One Picture for a Thousand Words.


Our final chapter reading book this year at school was Little House on the Prairie.  The last chapter that we read was ‘Fresh Water to Drink’.  Pa and his neighbor, Mr. Scott, were digging a well.  Pa was careful to lower a candle each day into the deep hole to make sure the air was safe.  Bad gas lives deep under the earth.  Mr. Scott thought the candle was ‘foolishness’, and began digging without sending the candle down into the well.  The rest of the chapter was an edge-of-your-seat nail biter.

I love this chapter.  So did the children.  I realized I could connect what happened down in that well to something real; a portrait of my grandfather as a little boy wearing miner’s gear, including a candle on his helmet.  My grandfather and his father had mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  I grew up with their stories and photographs, including this portrait.

I brought it to school the next day to show the children.  “This is my grandfather”, I said.  “He went deep under the earth, just like Pa and Mr. Scott.  What is that on his head?”  Children couldn’t sit.  They jumped up, pressed against me and each other, all wanting a closer look.  “That’s fire!” someone said.  “No, it’s a candle” said Owen.  “A candle is fire.” said Miles.  “What did he do?”  Ah, those wonderful, spontaneous questions that spark the best learning.  This was ‘a moment’, fifteen children eager to hear more and learn.

I told them about mining, going underground, and about the candle.  I then showed them the Garth Williams illustrations in the chapter ‘Fresh Water to Drink’, with Ma and Pa turning the handle of the windlass to get Mr. Scott out of the well, and Pa digging the hole that is as deep as he is tall.  We talked about how hard that would be.  We imagined what it would be like inside the hole:  Dark or light?  Hot or cold?  Then someone asked, “How old is your grandfather?”

I was connecting generations and connecting learning.

I’m in mid-life, where I have a strong, real link with the past and also the present.  My one arm can reach and touch my parents from before 1920 and my grandparents from the 1880’s and 1890’s   They were just here ‘some years ago’.  My other arm can reach and touch my children and grandchildren, and all the preschoolers I teach.

I find this mind boggling; I’m equally part of the past, a long line of family history, and part of the present, teaching children and learning.  I want to connect all the lines.  I want people to know that I was there with Nan who was born in The 1880’s, and with Lulu who was born ten years later.  I want people to know that I understand life from that point forward.

More importantly, I want my preschoolers to have a firsthand piece of history.  It is a ‘real’ way to enhance learning.  That happened with my Grandfather’s portrait.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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17 Responses to One Picture for a Thousand Words.

  1. Compelling reading. You really know how to grip your audience. Thanks for sharing this.
    Kind regards – Robert. 🙂

  2. reocochran says:

    Jennie, I have heard some great family stories but this one did become more “alive” with the portrait. What a beautiful painting and such a nice looking boy!
    The scary element in the mines, as well as the water well digging, would absorb and capture those children’s attention!
    I am so glad you started this experience with your students. I think your students may find some history in their own families. The students may simply ask about their grandparents and what did they like to play with, what kind of job did they do and what was their favorite subject or book in school? I am sure you encourage this. ❤
    I sent home a letter before Thanksgiving annually and encouraged parents to have family share a past experience or "memorable story."
    My favorite one which had everyone, teacher's aide, my teaching asst and the SLP laughing was the small little girl who rarely spoke, told us her "Gramma had a baby pig, which she took for walks in her sister's baby carriage!"

    My own children liked hearing those family tall tales, bigger than life itsef. We allowed crayons and paper at the holiday table, encouraging it to stay multi-generational. This is how our parents were taught in many families to listen and not be excused too soon after dinner. 🙂 I am not sure how many children had families who tried this. . .

    • jlfatgcs says:

      You are so right. At times I would love to be in an elementary classroom, as I would delve deep into questions. I do this, but it would be fun to expand even further. Someone wrote (I love quotes) that if a children’s book is written only for the child it’s not a good book. My chapter reading books are a case in point. Thanks, Robin!

      • reocochran says:

        When I sent those notes home it wasn’t as a middle school teacher. It was when I taught 3 – 5 year olds, 24 children a day, 12 in the am class and 12 in the pm. (Eight were diagnosed with disabilities and four were “peer models” or typically developing preschoolers.) The state of Ohio from 2004 until 2008 when I left this position, I logged onto the state content standards and utilized them in lesson plans and gave them three tests every three months and logged their scores online, too. I am sure it is still running nationwide and keeping track of young children’s progress. It makes me sad when people don’t value teachers like you who lay the foundation for learning right from the beginning, Jennie.
        I finally posted on Friday the One Lovely Blog Post, Jennie. ❤ I broke a few rules but hope you like it anyway! 🙂

      • jlfatgcs says:

        I understand everything you are telling me. The whole system of tracking a child’s progress builds a wall between the teacher and the child. The teacher has to look through the eyes of statistics and grading, yet the child is a blooming flower eager to learn. The two don’t mix, and the burdens on teachers make it difficult to bridge the two. I feel very fortunate that I can teach in a way that responds to the child; if they are interested I jump on that. Thank you for your wonderful, kind words.. And, your post is awesome!

  3. frenchc1955 says:

    This is a brilliant lesson, and I think the way you connected personal history to the story and to the history of the time was extraordinary. You are an excellent teacher!

  4. Good, beautiful and true says:

    Love that the painting is of your grandfather! Stories that are brought to life stick with us forever!

  5. Seems so primitive now, but that was all they had. Also seems mighty dangerous considering the gas around too.

  6. Oh, I love this and how you connect all the special people in your life–past, present, and future. And the portrait of your grandfather, wow, beautiful!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Many thanks for your kind words! I think it it amazing that I have this portrait. The date on it is 1907, yet it must have been painted some years later as he was born in 1891. I love teaching children in a way that connects something ‘real’.

  7. What a great way to connect kids to books and history and make it real and personal. I think those experiences stay with us and create a love of learning. Well done!

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