The Characters We Carry

I recently sent out a text to a handful of my adult friends who are life-long readers asking them if they have a favorite fictional character, and if they do, why? I was blasted with immediate responses and, frankly amazed by the well of insight:

“Raskolnikov, from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who starts off bitter, self-centered, and unable to see his own flaws, blames his hardship on others, and becomes a forgiving and self-reflective person by the end.”

“I love Samwise Gamgee. He is unassuming but willing to go where he needs to be, to silently be the support someone else needs. By the end he becomes even more brave. He is confident to stand for what he believes in, to take risks, and be a voice of hope in a time of darkness.”

“Marlow from Heart of Darkness. He starts off ignorant to the evils of the people around him but learns what evils humans are capable of. He is able to see through the lies he is told instead of assuming they are truths.”

“Ferdinand the Bull for not fighting the instigator. For staying true to himself.”

“Sirius Black. He was misunderstood. And a misfit. He stood for what he believed in. Even though his family was considered “evil”.
And he sacrificed. He was flawed and reckless. But good. Kind.”

“Aragorn is so overwhelmed and unsure of who he is despite the many prophecies declaring his life’s purpose. However, he pushes on because of those around him and his desire to serve them and truth.”

For me it’s hands-down Francie Nolan who, like the tree in Brooklyn, thrives under impoverished conditions—emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Francie demonstrates the tenacity that is seeded in us all. She works hard but doesn’t let work squelch her imagination. Francie is a hero in my eyes, ghost of the American Dream.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my grandma’s favorite book. And this is saying something seeing that, as a young person, she read her way through the Santa Monica Public Library.

I never understood why this particular book tangled itself in her heart until I re-read it a few years ago and it dawned on me that my grandma saw herself in Francie.

Grandma’s father, for most of her childhood, like Francie’s, was an alcoholic (thankfully, he recovered, but much later in life). And she grew up in the tumultuous 30s, a product of Great Depression. fairly impoverished until later in life.

Pretty sure I know why, as an adult, just starting a family of her own, she fell in love with Betty Smith’s 1943 semi-autobiographical masterpiece. And, now, when I read this book (over and over for sure), I will see my Grandmother in Francie.

I am constantly struck by the unique insights readers bring to the characters they encounter. But I am also saddened that often times stories are simply read to get to the end and check off a box. None of the friends who texted back with lightning speed read to check off a box. They have spent a lifetime cultivating a friendship with books. And this is the heart we have built into our curriculum.

So where do we begin?

First, we encourage all readers to be the tortoise, not the hare. We believe that readers should never race through a story.

 

Second, never belabor a story to the point of derailment. You know what I’m talking about, those “literature” programs that slice and dice and teach and preach until the story is a sad, small reflection of its true self. We believe in balance. It is important to enable our students to read closely while challenging them to think creatively as they construct ideas. Along the way, when it comes to discovering the depth of a great character, we need to help our students acquire the skills necessary to articulate their observations.

 

Our program allows students to:
Keep a journal of individual observations of characters.
Develop a collection of words to describe the characters they encounter.

As we get ready to begin another school year, we’ve created a brand new tool to help students get started—our downloadable character lexicon. Simply print in color or black and white. Your student can cut cards to create a deck that can be used to describe the characters they explore.

Enjoy this little treat, and feel free to pass the link on to your friends.

~Kimberly Bredberg, MFA

Tracing Character Development

The Iron Giant. Naima, Rickshaw Girl. Hollis Woods. Juan de Pareja.

We readers know they they are people who don’t exist but we get involved anyway.

Why?

It’s complicated.
And yet it’s simple.
Characters inspire.
They inspire is to try.
They inspire us persevere.
They inspire us to be kind.
They inspire us to take heart.
They inspire us to hope.

Great characters remind us that we may be flawed but we are incredibly able. They remind us that we are not alone. Great characters offer truths that shape and spur us on.

Think Prospero, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennett, Atticus Finch, Jay Gatsby, Gandalf, even Winnie-the-Pooh.

These characters, like us humans, are not one-dimensional. They are the tragically flawed heroes that inspire us to action—even if that action is simply a smile and a sigh and a moment of introspection at the end of the read.

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“A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.”

~Winnie-the-Pooh

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

~Gandalf

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

~Atticus Finch

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

~Prospero

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Generally Speaking, when it comes to understanding literary characters, actions speak louder than words.

