Monday, April 14, 2014

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence

Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence
Written by Gretchen Woelfle and Illustrated by Alix Delinois
Published in 2014 by Carolhoda Books
ISBN 978-0-7613-6589-1

Grades 2-8

Book Review

“Mankind in a state of Nature are equal, free, and independent.” As Mumbet carried a tray of drinks to the men penning these words, she wondered Wasn’t she a part of mankind?   In Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, young readers and historians are brought into the world and thoughts of Mumbet, a slave living in Massachusetts Bay Colony on the heels of the Revolutionary War. As readers, we witness the cruel words and punishments Mumbet and her daughter Lizzie were subjected to from their owners and society at-large. We witness her strength and bravery in the face of daily hardship. We witness her conviction to stand up against injustice to change written law and set the course for the campaign against slavery in this country. In this fictionalized biography, Gretchen Woelfle tells a story of American history often unheard. Woelfle follows in the tradition of historians like Howard Zinn who urged a rewriting of history from the voices of everyday people towards collective change. In this way, the book provides new essential reading for social studies units of study focused on early American history and the New Nation. In addition, Woelfle’s use of craft techniques throughout the book—dialogue, internal thinking, onomatopoeia, sentence variety—provide a mentor text for upper elementary writers crafting narratives from their own lives or when creating research-based historically situated narratives.  Alix Delinois’ illustrations are paired powerfully with Woelfle’s words particularly in how we internalize Mumbet’s feelings through her facial expressions and posture throughout the book. Through Delinois' bold brushstrokes we sense Mumbet's initial despair, her determination, and her eventual joy. This book will help create a classroom of inquirers and historians, readers, and writers who wonder about the power of their own voices to enact change.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Grades 2-8

Thoughtful Pages. The layout decisions of Mumbet's Declaration of Rights invites readers to linger on each page. Beginning with the cover, discuss with students what we learn from the title and close-up image of Mumbet's face. Consider beginning a K-W-L chart with your class centered around what we know, wonder, and learn about Mumbet and this time in American history throughout the book. Draw students' attention to the endpapers which string the words she overhears colonists discussing as they crafted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 . Notice the font replicating fountain pens and how various portraits of Mumbet are featured in the background. Linger with students on the title page noticing the color choices that reveal the setting and how Mumbet is portrayed differently on this page in comparison to the cover. Throughout the book pause with students to notice how key words are larger and more bold throughout the text to draw readers in to what's important. Consider with students why these words hold greater significance including: owned, freedom, "useless garbage", and all.  

Writing History: Biography or Historical Fiction? Given the extensive role dialogue plays in this story, discuss with students whether you would characterize this book as a biography or historical fiction. To write a biography of someone else's life requires research. Read with students the author's note and discuss the kinds of research Gretchen Woelfle would have engaged in to write about Mumbet's life with such detail. Could she have read primary documents including Mumbet's 1781 court case? Could she have visited her burial plot in Stockbridge, Massaschusetts and spoken to historians at the Ashley House? Consider with students whether Woelfle fictionalized the dialogue and internal thoughts or whether she would have found them recorded somewhere.  In the author's note,  Woelfle explains that while there is much we know about Mumbet there is equally much we don't know. Discuss with students the complexity of finding primary sources and credible secondary sources when researching people who were slaves. View a website dedicated to Mumbet with students to find the court record from her 1781 trial, portraits, her will, and photos of her gravesite. The New York Historical Society has a wealth of primary source documents from slaves who lived in New York. Consider having students read and discuss primary documents from the slave era, noting what kinds of documents they find, the significance they hold in American history, and what they learn. 

Multigenre Text Set: Narratives of Slaves and Black Americans. In the eighteenth century, particularly in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, there were free and enslaved Black Americans living side by side. To support students to better understand and contextual the era, read other narratives of slaves including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Dave Drake (known as Dave, the potter) (see Resources). Expand student understanding of the experience of slavery through the reading of African American Folktales such as the collections by Virginia Hamilton (see Resources). To further student understanding, view the video of Danny Glover reading from Frederick Douglass' "The Meaning of Fourth of July for a Negro." Encourage students to share what they learned from this performance about the complexity of national identity for slaves. Share these texts alongside accounts of African Americans who lived in this era and were not enslaved such as the Black whaling captain Paul Cuffee. Students can be supported to understand that slavery existed in the North and that being Black was not synonymous with slavery. 

