Revolutionary Teaching (perhaps) with Children’s Books

Revolutionary Teaching (perhaps) with Children’s Books

“The World Turned Upside Down: Revolution in Children’s Books.”

The Children’s Literature Connection Biannual Conference

October 25, 2003

It was the first day of school. My classroom had just been renovated and was spic and span gorgeous. Back from a glorious vacation in the Alps, I carefully placed a Swiss chocolate ladybug on each desk. Good luck for a good fourth grade year.

I open the door and in came my new fourth graders. Nervous in their new school clothes, but also excited and eager to begin.

I took attendance — everyone was there – of course. We talked about typical first day things. Stuff like who would be sure the room was clean after lunch, why raising hands might be the best way to see that everyone got a chance to speak, and that fighting over the pillows was probably not a good idea. We went on a walk to see where the bathrooms and water fountains were and I read aloud the Jack Perlutsky/Dr. Seuss/ Janet Schulman/Lane Smith collaboration, Hurray for Diffendoofer Day, as I always do. It is a perfect antidote for first-day shyness and the kids were soon crowded around me searching for familiar Seuss images among Smith’s art.

As the kids settled into some writing, I was called outside. “There’s been an accident downtown. Two planes….the Word Trade Center….”

And our world turned upside down.

We did what we could then and the days that followed: reassuring…. steadying….calming….hugging… over and over and over. But bomb threats and scares, a plane crash in Queens, evacuations, the sounds of helicopters hovering, army jets, national guardsmen, anthrax, and war kept our world teetering all year long.

“My ladybug! I lost my ladybug!” Eric’s world was still not the slightest bit stable, not after two bomb threats in as many days. Again we’d had to dash down nine flights of stairs worrying about what it all meant and now here we were again spending hours on the corner of Lexington and 89th Street while sniffer dogs and police searched the school. It was hot and the children were tired, thirsty, and scared. “And you said they came specially from Switzerland and that it would take weeks to get more!”

Fortunately, I had a few extra and the next day Eric got another ladybug; everyone did. We needed all the luck we could get during those days when the world felt like the worst sort of roller coaster — more upside down than right side up. That year many people around the world learned of our ladybugs and, touched, sent us even more.

The result, three years later, is ladybug infestation. A soft stuffed ladybug lives on my comfy reading chair near a cheery ladybug bulletin board. Tiny German ladybugs festoon my students’ coat hooks while Chinese ladybug pushpins crawl above the door. There’s a ladybug puzzle, a pen attached to the attendance board, ladybug bookmarks, ladybug containers, ladybug notes, loads of child-made ladybug art, ladybugs absolutely everywhere.

Recently, Celena, one of my students from two years ago, stopped by. She pulled a small metal box out of her pocket and, as my current 4th graders crowded about, slowly opened it. Nestled inside were her two chocolate ladybugs. Still very lucky ladybugs.

At the Dalton School classes are identified by teacher names and so my 4th grade class is officially known as Edinger House. However, this year one of my students renamed us Ladybug House. So, without further ado let me welcome you to Ladybug House and take you on a short tour of our work with children’s books.

If a fortuneteller had told me in the spring of 1990 that I would ever after begin the school year with Charlotte’s Web I would have snorted in disbelief. It wasn’t a childhood favorite of mine, I barely remembered it as a matter of fact, and I had never had any wish to teach it — I considered it a rather soppy story of animals on a farm. However, that summer my narrow view was turned upside down.

It was a summer that I spent at Princeton studying classical children’s literature with English Professor, U.C. Knopfmacher, at a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar for School Teachers. These, if you don’t know them, are heady and wonderful scholarly experiences. This past summer, for example, there were seminars on Dante, Yeats, Shakespeare, Balzac, Baudelaire, Zola, and Chaucer. Rarely do they include children’s book authors, but Uli’s did. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about children’s literature scholarship, but many of the authors were great favorites of mine: Burnett, Nesbit, Kipling, Twain, Alcott, Sendak, and Carroll. I salivated at the idea of a summer reading and talking about them.