Will they, like Frodo, carry the ring into Mordor? Or, like Edmund, eat the Turkish delight?

The main thing to keep in mind when considering the “character” of a literary character is this: Does the character act/think/feel this way all the time, or is this only a momentary response?

Just like real life, a character’s actions speak louder than words. Take Goldilocks. We’re all familiar with her adventure in the home of the three bears and her conundrum deciding which porridge to eat. On the surface, at first superficial glance, Goldilocks seem cute, an innocent little girl. It might be easy to describe Goldilocks as simply curious. Is Goldilocks always curious? Sure.

But might we infer that she is hungry or confused? If so is she always hungry? Always confused? And do these traits often lead her into all sorts of mischief? Maybe in the moment.

Let’s think again. What do the actions of Goldilocks within the context of the story really tell us about who she is?

Goldilocks seems greedy—eating food that does not belong to her without asking. She is for sure picky—dipping her spoon into every bowl before she finds the one she feels is “just right.” She seems selfish—freely taking for her own whatever goody presents itself. But is this who she is at her core?

These are aspects of character we gather about Goldilocks as we read her story. As we trace these traits throughout the story. We stumble upon more evidence later on when Goldilocks undergoes a similar situation involving the beds of the bears. In the end, these traits seem to be ingrained in her personality and give us insight into who Goldilocks is as a whole character.

The traits of Goldilocks are perse, but I think we’d all agree her actions at the home of the three bears are greedy and picky and selfish.

When it comes to character traits, literary characters truly are the sum of their actions.

~Sharayah Hooper

How’s the Weather?

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Have you read Tornado by Betsy Byars? On this first day of winter, what a wonderful time to explore the mysteries of the weather! And "tornados" are a great place to begin. This story touches down at the cross section of pure fiction and science. Your 2nd and 3rd grade readers/writers will love the adventure.

When a tornado appears in the distance, Pete, the farmhand, gathers everyone into the storm cellar. How best to pass the time in this worried time? Tell a story! While they wait for the storm to pass, Pete tells the family about the dog dropped down by a tornado when he was a boy. Tornado, Pete's pet was no ordinary dog. Tornado played card tricks, saved a turtle's life, and had a rivalry with the family cat. By the time Pete tells all of Tornado's lively stories, the storm has passed, and a very special dog has entertained another family.

PS … Don't forget to CREATE your idea after exploring the story!

-Kim

Make a Plan: Preparing for Section 5

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Don't wait until week 5 to begin thinking about your Section 5 idea. Make a plan. Keep all your ideas in one place. A spiral sketchbook will do just fine.

During Section 2, begin brainstorming. Write down your ideas and, if your Section 5 will include a visual component, create small sketches demonstrating what you imagine your idea will look like and what materials you might utilize. 

During Section 3, choose the idea you like best and make a full-page sketch with labels that will help you prepare.

During Section 4, gather all the materials you will need to complete your project build. 

After all this, when week 5 rolls around, you will be prepared to focus on creating a meaningful project. A project that you will surely be proud of for years to come.

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-Kim 

 

 

Read a Book / Make a Map

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When is a family like a map? 

Help your 3rd and 4th grader explore a metaphor.

This is the story of an old Parisian named Armand, who relished his solitary life. Children, he said, were like starlings, and one was better off without them. But the children who lived under the bridge recognized a true friend when they met one. And it did not take Armand very long to realize that he had gotten himself a ready-made family- one that he loved with all his heart, and one for whom he would have to find a better home than the bridge. Trace the steps of Armand and the children through the streets of Paris and discover just how a family if like a map.

After discovering this mystery, create a map to document the journey.

 

-Kim

Great Ideas: Be Inspired by Books

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Every journey through a Blackbird & Company literature discovery guide ends with a final project for the student to create and present. It's usually everyone's favorite activity and it gives them an opportunity to extend their time with a story after finishing the reading of it—to make connections and create and think deeper about what a story might be saying or teaching them. A list of possible projects are provided in each guide with options to help build making, research and presentation skills. But the best ideas are swirling inside YOUR students! Encourage them to step outside the story and imagine the possibilities. And when you do, you will BE AMAZED! 

For The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, Søren was inspired to create clothespin characters. In his words…

"For my project I made 12 different clothespin dolls. I chose to do this because Aunt Pretty had a clothespin doll collection and it sounded exciting trying to make my own. This was a difficult but fun project….The best part of making them is probably getting to use them afterwards!"