The Power and Importance of a Name. Mumbet was called many names including Bett, Betty, and Mom Bett. She didn't have an official first name and didn't have a last name until she was free and could name herself. Once free she gave herself the name Elizabeth Freeman. Discuss with students the ways we connect with our names and the roots it has to our own families. With sensitive consideration of family structures, consider having students interview family members about their names, why they were chosen, what they mean, and the history of their last names. Have students then consider the ways slaves were robbed of their identities, histories, and family origins through naming systems that did not allow for last names. Have students discuss the power of Mumbet's choice of last name--Freeman. 

Human Rights Text Set. The words of Article I of The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 prompted Mumbet to go to court and win her freedom. Article I begins with the words: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." These words echo the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence from four years earlier. Support students to analyze the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Discuss with students ways the UDHRs is used today and how issues of freedom remain a fundamental global issue. Consider supporting understanding through multimedia arrangements by groups such as Human Rights Action and Amnesty International. In addition, consider having students write their own Rights of Children. With their own ideas drafted, read and discuss with students the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted in 1959 by the United Nations General Assembly.  What similarities do they notice between their own thinking about children's rights and the UN's? You may want to draw students' attention to Article III about entitlement to a name in light of Mumbet's story. 

Author Study. Gretchen Woelfle is the author of many picture books, short stories, essays, and biographies. View her website with your students to learn more about her work and her interests. Consider a shared writing activity where you and your class compose an email to Woelfle offering your own book review followed by questions about her research and her latest writing adventures. Create a text set of Mumbet's Declaration of Independence along with other books of Woelfle's about pioneering women including Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Ottis Warren and Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer. 

Illustrator Study. Alix Delinois has also illustrated Eight Days: A Story of Haiti by Edwidge Danticat and Muhammad Ali: The People's Champion by Walter Dean Myers. View his illustrations through these picture books and through his website portfolio. Encourage students to closely read and make connections across these texts using the academic language of visual literacy through discussion of the impact of color choices, line, form, shape, and layout. 

Learning About Author's Craft. Throughout the book, Woelfle uses craft techniques that make Mumbet's Declaration a strong mentor text for narrative writing, particularly history-based narrative. Note for students Woelfle's use of description of people and events, Mumbet's internal thinking, dialogue between Mumbet and Mr. Sedgwick, metaphors, and onomatopoeia to emphasize actions. Explore with students what it means to write a biography and why authors might choose to include dialogue for effect. Unless the language is pulled from a written work as evidence, how can we have dialogue in biography? Consider with students how to rewrite passages with dialogue to be strictly nonfiction. How can they do that and still use an engaging voice? 

Critical Literacy

Grades 4-8

Modeled Inquiry and Becoming Inquirers. Mumbet's freedom started with her own inquiry. She imagined a better world where she could secure her own freedom. Support students to share their own wonderings about the story, this chapter in American history, and about other conditions of injustice. What wonderings do they have that can make the world a better place? What would they like to change in their own neighborhoods? What will they do to enact this change? 

What it Means to Be Literate. Mumbet did not read or write, but her words and her voice were powerful. Consider with students the ways that people can make their voices heard today. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have made an enormous impact on social change as seen through the events in Egypt in 2010.  Consider with students how sites like Instagram allow users to share their voice without words. What kinds of social tools do they find powerful? In what spaces do they share their own voice? In what ways should we redefine what it means to be "literate"?

Rewriting History from Voices Unheard. American history is often told through the eyes of elected leaders which means that textbooks and historical accounts heavily lean towards the telling of history from White, male, economically and socially privileged positions. Interrogate with students your social studies textbook and have students rewrite history from other points of view. Whose voices are centered? Whose voices are missing? Encourage students to conduct research to find out more about the voices unheard including women, children, and those from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. 

