Wednesday, June 29, 2011

pondering billy goats gruff

Two weeks ago I listened to a live webinar discussion between Andrew Pudewa and Andrew Kern. Not to sound gushy, but the discussion was absolutely spectacular and worth listening to again. Here is a link to the webinar:  Contemplating Man.
One of the points that Andrew Kern mentioned in passing was that the Number One skill teacher-parents can teach their student-children is how to answer should questions as it related to reading and writing. His point was that should questions are fundamentally moral. Should he have done that? Should she have stopped this from happening? What should they have done differently?
 As this wasn't the main topic of discussion, nothing more was elaborated on, but that idea stuck with me. So much so, that the following afternoon, when the story narration of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was next in our lessons, I thought I would try these should-style questions out on Seth.
After reading the story out loud, I asked for him to narrate the story back. As he finished I asked the first should question that came to my mind.
Should the little billy goat have told the troll to wait and eat his bigger brother who was coming along?

Seth appeared stymied by this question, so I spontaneously modeled the answer by saying something like, I was thinking about this question and I don't think it was very kind of thoughtful for the little goat to want his brother to be eaten, do you? Now that some of the thinking was done, Seth now had a choice to agree with my assessment or articulate his own view. For younger children who are still developing their conscience and reasoning skills, this type of modeling may be helpful until they are better equipped to think these ideas through. Perhaps children might be afraid to disagree with mom or dad, so they will agree no matter what they may have been thinking differently. If this is the case, you could leave off that this is your view and just present the answer as a possibility to be considered, more like, Do you think this showed kindness and thoughtfulness to the older billy goat brother? This time the answer should be more clear, No, telling a troll to wait and eat your brother instead of you is not showing kindness to your older brother. (Although, it is a clear sign of self-preservation, which we all do inherently desire and is not necessarily wrong.)

The discussion could continue by asking, Should the little billy goat have been surprised to see his older billy goat brother show up in the meadow? Well, perhaps, Yes, because he thought the troll was mean enough to actually eat him or that his suggestion was so clever and good, that the troll being stupid as trolls tend to be, would actually follow it. On the other hand, perhaps, No, the little billy goat was counting on the fact that the middle billy goat would be as heartless as he was and would give the troll the same self-preserving line of "wait for my biggest brother". That should provoke some interesting discussion and ideas.
And lastly, it could be asked, Do you think the biggest billy goat brother should be upset and angry with his two younger billy goat brothers for telling the troll to wait and ultimately eat him? Answers like Yes, he should kick their cans all over that meadow are a humorous way to finish the story discussion. Or no, he knows that they are just cowards and he is the only one big enough and brave enough to protect them. And again, No, he may feel a sense of responsibility since he is the biggest and oldest member of the family so they will all cross the next troll-laden bridge together to safety.
Obviously the kinds of questions and the depth of the questions will depend on the maturity of your child. But after a few times of this type of discussion, kids can learn how to think like this on their own and the discussions can be more even-handed.
On a related note, last night I finished reading Deconstructing Penguins, which Heidi mentioned a few weeks ago along with a few other wonderful things. I really enjoyed the way the authors showed how much depth you can get out of a well-written children's book. I was very humbled by how often I read a children's novel and do not even spend five minutes considering anything about the book's setting, theme or character development. I have been challenged to do this, not just so I can teach my kids this but so that I can really work to understand the point of the book.

I'm currently working through an online interview conducted by Leigh Bortins (whose recent book The Core about classical education was a great read for me) speaking with Adam Andrews of Teaching the Classics and he makes the point that all the elements of a well written book are present in great literature no matter what level the book was written at. So there you go, a great excuse to continue to read great children's literature and feel no shame. :)

*note: please pardon my poor writing format with all the commas and italic lettering all over the place. hopefully you get the gist of the discussion anyway.

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