Sadako and the 356 Paper Cranes


It’s been an interesting week. For all the pom-poms, marching, and lunacy that led us up to the ELA test on Tuesday and Wednesday, it already seems like a distant memory. From what I could tell as I circulated, the students were dutifully following the strategies I taught them – maybe too much. Some of them worked up until about five minutes left in the allotted time. Everyone finished, though, and now, yes, we are finished. Of course, math is coming up on Wednesday, so the major crunch is on.

But this is not a story about tests. In fact, I only bring them up (why give them the press?) only to contrast what the first half of the week was compared to the second.

Our next reading unit is social issues. By the time we got to it last year, I was tapped out and doing my own thing. My initial reaction for this year’s incarnation of social issues was the same – that, since the ELA was over, I could put the car on cruise control and let it coast. Then, however, I got to thinking about all the wonderful ways to approach the unit, and all the outstanding books to immerse the children in.

I immediately flashed back to two of my favorite books from when I was in school. One of them was Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya. I had read this to my extended day students and knew this unit would be an ideal chance to bring it up for the whole class. It’s a true story about the decision, during World War II, to euthanize the animals at a Tokyo zoo for fear that destroyed cages would enable the animals to run wild through the city.

I figured that, for social issues, Elephants would be beautifully supplemented by another book about the horrors of the war in Japan: Sadako and the 1,000 Paper Cranes. Another true story, this poignant book tells the tale of a Japanese girl living ten years after the atomic bomb who develops and dies from leukemia, caused by the bomb’s radiation. She spends her final days folding paper cranes, inspired by the Japanese legend that 1,000 folded cranes will bring health to the sick. Sadako died after completing 644 cranes, but, following her death, her classmates completed her goal of 1,000, and today, her memory is one of the focal points of peace efforts in Hiroshima.

I finished the book with my class in only two days. It’s a short book, but it is amazingly deep. As usual, I struggled to finish reading it. When I did, the students sat in somber silence, pondering the intensity of the story and the poetic way Eleanor Coerr described Sadako’s story.

Now, prior to starting the book with the class, I pulled aside two of the girls – Mighty Mouse and Evelyn – and one of the boys – Anu – to enlist their paper folding skills for what I was planning for today. They eagerly agreed to assist the class in learning how to fold cranes, not realizing just exactly what I had planned.

It was a heavy end of the week in terms of books, so I wanted to end on an inspirational note. We had just finished evaluating a month-long baseball data collection effort for averages. Investment was high and could be easily sustained as I transitioned the class into our day’s final period.

Remarkably, several of the students remembered exactly how many cranes Sadako folded before her death (644). I had the class figure out how many more she would needed to reach her goal (356). Then, we figured out how many each person in the room (and me) would need to make to get the total between Sadako and us to 1,000. We would each have to make slightly less than 13.

Little did the class know that I brought in square paper for everyone. They delighted in me passing out the paper, and I brought Mighty Mouse to the front to lead us. Evelyn and Anu circulated while Mighty Mouse and I walked the class through the crane folding process.

Minor frustrations crept up for some, but everyone was resolutely dedicated to learning the proper way to fold a paper crane. (I’ve often marveled at the lack of overt sensitivity displayed by this class, but they were really into this).

It took us about 40 minutes to get through one crane, and with about 10 minutes left in the day, I spontaneously introduced the next step of the activity. I distributed looseleaf paper, and, thinking about the Jewish tradition of leaving prayers in Jerusalem’s Western Wall, asked the students to take some time to write a private note to Sadako. Like they did so many months ago after meditating about their neighborhood, the class went silent and commenced spilling their thoughts.

(The notes will be sealed shut, affixed to the cranes, and hung throughout our room to commemorate Sadako and the moving unit on which we’re embarking).

Here are the contents of some of their notes:

Evelyn: I still think that you are happy that you are wearing your kimono when you are died. …P.S. We will make the rest of the cranes.

Victoria: I think you were really really brave and I want to be as brave as you were. …I also want you to rest in peace.

In memory of Sadako and in recognition of the horrors of war, we fold cranes.

Leo: You are very inspiring. If I lived in Hiroshima I would visit you every time and bring some paper cranes. And I will try to bring as many as I can to get to 1,000, then you will feel strong and healthy.

Mighty Mouse: I hope you life happily in the sky. Now you will never die again and rest in peace.

Giggles: I would’ve hoped that you would finish your 1,000 paper cranes, but you couldn’t. So now my class and I are finishing the 356 cranes you didn’t get to do. Maybe if you had finished the 1,000 cranes you could’ve gotten the miracle you wanted. I hope you rest in peace.

Humble Pie: We did this to remember you for being a strong girl that didn’t give up.

Gladys: We succeeded to make 27 cranes. And we are going to hang the cranes in your honor. I felt like crying.

Dazy: I hope you rest in peace and that you’re happy wherever you are . We’re making cranes for you to finish the thousand you were making.

Santa Claus: At the end of the book when it said you never woke up, in the inside I was crying. …I just want you to know we are sad what happened to you. We love you alot. You inspire us.

Vivian (a girl who has been touched by death this year and writes beautifully about somber happenings): I admire the hope you show and the hope you use to fight for your life. I could never be as strong as you are. You never gave up. You fought for your life each day, each minute, and each second. What happened to you moved me. I realized anything can happen at any moment. You never know. I promise to you that I will treasure what I have like you did. I will treasure my family, my friends, my house, and more. You are a hero to people who need hope.

And with that, I bid you all a wonderful weekend.

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One response to “Sadako and the 356 Paper Cranes

  1. That is one of my favorite stories and I wish I had thought of this project – such an awesome idea. I also wish I was more creative in that way 🙂 My pen-pal in Japan is named Chizuru, and she told me the characters she uses to write it mean 1,000 cranes. I particularly love the image of all those cranes hanging in your room. I remember when, right after 9/11, the Trinity Church’s fencing was covered in cranes and notes like that. To this day, it reminds me of the potential of humanity to show solidarity and love with each other, and you doing this with your class is yet another reminder.

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