I took to literary analysis of children’s books like a duck to water. There was nothing about it I didn’t like. Sure, there was one person in the seminar who bristled at analyzing her beloved books, but not me. I thought it was fabulous.

Returning to my classroom that fall, I decided to introduce my students to the pleasures of literary analysis with a new curriculum I called Children as Scholars. Our first book: Charlotte’s Web.

Thirteen years later not only am I still starting my year with Charlotte’s Web, but so are my four 4th grade colleagues. And so are, I believe, some people who have read about this unit online and in my books. Not to push the book, but to assure you all that it isn’t just me — all sorts of teachers and kids take to this.

And what is this exactly? Well, I start always by telling the kids the story of my summer at Princeton. How I so disliked Charlotte’s Web that I took a beat up old paperback off the classroom library shelf — I felt no need to invest in a new copy for the seminar. If I only knew, I tell them, I would have certainly started with a fresh new copies — like the ones I’m giving you. Each one, a fresh new paperback copy of Charlotte’s Web to make your very own. For that, I tell them, is what this is all about, digging deep into the book, and annotating it so it becomes your very own Charlotte’s Web.

I show them, as Uli had shown us, White’s drafts for the book. It is great for them to see how difficult it was for him. But most of all, I show them how to do a close reading, leading them through the first chapter just as Uli led us that magical summer so many years ago. It never fails. The kids are completely captivated. To dig into text like that is a new and amazing experience. I show them how I’ve marked Arable with the word “plowable”, about Uli’s conjectures about Wilbur going from Arable to Zuckerman, from A to Z. How Fern translates language, changing her father’s “do away with it” to “kill it”. Garth Williams’ “Madonna and Pig’ illustration. And more.

Excited they each select a chapter to do on their own. I give them lots of help: a collection of things to seek out, all literary ideas I’ve introduced in our close reading of chapter 1. (irony, foreshadowing, life/death references, descriptions, vocabulary, etc). They delve into this with gusto, finding lovely examples of White’s writerly techniques (say the many lists he loves, especially of what Wilbur eats). They seek out the references to life and death. The seasonal character changes. They discover how Fern literally moves out of the picture and how Charlotte moves in. They have, believe it or not, a blast. They then present their chapters to the rest of the class and it is so much fun to hear then refer to the “second paragraph, third line…” and busily mark up their books. We have wonderful discussions about all sorts of things that flow out of their work.

I like to ask them whom they think the hero is and their responses are fascinating. Is Fern a hero even if she seems to disappear midway through the novel? But how can Charlotte, a literally bloodthirsty spider, be one? Can there be more than one? Well then, what about Templeton — he gets the words, doesn’t he? Isn’t being a hero about saving? If so, he saves the egg sac. Can one be selfish and heroic?

Two years ago our discussions of heroes took a different turn. At staff meetings we debated how best to deal with the emotional stress that all of us, adults and children, were dealing with after 9/11. Outside specialists were consulted and some came to a staff meeting with disastrous results. If the teachers didn’t want anyone intruding into their personal pain, what about children? Charlotte’s Web turned out to be a perfect vehicle, a safe way to talk heroism of all kinds. Our discussions resulted in a website. Some kids stuck to Charlotte’s Web, some to the heroes downtown, some to other sorts of heroes, and some to both. Here are a few samples of their work.



We always follow Charlotte’s Web with White’s other two children’s books, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan and I end by asking the children to do some sort of final project synthesizing their experience. Every year this has been different. There have been many sequels to Stuart Little because the open-ended ending often frustrates kids. There are charming stories bringing the characters of the different books together. There have been animations, video interviews, comics, plays, maps, and more. This year we did E. B. White boxes. I showed the children a few of Joseph Cornell’s boxes and then asked them to brainstorm ways they might put the essence of White in a box. While many chose to do their favorite scenes from their favorite book, a few went further afield.