Online Resources

Gretchen Woelfle's Site

Alix Delinois' Site

New York Times Book Review

Site Dedicated to Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman

The Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail

Massachusetts Historical Society

The MA Historical Society

African American History Museum: Nantucket Campus

Paul Cuffee Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UDHR Youtube created by Human Rights Action

UDHR Animated by Amensty International

New York Historical Society Slavery In New York Materials

Born in Slavery Collection from The Library of Congress

Slave Narratives from Africans in America PBS Series

Slavery and the Making of America PBS Series

Slave Narratives HBO Special Available on YouTube

John Adams Declaration of Independence Scene from HBO Series


Amnesty International. (2008). We are all born free: The universal declaration of human rights in pictures. London, UK: Frances Lincoln Children's Books. 

Bolden, T. (2002). Tell all the children our story: Memories and mementos of being young and black in americaHenry N. Adams Press. 

Hamilton, V. (2002). Many thousand gone: African americans from slavery to freedom. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers. 

Hamilton, V. (1993). The people could fly: American black folktales. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers. 

Hill, L.C. (2010). Dave the potter: Artist, poet, slaveNew York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Jacobs, H. (1861/2001). Harriet Jacobs: Incidents from the life of a slave girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. 

Laiz, J. (2009). A free woman on God's earth: The true story of elizabeth mumbet freedom, the slave who won her freedom. South Egremont, MA: Crow Flies Press. 

Levine, E. (2007). Henry’s freedom box. New York, NY: Scholastic Press. 

Truth, S. ( 1850/1997). Narrative of Sojourner TruthMineola, NY: Dover Publications. 

Lester, J. (2000).  To be a slave. New York, NY: Puffin Press. 

Lester, J. (1999). From slave ship to freedom roadNew York, NY: Puffin Press. 

Lester, J. (2007). Day of tears. New York, NY: Hyperion Books. 

McKissak, P. (1999). Black hands, white sails. New York, NY: Scholastic Press. 

National Geographic. (2008). Every human has rights: What you need to know about your human rights. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Children's Books. 

Stroud, B. (2007). The patchwork path: A quilt map to freedom. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 

Weatherford, C. B. (2006). Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her people to freedom. New York, NY: Hyperion Books. 

Yetman, N. (2002). When I was a slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative CollectionMineola, NY: Dover Publications. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Firefly July and Hi, Koo!: Poems about Seasons

Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Candlewick Press, 2014
ISBN #978-0763648428

Grades K and up

Book Review
Upon reading the first pages of Firefly July, there is no doubt that less can be substantially more. Popular children's poet Paul Janeczko has teamed up with Caldecott Honor and Sibert Award winning illustrator Melissa Sweet to compile this season-themed picture book anthology of thirty-six poems, none of which are longer than ten lines each. Drawing from poetry for children as well as familiar poetry for adults, Janeczko's compilation spotlights the subtle, everyday phenomena of each season rather than the conspicuous events or the season itself that tend to be overemphasized in children's poems. Poems with such titles as "Daybreak," by Cid Corman, "A Happy Meeting," by Joyce Sidman, and the eponymous "Firefly July," by Patrick Lewis share the volume with well known works, such as "The Red Wheelbarrow," by William Carlos Williams, and "Fog," by Carl Sandburg. Sweet's mixed media artwork is as characteristically delightful and vibrant as ever, celebrating the understated wonders found in each season. There is much to engage students here: from discussions about how the selections of verse relate to a particular season, to gorgeous examples of figurative language, to the intricate details and appeal of the illustrations. Introduce this book to your class just in time for National Poetry Month, and continue to share its compact treasures throughout the year.

