Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
I feel the generational gap most strongly when I ask my students about their plans for their summer vacations. Consider a few of this year’s responses: “I’m going to eight different camps!” “Swim team in the mornings, baseball practice for my travel team in the afternoons and then we’re going on a trip out west!” “Summer school, art camp and two overnight camps with my entire Girl Scouts troop!”
My fondest and most vivid childhood summer memories are not from camp or swim team practice. They are from unstructured moments. I remember climbing the white stairs of Nashville’s downtown public library, giddy with the anticipation of new-to-me books and audiobooks waiting to be discovered inside. I remember endless afternoons under the backyard pine trees playing Roxaboxen (inspired by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney’s picture book of the same name, in which a group of children create an imaginary town together). I remember wading, catching crawdads and looking for pottery the pioneers left behind in the creek at the bottom of the hill.
Who else is in these memories? My sister, brother and parents. I know neighbors and friends were also there, but they are hazy figures in my mind’s eye. However, I can clearly recall my sister meticulously lining her Roxaboxen bakery with pinecones, my brother peering under a rock to discover the creek life hiding beneath and my mom loading stacks of our library materials into our red and white tote bags.
Unstructured family moments are at the heart of these three books. They remind me of the importance of creating a classroom environment that fosters child-centered creativity, play-based learning and genuine friendships among my students.
“Down the mountain, across the creek, past the last curve in the road” is the ramble shamble house where five children—Merra, Locky, Roozle, Finn and Jory—live together. They each have their own responsibilities. Merra tends the garden and tells bedtime stories, Locky and Roozle chase off the blackbirds and fetch the carrots, Finn feeds the chicken and gathers the eggs, and infant Jory looks after the mud. Happiness presides until they discover “what a proper house looks like” in the pages of an old book. They set to work fixing up their own house, only to find that the upgrades and changes strip the house of its personality and comfortable if slightly chaotic atmosphere. Reflective of children’s tendencies to imagine a life independent of adults, The Ramble Shamble Children is a warm story filled with meadows, mud and simple moments.
- Loose part play
What are loose parts? A key element from pedagogical philosophy called the Reggio Emilia Approach, loose parts are items that can be moved and manipulated. The versatility of these items creates space for creativity and provides opportunities for kinesthetic learning. My students look forward to loose-part lessons, and I’m always impressed with the innovation that occurs as they build and manipulate the objects.
Give each student a sturdy paper plate and invite them to gather a variety of loose-part materials from a central table. After reading The Ramble Shamble Children, we used wooden cube blocks, mulch chips, large pieces of wood, small pebbles, sea glass, small shells, buttons, acorns and small pinecones. I provided brown sandpaper to use as a base. Students used the materials to create their own ramble shamble house and garden.
- Meal planning and prepping
Each child in The Ramble Shamble Children has a specific job in preparing meals. Divide students into groups of two to four. Provide cookbooks or recipe websites. Together, the students will plan a meal and determine who will be responsible for each part of the meal. Encourage students to create a list of the ingredients they will need for the meal. Older students can present their meals to the class in the form of a visual and oral presentation. Let the class vote on which group’s meal sounds the most enticing.
- Ramble shamble collage
Provide a variety of home decorating, landscaping, travel and architecture magazines, along with scissors, glue sticks and oversized paper. Lead a discussion on different types of homes, houses and decorating styles. Let students flip through the magazines and cut and paste images creating personal “ramble shamble” houses.
When My Cousins Come to Town
By Angela Shanté
Illustrated by Keisha Kramer
“Every summer my cousins come to visit me in the city,” says a girl with round red glasses and gold beaded braids. She is the youngest cousin and the only one who doesn’t have a nickname in their family, but she hopes her cousins will give her one as a gift for her birthday at the end of summer. As each cousin arrives, she attempts to emulate the characteristic that earned them their nickname. From cooking with her cousin Lynn (nicknamed “Spice”) to racing around the block like her cousin Sharise (nicknamed “Swift”), the girl’s efforts only result in frustration, and she worries that another birthday will pass without receiving a nickname. Comical, poignant and richly illustrated, When My Cousins Come to Town honors the importance of identity and the value found in family traditions.
- Narrative writing
The girl loves the summer traditions she shares with her cousins. Invite students to think of a favorite tradition in their family. Remind them that it can be something as simple as watching a movie together each year, like how the cousins in the book watch The Wiz every summer.
Lead a brainstorming exercise in which students list every detail they can remember about the tradition, including sounds, smells and tastes. Next, ask students to turn their list into a piece of narrative writing that uses the first-person perspective. Remind them to include a strong opening and closing and descriptive details so that readers can clearly imagine the tradition.
- Where are the adults?
Generate a discussion about the role of adults in imaginative play and child-centered problem resolutions by asking the following questions:
- Why do you think the authors chose not to include adults in the books When My Cousins Come to Town and The Ramble Shamble Children?
- How would adults have made the stories different?
- Why do kids need time to play without adult direction?
- In When My Cousins Come to Town, cousin Wayne’s nickname is “The Ambassador.” What role does he play?
- Have you ever helped your friends work through a problem?
- What are some ways that children can be peacemakers?
“Once, out in the country, someone knew right where to build a house.” Over the years, the white wooden house is home to many families, along with their games, bedtime stories and birthday parties, until eventually it sits empty. Without a family living within its walls, the house feels different. It wishes to be a home again. Families come to look at it, but they all decide that it’s too small and too quiet. One day, the house is visited by a family with children who exclaim, “This one! This one! Please, can we live here? Please?” Working together, the family “fix what needs fixing and paint what needs painting,” restoring the house’s beauty and bringing life back to its rooms. Suffused with warmth and possibility, The House of Grass and Sky offers a unique perspective on houses, homes and family memories.
Discuss the concept of personification with your students. On a piece of chart paper, list the incidences of personification in The House of Grass and Sky. Read more books where a building is personified, including Jennifer Thermes’ When I Was Built, Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School and Jacqueline Davies and Lee White’s The House Takes a Vacation.
Ask students to think of a favorite memory that took place at home and to describe it from their home’s perspective. Remind them to include not just the events, but the home’s emotions as well.
- Pattern play
E.B. Goodale uses digital collage in her illustrations, which include some lovely patterns for the house’s wallpaper, curtains and linens. Ask your local hardware or paint store if they have any wallpaper books or samples you can have. (If not, patterned paper works well, too).
Provide students with watercolor paints and watercolor paper. Ask them to create a painting of a room in their home or of an outdoor setting around their house. After the paintings dry, give students paper punches and scissors so they can create small accents out of the patterned wallpaper or paper. They will glue these patterned accents into their watercolor paintings, emulating Goodale’s illustrations in The House of Grass and Sky.