Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Comparative Literature In Preschool

Most teachers walk into the classroom with an agenda, at least from time to time; an idea of how things should or will go. The best part of teaching preschool, I think, is being prepared to abandon that agenda when a better one emerges from the children. Still, sometimes, when the stars are right, your agenda is one the kids dig on and it's pretty cool when that happens.

I've had a long agenda running during our past two Pre-K sessions. I've evolved a sort of discussion "unit" over the years that involves me reading four books in a particular order over the course of two class sessions. It begins with Where The Wild Things Are followed by Storm Boy. This year I introduced them by saying, "I'm going to read you the same story two times."

They all know Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, of course. We read it, then I asked, "What happened in that story?"

We took turns telling our own versions of the story, each child focusing on a different part, or adding comments or sound-effects that must be from their own families' tradition of reading the story. We started by raising hands, but it evolved into one of those natural group conversations in which their comments overlapped and built upon each other, a give-and-take without the feeling that anyone was being interrupted. After we said what we needed to say, I summarized the discussion: "So, a boy left his home and went to a mysterious land where he danced and feasted, then went back home"

We agreed that sounded about right.

Then I said, "Now I'm going to read you the same story." Storm Boy is not a book most of them have at home, but many of them seemed to vaguely remember it from having heard it in class the last two years. When I was finished reading, I said, "The chief's son left his home and went to a mysterious land where he danced and feasted, then went back home. It's the same story as Where The Wild Things Are."

There was a moment's silence, then Jody said, "They are the same story. They were both boys that made friends with giant, scary people."

Sadie said, "They're different stories because Max got his supper and the other boy didn't."

Again, we fell into a natural group conversation that didn't require raising hands. They were mostly talking to each other through me, the moderator who was holding up both books as prompts, but some of it went directly to one another, child-to-child, discussing literature. These are the magic kind of conversations that only happen when everyone is actually listening to each other, rather than using their silent moments to figure out what they're going to say next. 

We spent some time making sure we understood the finer points of Storm Boy, the less familiar story. We agreed that the "strange sky" was the underside of the water's surface because his mysterious land seemed to be underwater. Max, we thought, goes to an island. The "people" that live under the water, we figured out, were actually orca whales, who put on costumes when they travelled outside their village. The Wild Things, we theorized, were always monsters. We found many differences between the stories, but we agreed: they are the "same" story.

Yesterday, I again showed them our classroom copies of Where The Wild Things Are and Storm Boy, saying, "Remember, last time we read the same story twice. Does anyone remember why they are the same?"

Several of the children retold the common parts of the two stories, starting off by taking turns. It felt like some of them at least may have spent some time thinking about these two books during the intervening week. Violent pointed out, "Max sails in a boat, but the Storm Boy falls out of his boat." Jody responded, "Hey, but they both went in water to get to the mysterious place." (This was an insight that had not occurred to me in 10 years of reading these stories together.)

I think we could have spent another session pointing out the similarities and differences between the stories, but I was working an agenda that seemed to be flowing. I pulled out the next book in my four book discussion series, Frog Girl, by Paul Owen Lewis, the author and illustrator of Storm Boy, saying, "Last time we read the same story twice. I wonder if this is the same story too."

Several of the children speculated it would be the "same" because, I think, the artwork is very similar, evoking the same Native American imagery as Storm Boy, appearing on the surface at least to be the same. In this story, the girl, like Max and Storm Boy before her, travels, via water, to a mysterious land where she finds the ancient frog mother who has tragically lost all of her "children." There are earthquakes, volcanos, and fire that threaten the girl's real home as she bravely rescues the frog children while at the same time saving her own village. She returns to her village, not as a prodigal, but as a hero.

Many of the children immediately saw the similarities, and they all agreed that this book must have been written by the same person who had written Storm Boy. We spent a lot of time finding similarities in the artwork between the two books, but then Archie said, "But she didn't get to dance."

"Yeah, and there was a volcano!"

"And fire!"

"And the frog people were little, not big."

Oh man, it was wonderful to sit there, now holding up three books as the kids launched into a free-flowing discussion of the similarities and differences of these 3 pieces of literature, exploring the nooks and crannies of the stories. This is how comparative literature is supposed to work. Some of us felt like the story was the same, some of us thought it was different, but we all agreed that in the end, she got to return to her mother and father, just as Max and Storm Boy did.

The final book I read in this series of four is one entitled Sam Who Was Swallowed by a Shark by Phyllis Root. I introduced it by saying, "I wonder what you'll think of this story."

Sena said, "I think it will be the same."

"He'll go to a mysterious place."

"He'll go on water and meet strange people."

"It's different because he's a mouse."

In this story Sam, who is in fact a "river rat," dreams of going to the sea. It is, he feels, his destiny. As he builds a "sea-going sailboat" his neighbors turn up as naysayers, but he continues working on his boat undaunted over the course of a year.

At some point, Sylvia interrupted my reading, saying, "I think he's going to go on an adventure." The others seemed to agree. I said, "It sure seems like he's getting ready for one."

What makes this story unusual, I think, as a book for children isn't any particular literary brilliance, but rather that it is simply the story of getting ready for the adventure, preparing for the great thing to come. The author's intent, I believe, is a message about following your dreams, despite the naysayers, but in the context of the other 3 books we've just read it takes on, I hope, a different meaning. The story ends with Sam sailing off to sea, returning home only in the form of a message delivered by seagull that lets his friends know that he his happy.

Always when I read this, the children sit as if waiting for more. After a pause, Jody said, "When does he get swallowed by a shark?"

Our discussion again flowed naturally. We agreed that it was a much different story than the other 3, that we only get to imagine his adventures, that he didn't return home, and that we wonder what really happens to him.

I don't know what they learned, but I do know that we created an experience together, over the course of two sessions, discussing literature, based on this agenda that I brought into class fully prepared to abandon.

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Anonymous said...

I love this especially because they did not raise their hands, instead had a natural conversation, building on each others ideas and thoughts. Yay!

Meagan said...

Wow. Reading this as a writer... this is so SO cool. (Don't I sound articulate and writer-y? This is all I can think to say though.)

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I plan to look for the three books which I'm not familiar with, they certainly sound interesting.
It is true that we don't always know the impact of conversations, and learning, but it can be pretty sounds like you are helping to create discerning readers, who can think about what they've read.

Anonymous said...

I love that your post has books that are related to my home frog girl and storm boy are read offten as they have to do with the local culture in northern british columbia I have never thought of comparing them to other stories thankyou