Steam Power in the Digital Age

mike_mulligan in holeLast week, Akira and I played a trick on the class that I have to share:  partly because we think we’re really funny; partly because it highlights something wonderful about our school; and, partly because it may help some of you at home to understand why we went on a field trip to see the boiler.


Orestis’s TNT-and-a-passing airplane solution

We were reading a book called Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, a follow up to another book by her called The Little House.  (You can see three boys enjoying this one in the Gallery–who says boys don’t like to read fiction?)  These are wonderful old stories, and fit nicely with our exploration of community and how communities grow and change.

We had got to the point where Mike and Mary Anne (the steam shovel) had completed their amazing hole for the basement of the new town hall.


Jadis’ elevator solution.

The students had written and drawn some excellent ideas for how they might solve the problem of getting out.  It was now time to find out what idea the author had come up with, through the character of the little boy, whose insights twice save the day.

Why Akira and I think we’re really funny is that Akira arrived at school with a copy of this book translated into Japanese with which he was very familiar.  So, I—with our digital projector that I’d been using so that we could all read the book together—said to the class, “Okay, let’s see what the little boy suggests,” and opened to the Japanese page.  Jaws dropped in surprise, then some children recalled that Akira had said he knew the book in Japanese and correctly surmised this was what they were seeing.  Then… I ran my finger along the Japanese text and read the corresponding English words which were quietly sitting just out of camera view.  Exclamations of “Mr. Caldwell can read Japanese!!” ensued.

Something wonderful about our school is the opportunity to learn from the many children who speak other languages than English.  In our class we have speakers of Arabic, Hindi, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Greek, maybe a little Cree, and Japanese!  I am often struck by how readily these new language learners embrace the structured word inquiry we do.  They are motivated (and reassured, I think) to discover the logic and order of a language so different from their own.  And, they often have things to teach us about our own language.  Our resident Greek speaker, Orestis, has helped us to understand the spelling of several Greek-rooted English words, such as <school> or <alphabet>.    Lately, a number of our students have shared something of their language and country of origin on the daily announcements, which the rest of the class has loved.IMG_3535

After our joke, Akira got up and actually read the Japanese, which was wonderful to hear.  We could see that, like English, the Japanese words are separated by spaces on the page, and that the characters represent phonemes:  we were able to identify the symbol for /m/ by noting which word represented “Mike”.

And so, the reason we went on a field trip to the boiler in the school’s basement is…wait!.  Maybe I shouldn’t tell you, for fear of spoiling the ending of the story for some.  Ask your child.  I’m returning my copy to the library this Friday–go and get it!  Suffice it to say that the children were delighted and fascinated to see that our school is heated with the same technology that drove Mary Anne (in 1939, when the book was written), and that allowed the little boy to save the day.


My Father’s Dragon

my father's dragon

Last week, we finished this sweet, funny little novel, the first in a series of three about the adventures of Elmer Elevator and the dragon he rescues (not to give away the ending).  Like most adventures, it is the journey rather than the arrival that is most delicious.  Before Elmer embarked for Wild Island, we made a list of things we’d want to take on such an adventure.  We then read the surprising list of things that Elmer carried in his backpack.  Part of the fun was checking off the list as they were used in such surprising ways (though he never seemed to use the clean clothes–clearlyhis priorties are solid).  IMG_3388 

Why do I choose such an old book (published in 1948) to read to today?  Like the Thornton Burgess books, it has a gentleness to it–a lack of cynicism, a lightness, that in spite of (because of?) the onslaught of fast-paced media and violence the children are thirsty for.  It is almost like a relief to them to experience a tale so unflashy.  And there is wry humour and not-hit-over-your-head wisdom in these stories, and inspiration:  as the children are asked to take on more and more responsibility for themselves we are mightily impressed with a fellow who can be so self-reliant (and who can largely survive on tangerines).   How can we not imagine ourselves there?  Besides, given all our “knight” metaphors, it’s never a bad idea to see that even a dragon can be a friend.  (Now there’s a metaphor I could extend in some interesting directions).  There’s a reason the book has never been out of print in more than 60 years:  it’s a gem.  I think I may not be able to resist launching into the second book next week, but I doubt many would object to reading the first again at home!  How else are you going to find out how to make a bridge with pink lollipops?

The Thornton Burgess Adventures

Peter RabbitWe read three of this series, and the children love them.  There seems to be a window where they really get the stories–my own kids didn’t get them at all before age 6, but couldn’t get enough of them through that year.  The same has proven true with many students in Grade One .  Each of the animal characters kind of embodies a particular character flaw (Peter’s troublesome curiosity, Reddy Fox’s boastfulness, Grandfather Frog’s unwillingness to take advice. etc…) that make the stories fun, and nice to refer to when these same flaws inevitably arise in our own human characters.  There is a kind of old-fashioned language and morality to these books, but it is very gentle, and I think appeals to a six-year-old’s sense of justice.

My only quibble with these old books is that I can’t stand the illustrations.  The animals largely behave like animals in these stories, so it bugs me hugely to see them dressed up in clothes.  It’s ridiculous.  Luckily, it is very good for children at this age to hear stories without illustrations, as it nurtures their fundamental capacity to form mental images themselves, so I personally never share the pictures. (Just had a conversation with a Grade 5 teacher who bemoaned her students’ apparent inability to form mental images.  This is another topic on its own).