Welcome to the imaginary world of Little Bear! Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear stories carry the young child into a realm of fantasy and imagination where characters struggle with many of the same tugging issues that little ones face today. What child doesn’t struggle with making friends, or keeping them for that matter? Time and time again as a teacher I hear the rising anxiety in a young child’s voice resonate in my classroom: “Kelly said that she will not be my friend anymore.” Or perhaps a little more demeaning: “He called me stupid, and he’s supposed to be my friend.” As adults we sometimes forget how hard and stressful it was being a young child and taking a risk, or claiming our independence. Facing decisions like wanting to find the perfect gift for mom’s birthday could be a monumental chore. Minarik’s imaginary Mother Bear and Father Bear characters are always close at hand to bring warmth and affection to Little Bear who has to face challenges not unlike those encountered by many children today. Children can identify with Grandfather Bear and Grandmother Bear, especially those who are close to grandparents or are being reared by them.
One of my main goals as a teacher is to foster a love for reading in my children. It is my philosophy that if children are allowed to read what interests them or enjoy what they are reading, they are more apt to become lifelong readers. But how can this be instilled into their young hearts when many of our enrichment books are too difficult for them to read? Many of the books that line a child’s shelf at home or perhaps are found in a classroom library contain vocabulary that is too difficult for young children to read orally let alone read for meaning. They may enjoy looking at the pictures briefly but soon lose interest and put the books back on the shelf. Minarik’s books contain words that do not discourage kids from reading. The books can easily be used as an extension to one’s classroom reading curriculum. The stories are brief yet entertaining, and the illustrations are detailed and engaging.
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to present a unit where strategies are used with puppetry for presenting the art of story telling, via Minarik’s Little Bear stories. Foremost and utmost, the unit will be designed to enhance the reading curriculum in the classroom. The children will also discuss the dilemmas that Little Bear and his friends face in the story. They will contrast them to situations that they face in their own lives. They will be encouraged to brainstorm and come up with suggestions for enhancing their own social skills in the classroom and with their extended family. The unit, whose primary emphasis is literature, will also integrate various art forms such as writing, drawing, song, drama, and crafts.
I have a slight bias towards stories where animals do the talking. I think that children’s imaginations are much more stimulated when they can read about an imaginary animal or when they write using animals as characters in their stories. It is as though the characters become less threatening and children can recognize themselves as, and identify more easily with animals. Perhaps they relate with them as peers much as they do a puppet and their perceptions and feelings of acceptance are less threatening. Again, I feel that this sentiment carries over into the children’s writing. I have found that in my first grade classes children love to write about animals -- especially imaginary animals which become somewhat a peer and follow along in the child’s play and excursions.
Why would I choose Minarik’s Little Bear stories as a basis for my unit of study? I teach first grade in a self-contained classroom with varying abilities in the six-to eight-year old age range. In my classroom, approximately two-thirds of my children are reading below grade level. Along with a need for improved reading vocabulary, many of the children exhibit poor self-images, and lack language skills for self-expression. Many have a myriad of social-emotional problems that cloud their perceptions and hinder them from forming meaningful relationships. Little Bear is presented as a sweet child to his mother and father. He is a good friend to his peers, Duck, Hen, and Cat. In other words, he is a good role model for meaningful discussion in improving social skills that involve emotional elements.
More specifically, my unit will include activities suitable for children in kindergarten through third grades. This unit will most probably be used in the first grade curriculum during the winter months when most children are expected to have developed a substantial reading vocabulary. In addition to the arts, the unit will integrate other curriculum areas such as math, science, and social studies. The unit will help to align the curriculum across the three first grade classrooms in our building.