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons
Written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Published by Scholastic Press, 2014
ISBN #978-0545166683

Grades K and up

Book Review
Caldecott honoree Jon J. Muth's charming panda bear Koo (the nephew of Stillwater, the panda in Zen Shorts and Zen Tales) returns to celebrate the change of seasons in Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons. This cleverly named collection offers twenty-six of Muth's original haiku poetry, introduced with an explanation of the origins of haiku and tracing its development into one of the most popular poetic forms shared in K-8 classrooms. Following the loose guidelines of the three-lined verse, rather than the boundaries of the five-seven-five syllable format, Muth's poems offer a child's perspective on a single moment in a season. A pile of snow fallen on Koo's head is exclaimed as "King!/my crown a gift/from a snowy branch", while the pending transformations of fall are addressed with "Autumn,/are you dreaming/of new clothes?" Aside from charming insight, each haiku contains a capitalized word that highlights another letter of the alphabet, thus stringing together the twenty-six poems. Muth's delicate watercolor and ink illustrations give tribute to the origins of haiku, as well as provide a breathtaking backdrop for each snippet of text. A tender and diverting addition to any classroom poetry collection, Hi Koo! is sure to be greeted by young poets and poetry fans.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Grades K and up
  • Shared Reading. Keep these volumes close at hand to read the poems in them aloud throughout the school year. Select children’s favorites to rewrite on sentence strips to post in a pocket chart. Keep the lines of the poem whole on the sentence strips or cut them into individual word cards so that students can reassemble the poem from memory using letter/sound or sight word cues.
  • Sensing the Seasons. As the seasons change, so do the things we see, smell, hear, feel, and taste around us. Have students create a comparison chart that tracks the different sights, scents, sounds, textures, and flavors specific to each season. Encourage them to be as precise as possible with their words, and then invite them to use the chart to write more vivid imagery and figurative language in their poetry.
  • Focused Poetry Collections. Both Firefly July and Hi, Koo! are collections of poetry that are linked by a single topic: the seasons. Divide your class into small groups that will each select a topic for a poetry collection--either a homemade bound anthology or a bulletin board display. Once the groups have chosen a topic, have them read a wide variety of poetry to find poems that address their topic, and make editorial decisions about which poems to include and how to organize them in the collection. Share their focused poetry collections in the school or at a local library.
 Grades 3 and up
  • Short Poetic Forms and Poems in Our Pockets. The blurb on the front jacket flap of Firefly July states, "It takes only a few words, if they're the right words, to create a strong image." Challenge your students to create short poems (five lines or less) that convey strong images. Use the poems in either of these books as models. You might also want to teach them specific short forms of poetry: epigrams, cinquains, couplets, haiku, and limericks. To further celebrate the strength of these concise poems, have each student pick a favorite short poem to carry around in his or her pocket throughout the week and share with friends and family.
  • Illustrating Poetry. Multiple award-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet accomplished the impressive feat of creating a unique illustration for each of the poems in Firefly July. Have your class study the illustrations, using a reference like Molly Bang's Picture This to understand how  line, color, composition, and other artistic principles enhance the meaning of a written text. Then have each of your students gather a few of their favorite poems and apply those principles to illustrate the poems. Have each student create an anthology of their illustrated poems, or create a class anthology or bulletin board that showcases the variety of selected poems and illustrations.
  • Poet and Illustrator Study. Jon J. Muth's poetry and watercolor illustrations work together to create an effective impact on readers. Invite your class to conduct an author/illustrator study of Muth's work, paying  attention to the ways his watercolor technique enhances what the text says, and vice versa. What themes can be drawn across his writing, or across his illustrations? How does watercolor specifically impact the reader's understanding of the poem or shape the experience? How does Muth's poetry compare and contrast with other poets?
  • Using Questions to Sketch the World Jon J. Muth states on his website that his stories evolve from questions: "Why is this so?"... "If this, then why not that?"... and of course, "What if...?" Sometimes words come first and sometimes an image will prod a story out into the open. I might see a girl opening a door in my mind's eye but I can't see what she is looking at. When I consider these questions with careful attention -- without expectations -- they tend to open my eyes to the world in new ways." Arm your students with clipboards, paper, and colored pencils, markers, or crayons--as well as Muth's questions--and head out into the world. Have them sketch any scene or setting that they see before them and then scribble some notes that might help them answer Muth's questions. Once back in the classroom, have students write out the answers to those questions and begin to shape stories and poems out of them.
  • Reading Buddies and Poetry Month. Have your older elementary students read aloud some of the poems in these poetry collections with their primary grade reading buddies. Have them take notes on their reading buddies’ reactions to the poems, and then compare and contrast with one another. What do their reading buddies think of the poems and illustrations in Firefly July? What is the panda bear Koo’s appeal with younger audiences? As a component of this exercise, you might want to have the older students work with their reading buddies in jointly authoring and illustrating short poems.
Critical Literacy
  • Beyond the Four Seasons. These collections of poetry celebrate spring, summer, autumn, and winter--seasons that are experienced by those living in more temperate climates. However, many of the world's people live in places that experience vastly different climates, such as the rainy and dry season in tropical locations. Some even prepare each year for a hurricane season or another season marked by dangerous weather patterns. What might poetry anthologies that explore those seasons look like? How might one possibly "celebrate" the dangers of a monsoon season? Have your class either search for poems about seasons other than the temperate four, or research the experiences of people during those seasons and write poems about them.
Further Explorations

