Saturday, November 17, 2012

Story and literature as a springboard to other Learning

Family outing to explore the real 'My Place'
Classrooms and homes are places where children can encounter a complex range of books, oral stories, good videos and television programs. Story is everywhere, and memorable stories become part of the substance of children's lives. They feed their language, story-making ability, creativity and other forms of learning. The most exciting classrooms and homes are places where children and adults:
  • Share stories with each other and incorporate storybook language into classroom, playground and home life.
  • Spontaneously respond to stories - 'Can I make my own book like Jeannie's'? (Jeannie Baker is the master of collage).
  • Gossip about stories - 'Have you seen this book'? 'Did you watch Toy Story last night'? 'My big brother told me this weird story about...'. 'Mrs watts, this story reminds me of that movie we watched..'. 'Have you read some of the other Berenstain Bear books?'
  • Incorporate stories into their playground and outdoor activities - 'Let's do the Big Bad Wolf, and I'm the wolf.' 'Can we play Toy Story, and I'm Woody?'
  • Incorporate elements of stories read, seen or heard into their writing.
  • Use literature and stories of all kinds as springboards to other forms of learning - 'Can we see if we can sink a boat like in the book?' (This is in response to 'Who Sank the Boat', see below)
  • Respond creatively through drawing, movement, song and rhyme, dance, drama.
 Some examples of literature as a springboard

In this post I want to provide examples of how 6 children's books can act as a springboard for meaning making and learning. Examples based on films, videos and life experiences, but literature is sufficient to illustrate what I mean by the above comments.

1. 'The Jolly Postman, or Other People's Letters' by Janet & Allen Ahlberg (1986)

'The Jolly Postman' is a favourite book for many children (and adults). The Ahlberg's inspiration for the 'Jolly Postman' was the fact that their daughter was always upset when they went to the mailbox and none of the letters were for her. So they wrote her a book that was full of her own mail. The text brilliantly weaves together various fairytale characters in a continuous narrative, while introducing readers to varied written genres - letters, a postcard, birthday card, letter from a solicitor etc. The book took five years to make but it won many awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal. You can read my post on the Ahlbergs HERE

Children who read the book, or who share it as a class or group will delight in creating their own version of this unique book, or simply producing their own letters, cards, bills etc based on storybook characters or stories. Classes I have shared the book with have wanted to write and design their own versions of these texts inspired by other books and movies. 

2. 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' by Jeannie Baker (1987)

Jeannie Baker is a well-known Australian illustrator and author who is a master of collage. She frequently develops her work around environmental themes, or other forms of social commentary. This example of her work is the story of a boy and his father who go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland. It's a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea, but where there are pressures from development. As the story unfolds the boy is confronted by echoes ('ghosts') of what this place was once like - an age of dinosaurs, a time when Indigenous people lived here and so on. It ends with an eerie look at the future. You can read my review of Baker's work HERE.

'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books

A second example from Baker is 'Window'. This book represents a move from the natural world to the man-made world as she shows once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at bush and open space. But with each turn of the page time marches on, and as we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes, from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

Both books can inspire readers to produce their own collage, predict the future for a specific place, or contemplate how humanity changes places. Students might write letters to the editor commenting on the social cost of development, contribute to a joint blog with other students interested in a common concern and so on.

Illustration from Jeannie Baker's 'Window'
'Window' offers a special opportunity to find a window at school or home and imagine what it might have looked like out the same window 50 years ago, or perhaps 100 years into the future. The children could draw a series of pictures, caption them or write more extended text (in varied genres such as narrative, recount, exposition etc).

3. 'The Sign of the Seahorse: A Tale of Greed and High Adventure in Two Acts' by Graeme Base (1992)

The 'Sign of the Seahorse' is an illustrated picture book by well-known author and illustrator Graeme Base.  It was published in 1992. Originally designed by Base to become a narrated concert, the story is composed of two acts. We have a hero, a villain and eventually, the victory of good over evil. The story follows the underwater life of Reeftown that is threatened with environmental disaster.

The book explores varied ways to express meaning using language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour, print layout, a map, hidden clues etc). It stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that can lead spontaneously to many texts, drawings, dramatic skits and so on. With little prompting your children will want to draw their own maps of the reef, record dialogue for a favourite character or scene, create drawings and collage. These varied forms of response will enrich the children's experience of the story and encourage them to deep their understanding of the environmental issues stimulated by the book. You can read my review of the work of Graeme Base HERE.

4. 'Counting on Frank' by Rod Clement (1990)

In 'Counting on Frank' we meet a boy who spends his life trying to solve problems to do with number, area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? One day Frank puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome. This is a delightful story that teaches us about mathematical problem solving, estimation and prediction.

You can't read this book without talking about Frank's predictions yourself. In the right hands children can be encouraged to speculate and set up their own means to test their assumptions and predictions. These can be shared in verbal, written and diagrammatic form for hours of fun, and varied literacy, mathematical and scientific learning.  Your class might set up its own competition that requires prediction, estimation or mathematical calculations of all kinds.

5. 'Who Sank the Boat' by Pamela Allen (1982)

Pamela Allen has written and illustrated many wonderful and simple picture books. In 'Who Sank the Boat' her story explores how many animals it takes to sink a boat, and who's at fault!

Besides the sea, on Mr Peffer's place, there lived a cow, a donkey, 
a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse. 
One warm sunny morning for no particular reason, 
they decided to go for a row in the bay . . .

In 'Mr Archimedes Bath' Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.
"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"
And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:
"We make the water go up."
Both these delightful predictable books are wonderful springboards to lots of simple science experiments with buckets, water and varied objects. Children will enjoy experimenting, drawing what they see, writing scientific notes, drawing charts. There are lots of ways to extend the experience of the story, record their new scientific understanding and enrich the literary experience. They might even want to become historians and explore who Archimedes was and what 'Eureka' means. You can read my review of Allen's work HERE.
6.  'My Green Day' by Melanie Walsh (2010)

This is a book suitable for 3-6 year olds. At first appearance it looks like a simple story about a day in one family's life, but it has a twist. It introduces children to ten things that they can do to protect the planet. Each double page has a simple sentence about parts of their day with a fine print explanation for teachers and parents that helps them to explain why each thing they do can help to 'green' the day.
'I eat a free-range egg for my breakfast'
'I put my eggshell in the compost bin ..'
'I help empty the washing machine... and peg our clothes out to dry'. And so on.
The illustrations are simple but eye-catching, use simple tonal variations, strongly contrasting colours and many variations in page shape, cut-outs and so on, to capture attention. The book has the look and feel of recycled paper.

The book can act as a springboard to varied environmental projects. Classes could set up a compost box, begin a worm farm, build a vegetable patch, or learn how to clean things without chemicals. Perhaps they could do their own 'Greed Days' based on their life at home or school. As well, writing, language and drawing can be used to support their varied response to how they might 'green' the day.   
Summing Up

While literature is important as a wonderful source of meaning, language and learning, it can also act as a springboard to other ways to learn and express ongoing explorations and discovery. Story enriches and can stay with you for life. It can have echoes that penetrate other areas of learning in can deepen learning experiences in surprising ways.

Well-known New Zealand author Margaret Mahy was well aware of the way stories crept into her life, and became part of her learning and literary history. When reflecting upon her childhood literary experiences she commented:
"I wrote because I was a reader, and wanted to relive certain reading experiences more intimately by bringing them back out of myself......books give me access to a continuous and reciprocating discussion, and the awareness of lots of things all going on simultaneously... I think I dissolved the books I needed and no doubt I still carry them (in solution) within me" (1987).

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