On Folk Music, Bears, and Giving Trees


One of the perks of having the first year of teaching behind you is gaining the comfort and confidence to step outside the prescribed program with rationale and without permission. I did that today, as I’ve been doing increasingly over the year, because, in case you hadn’t noticed from reading this site, I am a big believer in educating all aspects of the child. A believer in incessant test prep? Well, as Borat would say, “Not a so much.”

Last year, I made an unfortunate habit of letting important days go by with little or no discussion or exploration. (Case in point: In my euphoric daze of naievete the summer before my first teaching assignment, I bought a beautiful bulletin board decoration set with a Presidential election theme. It sits in storage now, unopened and untouched. My students were aware of the race and very interested, but my lack of vision resulted in some hastily placed phone calls the day of Obama’s inauguration, until, finally, I was able to score my class seats in the school library to watch it. But there was nothing much else.)

This year, I really hit the ground running (like a chicken with my head cut off), and continued, much of the time, down the same path. Historic events were happening – like the earthquake in Haiti – and we weren’t doing our due diligence as humans in discussing and learning about them.

Puff's a dragon. That makes this fantasy. Right? RIGHT.

My “a ha!” moment this year came during our wildly popular fantasy unit in reading and writing. I immersed the kids in some outstanding literature. They devoured “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and its prequel, “The Magician’s Nephew.” While those books required great patience and depth of thinking, I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of music. “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” that classic ditty about childhood lost, sung famously by Peter, Paul, and Mary was a fantasy song. I  mean, Puff is a dragon, after all. I taught them the song and an unlikely love affair was forged between a diverse class of first generation American children and a trio of white grandparents who none of them – or their parents – had ever heard of.

So, let’s just say this. Without Obama’s presidency and the imagination of Peter Yarrow, today probably wouldn’t have happened. I knew I was going to be bold in commemorating Earth Day, which was one of the most fascinating days of my year when I was a kid. Part of what emboldened me was the ad infinitum test prep rigor that we’ve been experiencing. In fact, today, the first two periods were carved out for a testing runthrough, so proctors and assists would know where to go, what to do, when to do it, who to have with them, etc. That meant my class losing their coverage and me gaining a last period prep. Also, the health teacher was coming in fourth period for HIV lessons (giving the lessons, not getting them). This left me in the room, for instructional purposes, for a grand total of two periods.

Well, I’d have been damned if I was going to spend that time squeezing the kids for more drudgery.

Smokey, though in high demand this Earth Day, was able to stop by.

I wore my Smokey the Bear shirt to spark (no fire pun intended there) some dialogue about wildfires. We talked about Smokey’s history (he has an awesome web site, by the way). They were very intrigued. It helped of course, that I told them yesterday (yes, this was actually planned) that I’d be wearing a shirt with one of my childhood heroes on it. A favorite of mine is an easy sell. Anyway, we talked about Smokey, discussed some outdoor fire safety tips, and took a look at one of Smokey’s posters.

Following this, we reviewed some math (for the test, what else?). Unsurprisingly, the interest from Smokey carried over. I find that when you have interesting, engaging experiences sprinkled throughout the day (and strategically placed before the more typically boring stuff) then everything else runs smoother.

We finished math, and I gave the option of shared reading or a practice article…about something happening on Earth right now. Of course, unanimously, the vote was for the article. So, from math, we moved into reading about (and yes, this was, miraculously, again planned) the Iceland volcano. This again made the class erupt (ouch)  in spirited, inquisitive discussion. The best question was, “If Iceland is cold, how can it have a volcano?”

A deceptively complex book that brought out deep, impressive thoughts.

The planned highlight of the day was to come after lunch. I had selected for read aloud one of my old favorites, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. (For me, the book needs no further endorsement, but it happened to be in my head because of this NY Times article I read recently about children being philosophical). I prefaced the book by telling the class I wanted them to think about what the tree did and what the boy did, and what their actions say about the kind of person (being?) they each are.

When I finished, there was spirited discussion. The more we talked, the deeper the thinking became. At first the tree was generous, but by the end of our discussion, she was giving herself away so she could always be with the boy. At first the boy was greedy, but by the end of our discussion he was a selfish, ungrateful person who only came to the tree when he needed something. Yes, it was intense.

(Let me add, that when the boy became a young adult and went away, the class roared – yes, like a dragon – and threw their hand at my face demanding to be heard. I relented – and I’m glad I did. Some of them had made a connection I had never really considered. The Giving Tree is just like the story of Jackie Paper leaving our old friend Puff.)

Look closely, and you just might see me and my students sitting with Peter, Paul, and Mary.

From The Giving Tree, we moved onto learning a new Peter, Paul, and Mary song. Since “Puff,” I’ve taught the class three others, and, against anything I would have ever predicted, PPM have become as integral to our class as the camera and lunch. Today’s selection was “The Garden Song.” Incidentally, the album I played the song from was “Around the Campfire” (Smokey was on our minds, no doubt). I have a real soft spot in my heart for this album’s cover because I think there is something magical about the prospect of an intimate, 20 person audience, singing along with these legends on the beach as the sun sets. We looked over the lyrics (“Inch by inch, row by row. I’m gonna make this garden grow…”), and then I shut the lights and we pretended to be sitting there with PPM, around the campfire. Paul started singing, and before I knew it, the whole class was joining in (and I had burned my marshmallows).

Are these things I can get away with everyday? Surely not. But, I’m learning about that old adage: “Shut your door and do your own thing.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can compel me to teach to the test, but I’ll be damned if you’re going to get me to abandon the core experiences of being a child.

Inch by inch, row by row. I’m gonna help these children grow.

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2 responses to “On Folk Music, Bears, and Giving Trees

  1. Prolific my friend. And a “record” day of teaching in only two periods! I too love The Giving Tree (and other assorted Shel Silverstein poems). I shall consider it for my kindergarten class – for earth day I usually read “the Earth and I” by Frank Asch…Simple and Meaningful. But perhaps 5 and 6 year olds have a philosophical nature as well as 5th graders…I would like to see…

    Teacher to teacher – isn’t it great when you bend the rules just enough to reach your kids…that’s what it’s all about, Not the paperwork or test prep or even anything you might plan…it’s when you break through all of it just to reach the children. A day that will be remembered…

  2. Amazing blog. Putting aside the fact that your writing is fabulous, humorous and endearing to read, you make some amazing points about the typical teaching day and the drama that surrounds yearly assessments. You’ve done a tremendous amount with such a small bit of time, and what’s so wonderful is that, in the end, these students will forever remember and be impacted by your discussion surrounding Earth Day, even if just for 2 periods, versus the tiresome efforts surrounding test prep.

    Congratulations and hope you’ll keep it up!

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