Online Resources

Paul B. Janeczko's website

Melissa Sweet's website

Jon J. Muth's website

Poetry Foundation - Children's poetry

Academy of American Poets

The Poetry Archive

The Children's Poetry Archive

Haiku Society:

Writing with Writers – Poetry


Poetry Books about Seasons

Davies, N. (2012). Outside your window: A first book of nature. Ill. by M. Hearld. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. see our entry at

Florian, D. (2006). Handsprings: Poems & paintings. New York: Greenwillow.
Florian, D. (2002). Autumblings: Poems & paintings. New York: Greenwillow.
Florian, D. (2001). Summersaults: Poems & paintings. New York: Greenwillow.
Florian, D. (1999). Winter eyes: Poems & Paintings. New York: Greenwillow.

Hopkins, L.B. (2010). Sharing the seasons: A book of poems. Ill by D. Diaz. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Katz, B. (2006). Once around the sun. Ill. by L. Pham. New York: Harcourt.

Lin, G. & R. McKnealy. (2006). Our seasons. Ill. by G. Lin. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge.

Ruddell, D. (2009). A whiff of pine, a hint of skunk: A forest full of poems. Ill by J. Rankin. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Sidman, J. (2009). Red sings from rooftops: A year in colors. Ill. by P. Zagarenski. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Thomas, P. (2007). Nature’s paintbox: A seasonal gallery of art and verse. Ill by C. Orback. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press.

Poetry Books about Haiku

Bodden, V. (2010). Haiku. Mankato, MN: Creative Education.

Cleary, B. P. (2014). If it rains pancakes: Haiku and lantern poems. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook.

Clements, A. (2007). Dogku. Ill. by T. Bowers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mannis, C.D. (2002) One leaf rides the wind: Counting in a Japanese garden. Ill. by S.K. Hartung. New York: Puffin Books.

Raczka, B. (2011). Guyku: A year of haiku for boys. Ill. by P. H. Reynolds. New York: Houghton Mifflin. see our entry at

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Home for Mr. Emerson

Written by Barbara Kerley, Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Published by Scholastic Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-35088-4

Grades 3-8

Book Review
Ralph Waldo Emerson himself ushers the reader through the front door and into his home on the title page of Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham’s latest collaboration. The title page also introduces the palette of orange, blue, and green that repeats throughout this text, offering readers early hints of both the damage that a fire makes to part of Emerson’s beloved home as well as the deep grounding Emerson gains from looking up into the sky and down to the verdant ground, filled with precious fruits and vegetables, that surrounds him in mid-nineteenth century Concord, Massachusetts. Teachers and readers seeking a cradle-to-grave biography of Emerson won’t find one here. But those seeking an understanding and affirmation of the themes that worked throughout his life and his written works will delight in this exploration of Emerson’s life in Concord and the ways in which it impacted his writing. The end pages are wallpapered with quotes from his writings, and each two-page spread includes one quote, in a larger, colored font that serves as a cue to readers. This book prompts an exploration of life and work, of the power of ideas and community to influence one another, and can serve as an introduction to young people of the deep potential that the interior life offers and positive thinking as a force multiplier. For, as Emerson tells us, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Knowing this, one might want to follow his advice and “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Emerson’s Words. The end pages are filled with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing, and Kerley includes a direct quote on every two-page spread. Have students select the quote that speaks to them the most. What about the quote resonates with him/her? Have them write a personal reflection on their interpretation of the quote and what it means in their contemporary life.