For the last couple of years I use the last period on Friday for something I call Literary Salon. Basically, we have juice and treats (the kids love to bake for it and if they don’t I buy cookies) and literature. To end our study of E. B. White kids prepared readings from his books (the favorite this year was “The Automobile” chapter from Stuart Little) and then we sat quietly in the dark (I light a candle) listening to a tape of E. B. White himself reading those last wonderful paragraphs of Charlotte’s Web.

As a child I liked to write. Even into high school I thought myself a decent writer. Until my senior year when my English teacher told my parents he thought I should cut back on extracurricular activities (the school play) in order to work on improving my writing. I was horrified and subsequently would stay up into the wee hours of the morning trying to revise papers and only making them worse. The teacher in question, whom I admired tremendously, did nothing to help me. As a result I became paralyzed. I could do a first draft, but the moment I tried to revise, everything turned to mud. I had absolutely no idea what to do. In college I was referred to a writing tutor who told me it was all emotional and there was nothing she could do. My solution: to hand in first drafts and to stay clear of all English classes. The NEH seminar at Princeton was my first in 20 years.

Because of this sad story, when I started teaching I became obsessed to keep children from my fate. While I was able to help them creatively, I still had no clue how to teach revision. Of course, that was because I still had no clue how to do it for myself. Finally, in 1984 I took a summer writing institute with Lucy Calkins and discovered the writing process approach. At the time I was teaching 6th grade social studies, but it worked beautifully when the kids were working on research reports. I was thrilled.

When I moved to 4th grade I had the children write personal narrative just as I had been encouraged to do by Lucy. I noticed, however, that many kids wanted to write fiction, even moreso they wanted to write fantasy. The TC people seemed to have nothing in this genre. At conferences, I’d search for fiction sessions. Once I found one, but was disappointed to discover it was for realistic fiction. Puzzled, I once asked a fifth grade teacher, celebrated for her writing workshop, about fantasy. After all, wasn’t the whole idea of writing workshop to allow children to write about anything they wanted to? Fantasy seemed to be the exception; her kids, she told me, “couldn’t handle it.”

It seemed I would have to figure out how to do it by myself. I tried many ways, but nothing really worked until I rediscovered Cinderella at Princeton. These days, Cinderella is a very popular topic for classroom literature studies, but it wasn’t back then. Since then I’ve had a few other NEH experiences where I was fortunate enough to study with fairy tale scholars and have accumulated an, at times, overwhelming amount of Cindy stuff. Sometimes I must admit I get a bit tired of her, but her rags to riches story still seems the ur story, one that speaks more than any other.

I start by marinating the kids in Cinderella stories. I just started the unit this year and my room is full of them: picturebooks, novels, the works. I read aloud and the kids read and read and read. I show videos such as Tom Davenport’s Appalachian ”Ashpet” and Jerry Lewis’s 60s “Cinder Fella” (which is remarkably misogynistic!). We talk about the rags to riches theme and where it shows up — say in “Star Wars”, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. One year a child convinced me that Charlotte’s Web was a Cinderella story: Wilbur as Cinderella, Charlotte as the magical helper/fairy godmother, the fair as the ball, and so forth. The kids have great fun keeping charts with all the variants they’ve read.

After a while I have them hone in a bit, focusing more on individual stories in preparation for writing their own. For example, I love letter writing and use it in many ways in my curriculum. In this unit, I asked the children to select a variant and write a letter to the protagonist — in the style of the particular book. I do one as a model. And then the kids each do one.

After a while the kids have a pretty good idea of what a Cinderella story is at which point they start their own. It took me a few years to decide that I wasn’t interfering with their personal style by asking them to plan the stories first. After all, learning different ways to write stories isn’t that bad. I have them use a form that I developed after watching far too many kids flounder midway in their stories. Planning is particularly helpful to the weaker writers. Generally, the stronger writers have been planning their stories in their heads every since we started the unit and so writing it down is not a problem. Certainly, once the kids begin writing they can change it as often as they want. They draft, write and rewrite. Last year we got Alphasmarts (portable word processors) for each child which as been fabulous. Once a week I upload their stories, write comments and return them.

