Friday, June 21, 2013

Sarah Plain and Tall - A Literary Unit

Sarah Plain and Tall is a wonderfully simple tale that offers opportunities to consider character traits and first person point of view.  This classic children's chapter book has even been turned into a fabulous movie by Hallmark and Stars Glenn Close and Christopher Walkin.  We read the story at the end of the school year and addressed it in a fairly casual way (you know, Spring Fever sets in and all . . .) but I think she still got a lot out of reading this elegant story. 

The Book

I took the book as an opportunity to study "character" and had Alice draw a portrait of each character as she read about them that incorporated representations of things they enjoyed as well as character traits.  For example, when making a portraiture of Sarah, she drew what Sarah looked like but also had to include: that Sarah talked and told stories a lot, that she liked blues and grays, that she sang to the kids, that she had a favorite pet cat named seal and that she loved the sea and probably missed it terribly at times.  On the other hand, Papa had closed lips because he didn't talk much and  a serious expression - I think you probably get the idea.  Any time Alice added a new element to a portrait, she had to defend her choices by explaining to me what clue was given in the book to indicate the character trait being depicted.

We also took a bit of time out to discuss the idea that wherever you are there is something to miss.  Since Alice and I spend part of the summer away from home, we discussed the things from home we miss most while we are away (Daddy especially).  Then we discussed the things we miss from our summer locale when we return home.

Since Alice has seen a variety of ecosystems now (because of our domestic travels), we were also able to take the opportunity to make a connection to science by discussing the shore ecosystem with which Sarah would have been familiar and how it is similar too, and different from the prairie ecosystem Papa and the kids were familiar with.

Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, the book offers up chances to discuss the process of grieving.  The moments about grief are minor in the book and perhaps lost on the very young reader, but for students and children that have suffered the loss of a parent, this book may be a good opening for discussions about the process of moving on if read together.

The Movie

While watching, we discussed the differences between the movie and the book (which are relatively minor).  Alice was able to tell me what parts of the movie she may have made different choices about and which parts of the movie were in keeping with the spirit of the book - even if the book and movie were different. 

The theme of grieving is brought out much more strongly in the movie so moments that are subtle enough to be lost on young children come more to the fore during movie viewing.  Watching the movie was a wonderful tool in considering this important human process and discussing the mixed emotions each of the characters are feeling at different moments in the story.

Lesson and Project Ideas

Reading and Story Structure

Portraits: As described above, I did have Alice do portraits.  She had to pick out clues to the characters that included not only what each character physically looked like, but also what things they liked and character traits such as stubbornness.  We have also studied portraiture in her art history studies.  In those studies we looked at how various artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Angelica Kauffman incorporated the interests and stories of the portrait subject into their portraits.  She and I reviewed a few of their paintings.  Then we looked at a few caricatures to gain some insight into how to depict character traits in her portraits.  As you read above, I then had her pick out "clues" as she read and add to her portraits as she went through the story.  For each addition I had her verbally "defend" her choices, but if you are more formal about it, you can have kids include a list of quotations from their reading in the caption to help in their explanations and defense of their portrait choices.
Story Bumps: Simply create a list of the challenges faced by the characters as they move through the story.  Accepting Sarah, Missing Home, Surviving the Storm . . . At the end of the book, ask kids to "map" the story bumps on a graph - which bumps were faced in a repeated ongoing way?  Which bumps were specific to one individual and which were experienced by everyone in the story.  Can they show that on their maps? 
Conceptual Questions/Discussion Questions:
  1. Who is the Narrator in this story?  (Introduce the concept of first-person narrative with this question as an in).
  2. Why do you think Caleb asks about his mother singing so often?
  3. What is the worst thing about Caleb according to Anna?  Why is this important to understand?
  4. What time of year is it in Chapter One?  How do you know?
  5. Why do you think Papa forgot the old songs?
  6. Why does it matter if Sarah Sings?
  7. Are the three family members nervous about meeting Sarah?  Include at least two quotes as evidence to support your answer.
  8. When Anna says, "But Caleb talked to Sarah from morning until the light left the sky."  What do we learn about Caleb?
  9. Why is it important that, "At least Sarah can hear the ocean"?
  10. What does Papa make into a dune and how do you think his efforts make Sarah feel?  Why do you think this?
  11. What does it tell us about Papa that he makes the dune for Sarah?  Why do you think this?
  12. What is winter like on the Prairie?  Discuss both the pleasant and unpleasant parts.
  13. Why does Anna know the chickens won't be for eating?  Why aren't they?
  14. What do you think about the idea that there are always things to miss no matter where you are?  Is the idea true or not?  Explain your answer.
  15. Did Sarah go to the barn in Chapter 8 wishing for an argument really?  What do you think is going on here?  Why would Anna say she was going to go have an argument?
  16. Why does Sarah stress "We", when she says "we will fix the roof."?  Why is this surprising to the other characters?
  17. Why does the idea of Sarah riding to town alone upset the children so much?
  18. Why hadn't Momma come back when a wagon took her away?
  19. Why are the colors missing from Sarah's picture?
  20. In chapter nine, why was it exciting to Caleb to see dust?
  21. Why do you think Sarah gave colored pencils as a gift to the children?
  22. What does Sarah miss from the Sea?
  23. What would Sarah miss if she left the Prairie?
  24. Would you have ended the story the same way?  Why or why not?
  25. What do you think the most important story bump was and why was it most important?

Research and Writing Projects

Get to Know the Seashore:  Have your kids pick out all the animals and aspects of the shore Sarah discusses and research one or two of the animals (such as scallops or seals) discussed.  Students can then make a  "book about the sea" to share with Anna and Caleb to teach them about Sarah's Sea.  In a classroom setting, each student might make one page with an illustration and description of their subject that is more elaborate than one might expect if one child is making an entire book alone.

Teach Sarah About the Prairie:  Instead of making a book for Anna and Caleb, have students focus on the prairie.  Ask the students to pretend they are sending a book to Sarah before she arrives with all the wonderful things about the prairie she can look forward to and a few things to be ready to watch out for.  Perhaps there are pages about the different wildflowers one can find on the prairie, one about sheep, about plowing fields, planting and growing and some of the favorite crops Caleb and Anna might enjoy in their food, another about coyotes and finally, one about tornadoes.

My Own Story: Use the whole writing process starting with brainstorming to have kids write a first person story about an event in their own lives.  In our case, Alice is writing a story about our summer travels.
Pen Pals:  At the beginning of the story, Sarah is essentially a pen pal with the whole family.  Why not strike up a relationship with another school and create pen-pal opportunities for your classroom of students (or, if, like me, you are homeschooling see if you know anyone that has a niece or nephew the age of your child that lives much further away - perhaps there is even an old friend that has moved away).  Despite email, it is still super nice to receive real mail (and there are times when addressing an envelope and sending a more formal snail-mail letter is especially nice still today).  Teach your kids letter format (which is also still used in formal emails) and help your child/children address their envelopes, stick a stamp on it and send it off.  Switch to email later if a relationship is struck up that is ongoing.


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