Creativity does not need instruction, it needs guidance. A great teacher is like a great pair of training wheels. For this project, after explaining his idea, Søren was simply offered the fodder—old fashioned clothespins, pom moms, scraps of fabric, and a hot glue gun. After that, my job as teacher was to step in only if he asked for help. Section 5 projects are not just a celebratory moment at the end of the close reading. Section 5 projects are the student's opportunity to communicate an original idea sparked by a great story. Understanding and remembering are vital, analyzing too. But synthesizing and applying coupled with creating, well this is the potential of Section 5. So instead of staring at a page of learning objectives, stare for a moment at Søren's happily engaged photo. I guarantee he is checking off learning objectives that transcend the ones we teachers sometimes get blinded by.   

You can also see more projects from most of our titles by visiting out Flickr group. Get inspired, and join the group so we can see what you and your kids are up to.

 
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Stitch Picasso

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Stitchery builds cognitive plasticity.

Embroidery is a practice that will empower students to be aware of fine motor potential, overcome the short attention span, and to have a growth mindset. The nervous system controls all of the body functions. But it is a complicated system with diverse potential. by tapping into all potential and possibilities while learning, students will develop diverse thinking skills. 

Enhanced performance of the brain ensures that all of the other body systems perform accordingly. Metabolism, for example, is a complex task that makes sure the body has minerals when needed and ensures that toxic waste is extracted from the body. Creative endeavors help the brain to engage in focused, relaxed work, improving nervous system performance. Embroidery is good for the brain. And this is good for learning.

For this project we began by observing Picasso's Owl:

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Next, students made original drawings inspired by Picasso's drawing. After each child had a drawing they were settled with, the drawing was transferred to the burlap flap. We used the running stitch since these were made by 1st and 2nd graders. But running stitch is great place to start with all ages.

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One hint: Have two needles threaded for each student, "unthreading" is common with new stitchers!  

Embroidery is academic. So put down the pencil, pick up a needle and thread.

While stitching, think interdisciplinary: Read a book about owls! Write an owl poem.

 

-Kim

After a Book Journey: Create

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Reading a book is a journey. From Los Angeles to New York you'll travel through the city and the countryside meeting wonderful people and seeing new and exciting places. Let the journey begin! (Hat tip to Reading Rainbow.) Take your 2nd grader on an Earlybird Destinations journey. They will not be disappointed.

Places you will go:
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Abuela by Arthur Dorros
The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Patrica Zelver
Fly High, Fly Low by Don Freeman
Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen

And by the time they get to the end, they will not only have a deep appreciation for the places they've explored, but a heart full of fodder for their creativity to unfold. 

Here's a simple a simple lesson to help your students enact and elevate their creative responses to stories.

  1. To begin, if you are going to use a box (and boxes are a great way to begin, always paint the box). Give yourself a blank canvas upon which you can build your idea. A coat or two of gesso or acrylic paint will do just fine.
  2. Use more than 1 art medium. Here for example, using paint and air dry clay, use both folded and crumpled paper, live foliage, found objects, and so on.
  3. Be sure to anchor to the book where the idea originated by creating a meaningful Title or by posting quotes around the project.  

You don't have to be an artist to make your idea beautiful. And, think about it, ideas are meant to be appreciated. So, go on, beautify.

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Tiny Seed / Huge Plant

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Our Earlybird Spring Literature and Writing Discovery Guide features The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle. Follow along with the blowing seeds as they land in different environments on Earth in this classic story with its beautiful collage art illustrations. It would be fun to plant some tiny sunflower seeds because they grow into such huge plants!

Take this opportunity to sprout some seeds and research the different stages of development. We put damp paper towels in a see through glass and put seeds next to the glass and watched them sprout over a week. 

Bean2When you do this, you are helping your student engage in multi-disciplinary learning. So go with it… pull out the Observation journal and have your student draw each step of the way. 

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Learning is so fun when it seamlessly WOWs the child!

 

-Sara

Ugly Vegetables

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Use Blackbird & Company’s Earlybird Spring Literature and Writing Discovery Guide to plant a Chinese vegetable garden! The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin tells the tale of a little girl who helps her mother grow some very unusual vegetables while the neighbors are all growing flowers. Read how those ugly vegetables brought the neighbors together over a bowl of soup.

A little research will yield many inexpensive ways to use containers to grow vegetables.Check out our Pinterest page.

We'd love to hear your garden ideas too! Leave a comment…

 

-Sara