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What happened to the pint-sized pig who ran across a sleeping cat?
How does a baby t-rex feel about his condensed version of Alice in Wonderland?
What does a mini panda bear scaling a California orange have to do with poetry?
This week, as part of the Poetry Center’s Matinee series that brings writers to local schools, I had the opportunity to visit Borton Elementary, (thanks to teachers Kathleen Edgars and Caroline Castrillo Pinto who hosted the residency), where the tiny characters pictured above got to mingle with a group of first grade students who jumped head first into writing activities inspired by the work of Kate Bernheimer.
The tiny creatures here were part of a lesson plan that I developed with the help of my colleagues at the Poetry Center. The lesson was one focused on entering into the perspective of something minuscule through writing. One that mirrored some of the motifs found in Bernheimer's children's stories.
When I went to Borton, I brought with me all three of Bernheimer’s stories—The Lonely Book, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair, and The Girl Inside the Castle Inside the Museum. Kate Berhnheimer is a fiction writer devoted to fairytales who currently teaches at the University of Arizona. In addition to her three children's books, Bernheimer has edited many influential anthologies, and published novels, stories, and essays.
Each of Bernheimer's chidren's books deals with a character befriending a being much smaller than themselves. Many of these characters confront loneliness or loss, and each book has the haunting qualities and scale-shifts of a fairytale. Bernheimer's books also deal in nested tales—a story inside a book inside a library, a girl inside a castle inside a museum, a family of mice inside a cheese cellar inside a nest of unbrushed hair.
As is obvious from the pictures above, it’s easy for writers of any age to get carried away with tiny creatures and their containers (I came across these little guys through the work of Christopher Boffoli, and then found a set of my own at a craft store). Renee Angle came up with the brilliant idea of keeping the mini creatures in vignettes beneath bell jars around the classroom, so they might be less distracting, and more inspiring to the students seated at the tables around them.
Before beginning the lesson, I setup five miniature vignettes around the classroom while the kids were still at lunch (a tiny man inside a coffee mug inside a bell jar, a deer inside a crayon box beneath a shoe) and had them sit together on the carpet to read books before investigating. Together, we read The Girl Inside the Castle Inside the Museum and, upon their request, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. The kids had a lot to say about the stories, and were especially engaged by the highly stylized illustrations within each book. Lastly, we read a book I first loved when I was a second grader, called The Teeny-Tiny Woman by Paul Galdone. This third story chronicles the teeny-tiny life of a woman who finds a teeny-tiny bone in a teeny-tiny graveyard, and is haunted by a (teeny-tiny) ghost. The book evokes a lot of repetition, and I got the students more involved in the reading process by letting them repeat the easily familiar phrases aloud when we came across them.
To transition into the writing activity, we talked about how exciting it was to have Kate Bernheimer coming to visit the classroom in the following weeks, and about what the students liked to read and write about best themselves.
I then let the students move about and visit the miniature vignettes around the classroom. I asked them to talk about and announce what they found nested inside their bell jars. Because for first graders, attention spans and written sentences still tend to the shorter side, I brought out a pre-made fill-in-the-blank story on flip paper, and had the students sit down and choose a tiny creature to write about collaboratively. We wrote two fill-in stories together, and during the second round I chose one student to contribute to each blank below:
Miniature Story 1
I am the teeny-tiny book inside the mouse inside the dinosaur.
I am as tall as a nose, or a big big tooth.
All around me I see butterflies, big bodies, pictures, and other books.
In here, I sometimes feel cold, or hot because I am in a belly.
I don't always like to get chewed, or ripped up.
In here, the other books, and the dinosaur who ate me are my friends.
When it rains, I have to use my umbrella.
When night comes, I eat a tiny dinner of hot dogs and pancakes that the dinosaur chewed for dinner.
Tomorrow, I hope that I'll be happy, because the dino will spit me out.
Miniature story 2
I am the tiny pig inside the salt shaker inside the shoe !
All around me I see laces, glass, a spider.
In the classroom, I like to hide in the sink.
Today I am smelly because of the shoe, but then I take a bath in my sink again.
Tomorrow I will eat eraser pancakes.
When I grow up, I am going to move into a teacher's shoe and eat pencil salad.
I really loved the imaginitive stories the Borton students came up within the scaffolding of a fill-in-the blank page. After writing as a group, I thought it was especially fun to see them nest creatures inside other creatures à la The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.
Afterwards, I let the students sit back down at their tables, around their mini vignettes, and gave them their own fill-in-the-blank stories to complete. These were a little more challenging because the students were inspired to write more extensively, but didn’t yet know how to spell all of the words they wanted to incorporate. We spent the rest of the time working on our own stories about the miniature creatures, and drawing the stories on the backs of our fill-in sheets when they were finished or waiting for help.
The Borton students have each now delved into the world of miniatures, and looked out through glass jars and into their own classrooms. They’ve read four new books, and are all looking forward to a visit from real life author Kate Bernheimer next week! And the mini creatures, well, they're wandering around the Poetry Center somewhere...
Sarah Minor is the Education Intern at the Poetry Center and Co-Edits the Wordplay Blog. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona.