When We Were Alone

by David A. Robertson Illustrations by Julie Flett

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A young Cree girl is spending time with her grandmother, and like many young children, she has lots of questions. “Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?” “Nokom, why do you wear your hair so long?” “Nokom, why do you speak Cree?” “Nokom, why do you spend so much time with your family?” For each of the girls questions, the grandmother responds by telling her story of being taken away from her home to live in a Native American residential school. In their time together, the grandmother is able to reveal the tragic history of boarding schools, as well as the pride and resilience of the Native American people.

Genre - picture book
Lexile Level  - not available
Themes -
love, family, self-knowledge, understanding Native American residential schools,Cree culture/pride and determination

Rings of Culture represented -

Ethnicity: Cree
Age: 5+
Gender: girl
Socio -Economic: middle/working class
National: Canada

Why it’s Culturally Authentic (aka VABBulous)-  

  • Julie Flett’s illustrations are a perfect companion to Robertson’s story, revealing both the culture and perseverance of Cree people/culture, and the horrors of residential schools.

  • The text and illustrations juxtapose Cree history, with contemporary life, revealing important facts and context about Native American life.

  • The question/answer format will resonate with young children

  • Roberts subtly reveals the atrocities and history of residential schools, while illuminating the beauty and resilience of the Cree people.

  • Shows a present day Cree family living everyday life.

  • Iceberg of Culture elements present include but not limited to - concepts of beauty, relationship to animals, tolerance of pain, concept of self, patterns of decision making.

Common Core Standards -

Ideas for CLR -

Set It Off - Into the Text

Picture Walk + Shout Out


  • Do a picture walk through the book, allowing students to focus on illustrations. Pause briefly on each page to have students Shout Out what they notice about the illustrations.

The Get Down (Through the Text)

Teacher Read Aloud + Echo Read Aloud

  • Do a teacher read aloud, interjecting Echo Read for specific lines for emphasis. In particular this would work well for lines that repeat such as “when we were alone” and “and this made us happy”.

Walk and Talk + Train/Pass it On


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  1. After reading, have students “stand up, hand up, pair up”.

  2. Give them the prompt/question they are to discuss (see below)

  3. Have them “Walk & Talk” around the perimeter of the room (or other area you indicate) discussing their responses to the question. Give students approximately 60 seconds to discuss their answers, about 30 seconds for each partner.

  4. Use Train/Pass it On to have 2-3 students share out with the whole class.

  5. Repeat with the next question.

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Possible Prompts

What things did the school want the Native American students to change?

How would you like to go to a school like that? Explain

How would you feel if you had to change many things about yourself to go to school?

What things made Nokom happy when she was a child at the school ?

What important things does Nosisim learn about her family and culture from Nokom?

What important things does the author want you to know about the Cree people?

What are some words you would use to describe the grandmother during and after her school experience?

What ideas do you have for VABBing this responsive read?

Lydia McClanahan