No, not that Spiderman!

As the summer drew to a close (yes, this post is long overdue), my colleague Andi Daunais and I got together to plan a collaborative lesson to introduce the literary element of theme to her fifth grade students. She was hoping to wrap the lesson around the “Learning Safari” theme (no pun intended) that she had chosen to kick off the new school year.

As preparation, she had already immersed herself in an exploration of all things African and had decided to begin with folktales, both to teach the concept of theme while also exposing the students to African geography and the diversity of peoples and cultures of the continent.

During our conversation, I had a light bulb moment. As a college undergraduate (lo, those many years ago), in a Children’s Literature class, I had created a set of finger puppets to accompany the telling of Gerald McDermott’s Caldecott award winning book Anansi the Spider. Although I went on to become a banker upon graduation and didn’t reenter the world of children’s literature until almost twenty years later, I never let go of those puppets. Now, finally, I would get a chance to use them. This would be the perfect book to introduce theme and the colorful little puppets would add a little pizzazz to the presentation.

Let me tell you a little bit about the character Anansi, our Spider-Man. In the many extant tales about him, he is portrayed variously as a spider god, spider man or just a jungle-variety spider. He is a folk hero to the West African Ashanti people. He can be a cunning and mischievous trickster, a wise and inventive sage, a lazy but loveable rapscallion. The stories hearken back to a time when humans, gods and animals could all speak to each other and travel within each other’s worlds.

Back to our lesson. Since the McDermott retelling of this tale features Anansi and his six sons, my cast of finger puppets numbered seven. Although doable, it was quite unwieldy to manipulate all seven so I recruited six students to play the sons as I told the story. No dialogue was required; I merely asked them to move their puppets along with the narrative. And they did as they were told, until one serendipitous unscripted moment in the story.

The finger puppets echo the symbols used in the books graphical design

The finger puppets echo the symbols used in the book’s graphical design

“And so they tried to decide which son deserved the prize. They tried but they could not decide. They argued all night.” That’s the text. Here’s what the students did. They started “arguing”, each claiming that the task that they had performed (built a road, swallowed a river, etc.) was the one that had “saved” the father. No prompting. No previous instructions. They just spontaneously enhanced the telling by acting the parts of the sons. It was a precious moment and a great start to our school year, it being just the second day of school.  It’s this kind of occurrence that keeps me coming back to school every August.

I followed the storytelling with a mini-lesson on theme. It’s simple enough to explain, but not necessarily easy to recognize in a text. Folktales, because they are often instructive in nature, make the identification of theme easier. As a class we discussed the theme of the Anansi tale (teamwork) and then we generated a list of themes that might be found in other tales.

At this point, I turned the lesson over to Andi. She explained to the students that they would be divided into four teams, each assigned to a different African folktale. Their jobs, over the next few weeks would be to read the stories, create a story map, identify the theme and then write a script illustrating the pivotal plot points and theme. Once completed, with simple construction paper props and costumes, they performed their skits for their classmates. Assessment and entertainment wrapped up in one tidy package.

And no Marvel superheroes were required.