‘Wishtree’ project nurtures unity at Whitefish school

May 11, 2019

A tree has sprouted in the main hallway at Muldown Elementary School and hanging from its branches are colorful handwritten wishes.

The wish tree, with its trunk painted on the wall and real branches hanging from the ceiling above, has become a focal point for the students and staff members who pass by it often. The tree was inspired by the story and themes in the book “Wishtree,” but it’s also become the visual representation of a school community coming together.

The “Wishtree,” by author Katherine Applegate, is told from the perspective of Red, an oak tree who serves as the neighborhood wish tree where people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them on to the branches. Animals seek refuge in the tree while she watches over a neighborhood dealing with bigotry and a 10-year-old girl looking for a friend.

“The book has a message of community acceptance and tolerance for those who may be a different race, culture or religion,” Muldown Counselor Kelly Talsma said.

Students in first through fourth grade at the school have listened to and read the “Wishtree” book, and had discussions and written about the messages in the book, and written down their own wishes to place on the Muldown wish tree.

Students are quick to recite a main message of the book: “Don’t eat your neighbors.”

The book, told from the perspective of the oak tree, says that while the host of animals call her home, they have disagreements, “but I’ve made it clear that eating your neighbors will not be allowed while I’m in charge.”

“People don’t have to like each other, but you do have to get along,” Talsma explains. “The book weaves all sorts of themes together, creating a metaphor about community. It’s at the adult and kid level, and talks about how we are all a community - people don’t have to like each other and that’s OK, but you can’t eat your neighbor.”

When she introduced the book to Muldown, Talsma said the vision was that students and adults both could take away the lessons.

“We’re all Muldown or we’re all Whitefish,” she said. “We all have tragedies that we have to overcome, but we come through together. Sometimes it’s messy, but we’ll come through together.”

The book has several messages about loving who you are, that when bad things happen sometimes there’s not much you can do “except stand tall and reach deep,” or never lose hope because wishes have a way of coming true.

“It has these great nuggets of lifelong lessons,” Talsma said.

Wishes written by Muldown students on the tree range from the silly to the serious.

“I wish for a talking hamster” or “I wish my father didn’t die.”

In their papers reflecting on the book’s lessons, students wrote about what they learned from the book.

“We all come from different backgrounds, but we all have feelings,” wrote Adelynn.

“Support others during hard times,” wrote Cody.

“Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t do big things,” wrote Mackenzie.

Teacher Jennifer Watson praised the book.

“The book is in-depth and you might think it would be over the students’ heads, but I’ve been blown away by the deep messages they’ve gotten out of it,” she said.

Talsma first read the book at the recommendation of a friend and was so moved by it she suggested implementing it in the classrooms at Muldown with the idea that reading the book and related activities become an annual tradition at the school. The book has been nominated for the Pacific Northwest Library Association 2020 Young Reader’s Choice Awards.

“This is going to be a classic that they are going to read to their children,” she said.

Principal Linda Whitright took the next step and provided a copy for every staff member in the school, and read a passage from the book during a staff meeting.

“The message of unity and kindness applies to us all,” Whitright said. “There is consistency in the vocabulary that we all have from the book to use with one another for the students, but also the staff. It fits in with our social and emotional learning, and that was a huge factor for bringing the book in.”

“I think it’s had a really big impact on the adults,” Talsma added. “We can often be harsh on each other, but we should be kind.”