Basically what I plan to have the students do is to read, discuss and write. The reading comes first, of course. We will read aloud part of the time in class, although much of the reading will be done at home because the two Wilder books are so long. Because I want the children to initiate the discussion concepts, the questions I would ask would be only to start a discussion going.
Reading and Sharing
How can the book become alive for the children? One of the ways I will use is role playing and acting out the story. The chapter on the first day of school for Laura and Mary is ideal for this because there are several characters. I would divide the class into four groups and tell them to present that chapter to the rest of the class. The students could choose any method they wanted, from writing down parts, to narrating while the others went through the motions, to creating their own modern dialogue. In this way, the children could compare and contrast not the quality of the performances and productions, but the emphasis and the focus. Which skit emphasized the conflict between Nellie and Laura? Which emphasized Laura’s feelings about meeting new children and her fears? Which showed what went on in school? Were there other facets that could have been brought out? Usually there will be this difference in focus and as the children understand it, they also come to realize that more than one meaning or level is all right and even more interesting. A journal writing assignment or suggestion could be to remember back to their first day of school. What do they remember? How can Laura remember so much? What details does she include? What stands out in each student’s memory? Can the students make a list of what they remember? What was the most important event of that first day of school? Do they remember friends they knew then?
As students read about the lives of Laura and Almanzo, the children of the frontier often seem removed from them. How can we bring them nearer or the students closes to a discovery of their own about likenesses and differences? One such exercise could be a collective one, a chance for the students to work together, to share ideas and to learn from each other. The students would be asked to create a story about a girl or boy who lives in New Haven today. What are the hazards he or she faces today? What are the excitements, the joys, and the simple pleasures that he or she might have? What are some of the routines, the chores, the responsibilities and the problems that he or she would have to deal with? This is a group story, one that the class should plan orally and then work out details. The story can be acted out and discussed. Students in groups may even wish to write out chapters. The students should be able to see and sense for themselves that they are both similar to and different from Laura and Almanzo.
Journal writing will be a very important part of this unit, and actually part of my English class for the year. Journals are valuable records of student growth and development, not just in writing, but in self-awareness and willingness to express that self. My daughter is lucky enough to have kept journals in school from Grade 1 through 6, and it is fascinating to read and follow her development. Her growth in these journals, as a writer and as a young interested learner, strengthens my feelings about journal writing for my students, many of whom have never kept a journal.
Children care about writing when it is personal and interpersonal. Children may claim they have nothing to write about, but all children have memories, feelings, concerns and ideas. It is important for children to realize that their lives and feelings are worth writing and reading about. Because journals are personal logs, students become involved with them more fully. When children choose their form, voice and subject, they invest themselves, they become as personally responsible for their writing as they are for their reading and learning. It becomes important and meaningful to them. Children then become both readers and writers.
The time given for journal writing will vary of course, but children should be encouraged to write in journals at least three times a week. Having a regular time is best because the children can think about their writing and plan for it. Not all the journal writings of my students will be assigned. Many times the students will pick their own subject, but often students like the chance to react to something we have just read or discussed.
Beginning journal writing can be done by a technique called clustering. Clustering is a form of brain-storming similar to free association. It opens up the mind to all the possibilities that we can include. Too many times children say they don’t know what to write about. Clustering is a first step in freeing the mind from putting up blocks. Usually it is easier to start with the person the student knows best, himself. In the middle of a page in his journal he writes “me” or his or her name and circles it. Then very quickly, he surrounds that circle with everything he does or is or can think of about himself to connect with that circle. One activity may branch off to another, in a linear connection. After a few minutes of this brainstorming, the students stop and look at their circles. They may see some other connections and relationships that they hadn’t thought of. The students then use these circles to write about the central figure or topic in the circle.
(figure available in print form)
After clustering around a loved person such as the example above, the student starts to create sentences using each idea, or combining some. He may discard an idea or image because it doesn’t fit. The student may think of even more ideas he can use as they flow naturally while he writes.
Students do not have to use clustering for every writing exercise, but they will find it helpful when they need to generate ideas or find inspiration. They can cluster around “school,” “Laura,” “grasshoppers,” or fragments such as “I am afraid of,” “In some of my worst nightmares,” and “in some of my best dreams.” Clustering can be particularly effective for sense images. Students could pick an image with great sensory appeal—a food, such as pizza, and write all the images that come to mind while trying to visualize, taste and smell the pizza.
Looking at the Past
One of the first activities students can become involved in is in recreating their own immediate past. One way to do this is by making a time line showing the events most important to the student. Although this may appear easy, sometimes students need some help in remembering.
Ideas to jog memories:
Your very first memory
Your first toys
When you began school—Can you remember your teacher’s name?
The first book you read by yourself
When you learned to ride a bike, whistle, play a musical instrument
When you met your best friend
When your first tooth fell out
Students may wish to try to create family trees and to try to learn as much as they can about their own family. They can start with their parents and ask questions about the past their own parents remember.
Types of questions that could stir memories are:
Where were your mom and dad living when you were born?
Did your father fight in any wars? Where were they?
How old were you when I was born?
Did your father have a car when you were young?
What was your favorite food when you were my age?
Can you remember your first television set? What programs were on then?
Did your mom and dad ever talk about their parents and grandparents?
Have you got any pictures of your parents? Grandparents?
What are the names of your aunts, uncles and cousins?
Where do they live? What was your father’s work? Where did he work?
Photographs, documents, letters, family traditions, newspaper articles and clippings are all parts of the bits and pieces that make up a family history. Children may go as far as their interest and investigative ability takes them.