Every year I discover new ways to teach writing. My current favorite is something I stole from Bunny Gabel, the most wonderful instructor of the New School course, workshop in writing for children. The course consists of Bunny reading aloud three excerpts of student work every week. The authors are not identified and even if we knew who they were we all acted as if we didn’t. The rest of the class consists of everyone critiquing the read works. People do it with tremendous sensitivity and the remarkable thing is how much you learn. I took the course two semester and only had my work critiqued once (as I asked her not to read it to the group at first). I still found it one of the best learning experience in terms of learning how to write. And so I decided to try it out with my students.

After telling them the history of the technique, I tell the children that even if they know the author they have to pretend they don’t. Each is anonymous, like Bunny we refer to the writer as the author. “I like it where the author has done…” “ Perhaps the author might want to consider…” The kids love the critiques. They take notes on post its and generally have the same comments I have. The listeners learn as much as the author.

Eventually we published the stories in a class book. There have been soccer Cinderellas, baseball Cinderella (with Micky Mantle as the fairy godfather), surfers and singers, magicians and wizards. Beauty pageant winners and American Idol winners. Dogs and cats and birds and inanimate objects too.

Kids can’t handle fantasy? Not in my classroom!

I’m a history buff and obsessed by helping children think historically. For a long time, because of this, I resisted any use of historical fiction in the teaching of history. I loved primary sources, firsthand accounts, old stuff. Not only was I bothered by the some people’s idea that the only way to get history down kids’ throats was through fiction, but by the way kids became so confused by historical fiction, unable to determine what was real and what wasn’t.

Worst of all, I thought were the fake diaries. The very design of these books, the lack of the author’s name on the cover, and the epilogues all made it very hard for my students to realize that the protagonists were completely made-up. But it was a fake diary that changed my mind, Kathryn Lasky’s Journey to a New World: the Diary of Remember Patience Whipple. Yes, a Dear America book, one of the earliest.

I teach a unit about the Pilgrims. There is a ton of primary source material on the Mayflower passengers (as you can imagine) and much of it is accessible to 4th graders. For example, we use Mourt’s Relation, written by members of that first group of settlers and the text on which most of what we know about them is based. It is, remarkably, great fun for 4th graders to read. For one thing there was no conventional spelling and you can find words spelled three different ways on the same page. You can imagine how much fun that is for 4th graders. We generally read a few pages together, “translating” and annotating as we go.

Getting back to the Lasky book, one year, a student brought it to me and to be polite I read it despite being very dubious. I turned out to be very surprised — Lasky had done her research well. Knowing well the primary sources, I could see that she had used them. There was information she could only have gotten by reading Mourt’s Relation. And figured my students, also knowing them well, would see so as well. Since then I’ve read the book aloud. The kids eagerly point out her research. We also have fun debating possible anachronisms, say Patience being taught to swim by Squanto.

Since then I’ve had the kids look at historical fiction all year, trying to figure out what makes a work a GOOD work of historical fiction. When we get to our study of the Pilgrims in the second half the year they are ready to create their own works of historical fiction. They create their own composite characters of a Mayflower passenger (as did Lasky). They then “interview” him or her (using the same interview questions they used when interviewing a contemporary immigrant in the fall) using all the resources about the room to make it sound accurate. They then write a work of historical fiction. One of their favorite things is to use the language from the original documents, “Tis , Thou, etc.” Along the way we go to Plimoth Plantation and the kids run about looking for people they feel they know having spent so much time studying them. They try to include them in their own stories too.

Other than ladybugs, I’m known for a particular book: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The kids come to my classroom, knowing, Ms.Edinger is a fanatic about the story. And they are right; it has been my favorite book from childhood when my father first read it to me. I never, never get tired of it. Unfortunately, too many people think it is a scary book and no longer for children. I totally disagree.

