Sunday, September 29, 2013

Weekend Thought: Children's Books and Life Lessons

In an effort to pretend that I am a good father and husband, I tried to give my wife a few minutes to herself this morning by offering to read to my daughters.  When it's just my 3-year-old, I've started reading her The BFG, but when the 2-year-old is also around, we have to read other things.  I have a small collection of books from my childhood that I love to read to them, like The Five Chinese Brothers, Professor Wormbog and the Search for the Zipperumpazoo and anything by Dr. Seuss.

I've known for a while that most of the Dr. Seuss books, while they are great tales for kids, also carry political or social messages.  The Lorax is about environmental conservation, Green Eggs and Ham is about being open to new experience, the tales in Yertle the Turtle are about treating people fairly and being happy with who you are and The Butter Battle Book is about the futility of the escalation of violence.

The book I picked up to read to my girls this morning was The Sneetches and Other Stories.

I've read these stories to them dozens of times and I've seen the underlying meanings before.  I really appreciate the metaphorical way that Seuss tells us that all people should be treated equally and well, regardless of their physical appearance, and how, if given the chance, someone could take advantage of arbitrary hatred for their own gain.

When the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax meet in the prairie of Prax, their stubbornness and lack of compromise causes minimal to no impact in the rest of the world, but destroys both of their lives.

The narrator in What Was I Scared Of? discovers that his fear of the unknown is unfounded and, if he had given the pale green pants with nobody inside them a chance, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble.

The message in the fourth story struck me fully for the first time today as I was reading it to my 2-year-old.  Not just the message, but how I could apply all of these stories to my classroom.  The last story is Too Many Daves and goes like this:

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did.   And that wasn't a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, "Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!" she doesn't get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves'
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos.   And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot.   And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack.   And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy.   And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt.   Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy.   And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill.   And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy.   And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters.   And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate ...
But she didn't do it.   And now it's too late.

I started thinking "Man! If she had taken the time to name them properly at their birth, she wouldn't be in such a bind now!"  That thought was immediately followed by "This is exactly the point I've been trying to get across to my Math 8 students!  Keeping up with their work at the beginning of the year will make sure they don't get swamped and overwhelmed later in the year!"

My concern with not penalizing students for late assignments has been two-fold.

First, the traditional teacher in me thinks that part of the purpose of due dates is teach students about deadlines and time-management.  While I no longer think that students should be punished for not learning a concept quickly enough, there should be emphasis on the importance of promptness.  Employers will set deadlines that must be met and, whether or not we like it, work MUST be completed by the end of the school year for students to pass.

Second, since I think most students have never been taught time-management skills, and since I know my own habits, I am concerned that when teachers say "It needs to be turned in by the end of the marking period," students will hear "I have plenty of time and don't need to start it right away."  They will put it off until the last minute and end up being overwhelmed, producing sub-par work that doesn't properly demonstrate their true abilities.

Full disclosure: I still haven't learned this lesson well.  I haven't written my lesson plans for this week yet.

So my thought for today was about how I could read some of these stories to my students, and what questions I could ask them to get to think about these lessons.  I feel that if I were just to tell them the meanings, it wouldn't be as solid for them.  Asking directed questions is something with which I struggle.

I also don't want them to feel that just because I'm reading a children's book that I think they are stupid.  I think that could be avoided by having good questions ready to direct the discussion.

Maybe Too Many Daves would be a great story to utilize the "I notice, I wonder" strategy.  Let them develop the questions and pick the ones that I think would create the richest discussion.

Why didn't I think about this stuff when I teaching reading last year?

Oh right! Because I was thinking about how much I was hating being a teacher.  Thank you again, MTBoS and TMC for saving my career!


  1. After reading the story I actually though you were going to go the route of the importance of clearly naming unknowns instead of just referring to things as 'this' or 'that' when writing out solutions to math problems. Then I read your conclusions and thought the message of planning ahead is possibly a better theme to run with.

    I'm curious what the students would come up with.

    1. That's exactly what I mean! You took a completely different message from it, approaching it from the mathematical perspective. I want a robust discussion about what they see, but I also have a point that I want to make with them. I think this extends to all of education insofar as the kids have things that they are interested in and, rather than find those things and expand on them, we try to make them interested in what we think they should like.

      As the adults, I think we have the benefit of experience and vision, but that doesn't mean that what they like and wonder about is any less valid or interesting.

  2. Justin - just read your post - don't know how I missed it because Dr. Seuss is, was and always be King in our house. There was a television special about the work of Dr. Seuss, which has an all-star cast, great interpretations of his books, and also the history of the politics in his work. It was a huge favorite for my girls when they were younger (and actually still is even though they are both over 20): In Search of Dr. Seuss: You should definitely try to get your hands on it.

    1. I will certainly check it out! Thanks for the heads up!


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