is that next step to future success. So reinforcing the love of reading in Racine is the goal here.”

All students who participated in the program were invited to take part in a related essay contest. Middle school students were asked to write about a superhero of empathy and the fourth- and fifth-grade students were asked to write about an act of kindness.

The winners will be announced and celebrated during an event in May. There will be two winners from each grade level — one from a public school and another from a private or independent school. Each winner will receive $10,000 for his or her school, and will get to bring their classmates to the celebration.

“We’re absolutely appreciative of SCJ’s commitment to literacy,” Gallien said. “Their commitment to ensuring literacy is a focus across the community is really important to our district. And to be able to partner with them on this particular initiative has been a great experience. It’s been a good opportunity for our students.”

“In the middle school we’re seeing students step up and speak up for their peers when empathy is not being shown.” Eric Gallien, Racine Unified’s deputy superintendent
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Reporter

Caitlin Sievers covers cops, crime and the west-end communities. She's a lover of cats, dance and Harry Potter. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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