<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=2893663824065720&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

SEL with ALM: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Posted by Anna-Lisa Mackey, PATHS Program CEO on Mar 27, 2023 12:25:47 PM
Anna-Lisa Mackey, PATHS Program CEO

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel contains the SEL themes of what constitutes a family, responsibility, caring, love, acceptance, relationships between parents and children, relationships between friends, trying to fit in and find your "tribe," romantic relationships, and the difference between facts and feelings.


I have a secret! In another life, I would have been another Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey and spent my days watching and learning from our closest relatives, the great apes. So this book was right up my alley. It's about a boy named Ben, whose family moves to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, so his parents can conduct a research experiment by having a baby chimpanzee named Zan,  live with them, and learn sign language.

The story takes us through Ben's experience of moving to a new place, making new friends, getting a new "baby brother," dealing with the experiment and learning to love Zan as a member of the family. Unfortunately, the research project ends, and Ben and his family have to decide what to do about Zan. 

Half Brother is a fabulous book but don't take that from me! It has numerous awards to back up that statement. It is the winner of the CLA Book of the Year for Children and the CLA Young Adult Book Award, the winner of The Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award, the winner of CBC's Young Canada Reads, An American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, A Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Book for Kids and Teens, A White Ravens Selection for 2011 and nominated for a 2012 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award.

If you haven't guessed by the awards, Kenneth Oppel is a prominent Canadian writer who has won the Governor General's Award for not one but two series! He also has a feature film by Summit Entertainment in the works. So, if you've never tried it, give an international author a chance; this book is a great place to start.

Our Interesting fact for this Socratic Seminar Review is that this book actually has a basis in reality! In 1967, two researchers, a husband and wife team, began a project at the University of Nevada, Reno, to teach a chimpanzee, Washoe American Sign Language. She was raised as part of the family, frequently wearing clothes and eating meals at the dinner table. She learned approximately 350 signs. One of her unique signs was when Washoe saw a swan. Not having the sign language for swan, she signed "water" and "bird" to indicate the word "swan." As she learned more signs, she often combined signs with different meanings. Washoe passed away at the age of 42. 

Socratic Seminar Questions


The book begins by describing how Ben's mother got Zan.
  • As you read the opening paragraphs, what feelings came up for you? Did you think it was right/fair to take Zan away from his mother? Why/Why not
Chapter 1: Ben lets us know that it's his birthday, and he's excited. He's hoping his dad will take him for a swim at the lake and have pizza for dinner. He was also hoping for a new bike and for the movers to bring the furniture so that he could set up his bedroom.
  • Does this sound like a good birthday to you or not? What kind of birthday would you hope to have for your 13th birthday?
Ben describes his trip across the country with his Dad.
  • From this information, what kind of relationship do you think they have? Do you think that both Ben and his dad would describe their relationship in the same way or not?
Ben describes feeling very angry "And suddenly I was angry. It happened to me like that sometimes, a big solar flare of fury inside my head." p 6.
  • How would you describe feeling angry?
Ben describes meeting Zan for the first time on page 11.
  • As you read this description, what is your sense of how Ben is feeling? How would you feel if you were in his place? Have you ever had a new sibling? How did you feel?

lessons that connect to the SEL themes in this book

Grade 6, Unit 1
  • Lesson 2: Understanding and Building Self-confidence and Self-esteem
  • Lesson 10: Decision-making
  • Lesson 11: Values
  • Lesson 12: Responsibility and Accountability
Grade 6, Unit 2
  • Lesson 1: Self-perception
  • Lesson 3: Grief
  • Lesson 5: Non-verbal Communication
  • Lesson 7: Perspective Taking
  • Lesson 8: Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships
  • Lesson 9: Making and Maintaining Friendships
Grade 6, Unit 3 
  • Lesson 1: Resilience
  • Lesson 4: Reaching Out for Resources
  • Lesson 5: Respect for Living Things
  • Lesson 12: Perseverance and Hope
Grade 7, Unit 1
  • Lesson 4: Confidence
  • Lesson 5: Flexible Thinking
  • Lesson 6: SMART Goals
  • Lesson 11: Conflict
  • Lesson 12: Self-perception
Grade 7, Unit 2 
  • Lesson 1: Showing respect
  • Lesson 3: Advocacy
  • Lesson 7: Overcoming Obstacles
  • Lesson 12: Empathy
Grade 7, Unit 3
  • Lesson 1: Dealing with Disappointment
  • Lesson 6: Relationships
  • Lesson 7: Resilience
  • Lesson 9: Being responsible
Grade 8, Unit 1 
  • Lesson 4: Problem-Solving
  • Lesson 7: Belonging and Rejection
  • Lesson 9: Identifying Mentors
  • Lesson 10: Ethics and Integrity
  • Lesson 12: Kindness and Compassion
Grade 8, Unit 2 
  • Lesson 1: Rules for Life
  • Lesson 8: Relationships
  • Lesson 9: Conflict
  • Lesson 10: Apologies and Forgiveness
  • Lesson 12: Loss
Grade 8, Unit 3 
  • Lesson 7: Point of View
  • Lesson 8: Negotiating
  • Lesson 11: Standing Up for Yourself
  • Lesson 12: Transitions

For the full Socratic Seminar lesson plans for the topics listed, please visit our website for more details on how to get Emozi® Middle School for your classroom!

Dive deeper into SEL for adults and students in my new book, The Social Emotional Classroom: A New Way to Nurture Students and Understand the Brain.

Learn More

Topics: middle school, Emozi® Middle School, Anna-Lisa Mackey, M.Ed., SEL and Literature, Socratic Seminar