One of the reasons I was so eager to go to Princeton was that we were going to spend a whole week on the Alice books. Total nirvana, I thought. Upon arriving, we were told to chose a week in which to prepare a presentation to the seminar. A lapsed illustrator myself; I decided to focus on the illustrators of Alice. At the time I thought it was only Carroll himself and Tenniel , but I soon learned that there were many more. And so began the Many Faces of Alice unit. I start by giving the kids a variety of different illustrated editions of Alice to follow along while I read it aloud. I read from the annotated version (and of course they know what THAT means!) so that I can give them background information as needed. For example, I always read bits of the songs and poems that Carroll is parodying.

We get to know the different illustrated versions. For years I had the kids end by doing illustrations that we put up on the bulletin board. But then a few years ago, Roxanne Feldman, a wiz at web design, came to my school as a librarian. As passionate about Alice as I am (we met on the web over this passion), she suggested doing an illustrated web book. This we did for two years. I had earlier started illustrating the book myself (I’m a lapsed illustrator) and Roxanne put mine on the web as well. (My idea was to do a visual annotated Alice, by the way.)

Then two years ago I started a new project, a Victorian Toy Theater production. I went to Pollack’s Toy Museum in London where they have toy theaters to buy and bought one. I lugged it back to New York and challenged that year’s class to make little plays. For the past three years, kids work in pairs to create a script, characters, and backdrops. They practice and then we film them. I then edit them with Imovie. We present them in the theater and put them on the web. Every year it gets better! And we end with, what else, A Tea Party!!!

The Alice unit is followed by Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I think the books are great mirrors, both with little girls who go to other lands. Wonderland is so incredibly British and Oz so incredibly American. The kids read Oz on their own and invariably love it. Few know it although they usually know the MGM movie. Often they want to read the other books and so I have a complete set on hand just in case. One of last year’s students is still working her way through them (Baum wrote 16 and others wrote even more.).

I do a couple of things with this unit, which tends to occur late in the year. It is a time of standardized tests and spring fever so I don’t try to over exert them. For their readings I ask them to keep what I call a commonplace book. I make a small booklet up and ask them to write whatever they want about the book in it — one page for each chapter. It can be a quote (but they have to say why they chose it), a picture or comment. After they’ve read the book I show the MGM movie.

Lastly, I have them write a formal five paragraph essay. Fifth grade and beyond is full of more formal expository writing so this is an easy way to prepare them. For they are passionate about comparing the book and the movie. Arguing why the movie is a good adaptation of the book — or not is relatively easy. Or they write on other issues: who is nicer, Dorothy or Alice? Where would you rather go, Oz or Wonderland? And so forth.
And speaking of endings, my time with you in just about over. There is much else I wish I could show you, but can’t. Just the casual happenings. Here are a few kids from this year’s class who have been obsessed with figuring out the puzzle on lemony snicket’s web site about his next book. I’d love to have you see our Literary Salons on Fridays. There was one a few weeks ago when we took a look at Chris Raschka’s music books; it was magical. I played Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane and we ended with a singing of Simple Gifts. Lovely. Or how about reading aloud? Right now it is Kate DiCamillo’s delightful The Tale of Despereaux, but I remember the perfect some years ago of finishing Greg’s Seven Spiders Spinning right on Halloween. Brilliant! Or journals. I love corresponding with kids like the boy who was wild for Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. But, no, not today anyway

I went to the Swiss Alps again this summer and made sure to bring back lots of chocolate ladybugs. When this year’s new cohort of 4th graders came bursting through the door on the first day of school last month, there they were, one on each desk. A couple of days later, on the anniversary of 9/11, I gave them each a second chocolate ladybug and explained to them why they had become so important to me. And soon all of us were talking quietly about that day, their first in 2nd grade. We ended up creating a website of memories. Nineteen Ladybugs Edinger House Remembers 9/11.