Journal Writing. Emerson was vigilant about writing in his journal, amassing many "volumes." Do your students keep a journal? For a period of a month, as a “pilot,” have your students keep journals as part of the school day, separate from a writing journal. In the journal, encourage students to explore their “big ideas” about the world. They may want to cut pictures out of newspapers or magazines to include in the journal, ponder current events, or reflect on their everyday life. They might even want to name their journals, as Emerson did, too.

Author Study. Watch the book trailer on Barbara Kerley’s website and ask the students what they think her books are going to be about. Next, have students in small groups, each reading a different picture book biography and taking notes on categories that you have established. Next, armed with a graphic organizer that helps them compare and contrast categories across different books, students should reorganize into mixed groups. What do they see as the common attributes of Kerley’s writing? Introduce Kerley’s National Geographic photo essays and see how their thoughts change and grow. With middle grade students, a study of her picture book biographies is a great way to introduce the genre of biography and ground them in “what to read for” before they begin reading age-appropriate chapter-length biographies. 

Writing Biographies. Have students use A Home for Mr. Emerson as a mentor text for writing biography. Have students research a person of interest to them, and then compose a picture book biography to share with younger students in your school or district. Be sure to have students use both the illustrations and the writing style as mentor text. How can they make use of a particular color palette? How do they utilize the two page spread? How do they scaffold in actual quotes from the subject they are researching, to share his/her words with their audience? Make sure that you introduce students to the source notes that Kerley provides on the last page of the book for each and every quotation included in the book, so that they can fully understand the process of attribution. Additionally, teachers might want to take advantage of Kerley’s “Writing  an Extraordinary Biography” on her webpage. ( 

Community Action. When Ralph Waldo Emerson is building his new life in Concord, he realizes that something was missing. Friends! He goes about getting to know people in the community by talking and spending time with them, and then volunteering for different roles in the community. How are your students involved in their neighborhood, town, or village? How can they be more involved?  Pick a local organization that your class can partner with for the year, and make sure that you “sally forth” as Emerson did, volunteering students' time and energy.

Class Savings Bank. Barbara Kerley tells us that Mr. Emerson considered each journal a “Savings Bank” for his ideas. You may or may not choose to have your students keep journals. But even if you do not, make a class savings bank. Decorate a box or container and have students come up with teaching ideas and subjects that they would like to study. As they come up with ideas, they can place them in the box. Once a month, you can withdraw one from the bank, and a week or two later, spend an entire school day focused on exploring that topic, question, or idea.

Eating Your Own Food. Ralph Waldo Emerson loved eating his apples each morning in pie, and reveled in growing his own food. Make this possible for your students! Working with the cafeteria, and/or local farmers, try to plant something in the fall that you can harvest in the early spring, or plant indoor seedlings in the winter that you can bring outdoors come spring to harvest before the last day of school.

Parlor Conversations. Emerson’s house in Concord became a busy place! People from all over the world as well as right around the corner came to Emerson’s house to talk about ideas large and small, local and global, on every subject. Host a “parlor conversation” of your own one Friday afternoon a month in your classroom. Invite different people from your community, such as first responders, town/city council or board members (or selectmen in New England), religious leaders, writers, chefs, etc. to have discussions with your students on topics agreed upon ahead of time. As preparation for each parlor conversation, students can be conducting research on the topic, asking and answering questions that are important to them. Your school librarian can be an invaluable partner in this effort!

House Fires. Contact your local fire department or local station of a citywide fire department, to see who has recently suffered damage to or the loss of a home. Have your students hold a fundraiser or bring in items to donate to that family, to model their actions after those of the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts who came to Mr. Emerson’s aide.

Reading the World. Emerson "read" the world; he "read" the people he met from around the world and around the corner. He observed nature closely, and as a home gardener "read" the natural world and the seasons closely, too. All of these daily observations fed his writing. As your students "Why is reading the world an important skill for writers? Why is reading the world an important skill as a member of a community?"  Create observation tubes using things like paper towel rolls and have students look through them for ideas for writing. What do they see when they zoom in on people, conversations, life outside the classroom window?  

