Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Literature of True Life: On the Banks of Plum Creek Discussion

In my literature group, we’re currently reading Laura Ingalls Wilders’ On the Banks of Plum Creek. In addition to some basic pioneer and Midwestern history, On the Banks is the core of our unit on main idea and memoir.

A quick primer: in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura and her family (Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, and baby Carrie) move into a dugout house on a creek in Minnesota. Laura, the energetic, tom-boy continues to develop her sassy persona and alternately helps Pa around the farm and gets into mischief—an ongoing discussion among my students has been Wilder’s portrayal of Mary as a stick-in-the-mud contrasted by Laura as the fun-loving one. They’re convinced that Wilder overemphasized the “timid, boring” Mary and “fun, rowdy” Laura in the story, just as they, if given the chance, would recreate themselves as more fun than their siblings in their own memoirs.

Anyway, I’ve been impressed at how well my students have understood the fundamentals of this book and have enjoyed working with them on two key activities: portraying main idea through Twitter and dissecting memoir. 

Main Idea Tweets
At the start of the book, each of my students chose a character to portray through a Twitter account. I set up Twitter accounts for them and a few times each week they Tweet the main idea of the chapters as we read them. I connected them with some friends and followers, from my sister and mother to children’s libraries to a bona fide Laura Ingalls Wilder expert, Sarah Uthoff (author of Trundle Bed Tales who gave us a shout out).

Twitter helps my students understand the importance of writing a concise, clear main idea, even as they focus on point of view. One student chose Jack, the family dog, and each chapter he has to write the main idea from the dog’s point of view, even when his character isn’t included or mentioned. One recent Tweet from Jack’s perspective: “I can’t believe Mary lied to Pa like that about playing in the haystack. Pa must be really mad. That is so out of character for Mary.”

As a teaching tool, Twitter has required a lot of supervision, including technology permission slips, setting up accounts under my name and email address, and monitoring their use of the site. They love using Twitter, though, and so far haven’t missed a Tweet.

Memoir and the Reliable Narrator
In the discussions of On Plum Creek, we’ve discussed difference between biography, autobiography, and memoir, which was a new concept for them. We’ve also discussed just how reliable memoirists are, or aren’t.

In a recent discussion, we talked about just how much information Wilder may have changed or omitted when she wrote her story. Along the way, one student brought up the idea that Laura may not be as reliable a narrator as we initially assumed and we’ve discussed how that affects our reaction to her work—how do we understand this account of life on the prairie if we can’t completely trust the memory of the person who wrote it? And, where does autobiography end and fiction begin?

So far we’ve focused on the important events that Wilder includes (a sunrise that was as exciting to her as Saturday morning cartoons are to today’s nine-year-olds) and how clear those memories would be to her as she wrote decades later, as well as the idea that authors can write their stories for a variety of purposes, including entertainment. It’s Wilder’s story to tell, after all.

Here are memoir and Laura Ingalls Wilder Resources that I’ve found helpful:

The Little House Books web site and an eThemes Resource Page for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Also, check out Trundle Bed Tales' Blog Talk Radio.

This Scholastic article about encouraging kids to write their own memoir includes a good blend of reading and writing instruction. 

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