Lesson Idea: Salt to the Sea


What teacher doesn’t love a book that inspires kids to research?

With the excitement of a new school year, I can only dream of getting back into the classroom to teach Ruta Sepetys’ new historical novel, Salt to the Sea, taking place in war-torn Prussia during World War II. Instead, I’m encouraging you, oh mighty teachers, to add this book to your plans this year. I’m talking research, themes, character development, and perspective. But in this blog, I’m mostly stressing the research opportunities.

In Salt to the Sea, four distinct narratives unfold through alternating teen perspectives:

Joana – a compassionate and pretty young Lithuanian nurse.

Florian – a Prussian art conserver who “should” be serving the German army but instead carries secret plans of revenge.

Emilia – a shy young pregnant Polish girl.

Alfred – a brainwashed Nazi sailor with an inferiority complex.

Joana, Florian, and Emilia encounter each other while fleeing East Prussia during a Soviet invasion. Together, they make their way towards the Wilhelm Gustloff, a factual but little-known ship sent by Hitler to evacuate the county. Alfred is assigned to aid the evacuation.

Other characters traveling with the group include an old cobbler nicknamed “the shoe poet” who says a person’s shoes tell their story; Eva, an extremely large pessimistic and blunt woman in her 50s; and Ingred, a kind and perceptive blind girl taken under Joana’s care.

As the group fights through dangers of the cold and falling bombs, they also grapple with their own histories, secrets, and scars.

All the while, the reader learns via Sepetys’ sprinkling of necessary historical facts throughout the novel.

Research could be done before, during, and/or after reading and discussing the novel as a class. If assigning research after, students would be inspired to learn more about the characters they read about—they will beg to learn. If assigning research before, the hope is that they’ll beg to read; and I can nearly promise that you’ll get some begging for both research and reading if conducting the research during.

Thus, here are some before, during, and after research ideas:


Research before would serve as an introduction to characters and setting of the novel. One of my favorite activities to do with students before reading a novel is the “tea party,” which involves assigning each student a character to embody. They attend the “tea party”, act as their character, introduce themselves to the class, and respond to other characters in the ways they imagine appropriate. It is loads of fun and has never failed me!

What I’ve never done is actually have students do their own research before the tea party. I usually just provide them with descriptions given by me. For this novel, I would assign a character or “research specialty” to groups in class and give them a day or two to spend time in the school library, in the computer lab, or on their iPads researching what it would be like to be a character in this novel (such as to be a Lithuanian nurse during World War II, etc.) I would want them to learn about the place their character originated—what their nationality meant for them, how their qualities (blindness) or decisions (becoming a traitor) would affect their daily challenges, etc.

The “research specialists” could be assigned specific subjects that would be enlightening while reading the novel. Ideas include researching the Wilhelm Gustloff, Prussia during World War II, the Nazi party, German invasions, Russian invasions, Hitler, Stalin, etc.

Not only could the students both mingle and address the entire class during the party, explaining what they’ve learned, but they could also serve as class experts throughout novel discussions—always giving each student an important role (room to speak since they’re the experts).


There is also the option of doing research during the novel. After each character is met, the teacher could find appropriate ways to research the setting, time period, characters, etc. In this method, the research would be done while the students are in the midst of seeing the relevancy.


If assigning research after, I would allow students or groups to choose any aspect that interested them.  They would delve more deeply into a specific topic introduced by the novel (any guesses on how many will want to research the Wilhelm Gustloff itself?) and allow them multiple ways of presenting their knowledge to the class. 

Overall, this novel would make an inspiring class project. I haven’t even mentioned character studies that could be done on characterization and perspective while reading the novel. (Yes, I would definitely have students working on character maps of each of the narrators throughout the novel; and you better bet that I would be doing some sort of shoe project (inspired by the shoe poet) to add depth to their characterization study. 

Regardless, my favorite aspect is that this novel is such an easy and intriguing read, accessible to so many students. The whole novel would be steeped in research and group/class discussions, inspiring just the kind of lessons I love.


Blogger: Deidra P.

Deidra Pic