By Nancy Ancharski
My students often ask me to name my favorite book. I always tell them it depends on who wants to know. Books have innate qualities that make them good, but more importantly books are touchstones that show their quality when they affect an audience. To release goodness a book and reader need to connect.
So, as I contemplated writing this column, I considered my audience. What books might provide touchstones for the educators who read Community Works Journal for inspiration? As I scanned my library shelves, I narrowed my focus to On Sand Island by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
This gem of a story tells how a ten-year-old boy named Carl built a boat. Carl lives in a small island community on the southwest coast of Lake Superior and his boat becomes a community-based learning project of the best kind. Carl finds some boards at the edge of the lake and he sees them as a chance to fulfill his dream of having a boat of his own. The subsequent steps of boat building are a challenge to the skinny solitary boy. So, he goes to his neighbors for help with sawing and nailing and painting. Carl exchanges “work for work” as the whole community participates in his project.
The message is as muted as the pale paintings that show the characters and setting from unique perspectives and draw the reader intimately into the life of Sand Island. The lesson of mutual reliance and the definition of “labor of love” are learned subtlety through slowly paced sentences resplendent with descriptions of the daily tasks of the islanders. Martin makes their hard work sound like a wonderful sort of ritual.
The poetic structure and language of On Sand Island are so pure and sweet that I almost hated to use it to teach. It deserves to be read aloud and appreciated and not dissected in any way. But the book is also treasure for teaching.
I used On Sand Island to introduce my fifth grade students to project based learning I wanted them to persist when their work got hard and I wanted them to use community resources to accomplish their goals. They were surprised that the story is based on an actual incident and that Martin went to Sand Island and interviewed Carl’s family and friends for this book. Using such a good piece of literature to ground and guide the fifth grade projects eliminated the need for a lecture on the importance of setting and pursuing goals.
As I thought about the themes of reciprocity, good work, and patient persistence two other books came to mind—Anna’s New Coat by Harriet Ziefert and Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Ziefert shares the process of making a coat in a sweet story with expressive illustrations. Anna and her mother barter with a farmer, a spinner, a weaver and a tailor. They wait through the seasons for the work to be done. And they celebrate each person’s contribution to the finished garment. I have read this book with students in first grade and we have had insightful discussions about how they think their clothes are made. The art teacher and I connect this story with a sewing project in which the first grades make felt pouches. Most students are amazed at what can be done with cloth and a needle and yarn. They get frustrated with their first clumsy stitches but they are so proud of their finished product and their hard work.
In Seedfolks Fleischman writes each of the thirteen chapter from the point of view of thirteen neighbors who inadvertently work together to grow a community garden. Each person is drawn into the once vacant lot for a unique reason but their lives get entwined as they work together to plant seeds and solve practical and personal problems. I haven’t used this book with students, but I believe that, like the repetition and rhythm of Martin’s words and the cycle of the seasons in Ziefert’s book, it has the potential to provide meaning and etch deep memories as only a touchstone can.
Nancy Ancharski is a teaching librarian at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Keene, NH. She began using service-learning projects and place-based education in her teaching as a foundation for student research. Nancy’s explorations with her students are inspired and supported by the Antioch New England Institute (www.anei.org).