Barbara Kerley’s Ideas. See the back pages of the book for Kerley’s “Build a World of Your Own.” There, she poses interesting ideas for individual readers to consider and pursue, focusing on three different themes, framed by quotes from Emerson's writing: words, home, and community. 

Grades 6-8

Building a Life. Kerley quotes Emerson’s musings about his future: “Could he build a life around these things he loved?” How does one build a life? Brainstorm this question with your students. What do they think it means? What kind of life have they built for themselves? What do they control? To what extent is their life built by adults? Next, have students pick a “stage of life” to interview people and ask this question. Some students might interview juniors and seniors thinking about their lives after high school, some might interview recent college graduates, parents and neighbors, and senior citizens in a nearby senior living facility. How are each of these different groups working to build a life? What are they proud of? What do they still hope to do? What compromises do they make? Have students report back their findings to one another and reconsider Emerson’s life, and the advantages and disadvantages he faced in building his life.

Further Explorations

Digital Texts

Barbara Kerley’s Website

Edwin Fotheringham’s Website

Ralph Waldo Emerson, PBS

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Academy of American Poets

Ralph Waldo Emerson House, National Park Service

The Emerson Study, The Concord Museum, Concord, MA

"The Transcendentalist Riplle Effect," Radio Open Source, March 2014

For a listing of Barbara Kerley’s books, please see her website at

Bryant, J. (2008). A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Ill. by M. Sweet.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Books. 

Burleigh, R. (2012). If you spent a day with Thoreau at Walden Pond. Ill. by W. Minor. New York: Holt. 

Shotter, R. (2006). The boy who loved words. Ill. by G. Potter.  New York: Schwartz and Wade. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Wild About Bears

Wild About Bears
Written and Illustrated by Jeannie Brett
Published by Charlesbridge in 2014
ISBN 9781580894180

Grades K – 6

Book Review:

The eight species of bears that populate our Earth are the subject of Jeannie Brett’s appealing picture book survey text. Beginning with characteristics common to the species, their physical traits and behaviors, Brett then devotes a double page spread to each bear type, highlighting unique aspects of their habitats, diet, and tendencies. The main text is layered onto panoramic views of the bears in their habitats rendered in watercolor. Additional facts appear in smaller font size on the color saturated spreads; for example, on the pages devoted to the North American black bear: “One litter may contain different colored cubs.” Back matter includes a world map of species’ locations, a pictorial habitat glossary, and resources for further exploration. The author’s concluding statements highlight the environmental and human imposed challenges faced by the bear species, along with a hopeful note: “The world’s eight great species of bears will continue to inspire and fascinate us as long as we do our part to protect and preserve their way of life.” An excellent introduction to a storied species, this engaging picture book has many roles to play in the elementary classroom.

Teaching Invitation: Ideas for Your Classroom

Grades K - 6

Comparing Bears. Wild About Bears highlights the similarities and variation of eight bear species. Guide your students to construct a graphic organizer to compare the characteristics and habitats of each species  (category examples include: sizes, diet, habitat). Read additional information about bears online, using the web resources listed below, and in other survey texts about bears, such as Bob Barner’s Bears! Bears! Bears! and other species- specific survey texts listed below. Add any new information students identify to the chart that you have constructed. This chart could then serve as a scaffold for student composed writing about the different bear species.

Describing Bears. Provide your students with an opportunity to practice using clear descriptive language, by asking them to write a short passage describing one of the bear species. Students could read their passages aloud and invite their classmates to guess which species they have identified. Alternatively, students could contribute to an interactive bulletin board or pocket chart activity that asks classmates to match descriptive passages with images of the different bear species.

Bear Portraits. Ask your students to select a bear species that they are interested in learning more about. Provide access to online resources and additional survey text about bears and guide students to make notes about their species. Ask children to plan, draft, revise and bring to completion a visual image that informs viewers about their bear species using captions / statements that appear in the visual image (in the style used by Brett in Wild About Bears).

Habitat Murals. Brett’s detailed illustrations can provide inspiration for student created murals of different bear habitats. To prepare to create accurate murals, students should research the habitat, seeking photographic images to support their drawings. Guide students to identify other animals that live in the habitat they will depict. Recruit the support of your school’s art teacher to create large scale images of the animals in their natural environment.

Critical Literacy:

Perceptions. Before reading Wild About Bears ask your students to write or share orally their knowledge of and feelings about bears. After reading the book, invite students to add to their writing (or talk about), noting new information learned and questions they might have. As students to think about how their perceptions of bears have been formed; make a list of students’ responses, they are likely to name stories, television clips, movies, or first hand reports. Depending on the amount of time that you have available to you and the age of your students, you could extend this activity in two different ways: (1) Divide students into small groups and ask them to collect either: myths / religious beliefs about bears, fairy tales about bears, newspaper stories (mined from a digital database), fractured fairy tales that purposefully turn popular perceptions of bears upside down and / or contemporary children’s books that have bears as characters. Within their small group, students should examine the texts they have gathered in order to be able to describe to their classmates how bears are portrayed in the story. (2) With younger students or if you want a shorter activity, provide students with a similar range of texts, guiding them through an examination of and discussion of the mixed representation of bears in the texts. How do these texts reflect humans’ awe and fear of bears?

Grades 2 – 6

Endangered Bears. In Wild About Bears, Brett cautions her readers: “Bears around the world face many challenges.” She continues, listing the environmental and human behavioral concerns for bears. Invite your students to select a threatened bear species to research, preparing a presentation to share their findings. Students should research: threats to the species, identified and suspected causes, and remediation efforts. The following texts will support students’ research: How Many Baby Pandas?, Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in the Asian Tropics, Garden of the Spirit Bear: Life in the Great Northern Rainforest, Saving Yasha: The Incredible True Story of an Adopted Moon Bear, and Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears.

Mentor Survey Text: Variations in Species. Guide your students to examine Wild About Bears as a mentor text for the nonfiction subgenre of a survey text. Survey books tend to focus on one broad topic and break it down into a variety of subtopics. They do not go very in-depth with any of these topics, but they give the reader a general introduction. (For more on nonfiction subgenres, see our Classroom Bookshelf entry onnonfiction texts) Notice how Brett begins her survey text with an overview of the eight bear species. Following this, she describes physical characteristics and behaviors bear species have in common. This serves as an introduction to double page spreads describing the habitats and special characteristic of each species. These descriptions are followed by a concluding statement. Be sure to discuss the Back Matter of the book. Your students can use the structure of exposition used in this book as a model to compose their own animal books highlighting commonalities and differences across species.

Further Explorations:

Online Resources:

Jeannie Brett: Author’s Website

Great Bear Foundation

National Geographic Kids: Animals
Search for “Bears”

New York Times Topics: Polar Bears

International Association for Bear Research and Management

Wildlife SOS India

Free the Bears


Barner, B. (2010). Bears! Bears! Bears! New York: Chronicle Books.

Guiberson, B.Z. (2010). Moon bear. Ill. by E. Young. New York: Henry Holt.

Guiberson, B.Z. (2008). Ice bears. Ill. by I. Spirin. New York: Henry Holt.

Kvatum, L. (2013). Saving Yasha: The incredible true story of an adopted moon bear. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Markle, S. (2009). How many baby pandas? London: Walker Children’s Books.

Mongomery, S. (2004). Search for the golden moon bear: Science and adventure in the Asian tropics. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Patent, D. H. (2004). Garden of the spirit bear: Life in the great northern rainforest. New York: Clarion Books.

Robinson, J. & Beckoff, M. (2013). Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears. Ill. by G.van Frankenhuyzen. Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press

Sartore, J. (2007). Face to face with Grizzlies. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Swinburne, S.R. (1998). Moon in bear’s eyes. Honesdale, PA: Boyd Mills Press.

Swinburne, S.R. (2003). Black bear: North America’s Bear. Honesdale, PA: Boyd Mills Press.