“Katy and The Big Snow”– Geography, a Compass, and Measuring

Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton is a classic children’s book that continues to be beloved today.  After two major snow storms this week, it was the perfect read.  The book never gets old, children always find something new.  This week was no exception.  Frankly, the book exploded into unexpected learning about a compass, geography, a yard stick, and more.


It happened like this…

As we enjoyed reading the first page, I had an epiphany.  The border depicts all the trucks that belong to the highway department.  A border.  Wait a minute- the only other author that does that in her books is Jan Brett.  Of course; Jan Brett must have read Katy and the Big Snow when she was young and been inspired.  I felt like a child in school who “got it”.  This was exciting!


We stopped to pull out The Mitten and Three Snow Bears.  They were different, yet the same; different because Jan Brett’s borders in her books are clues to the next page, the same because the borders in Katy and the Big Snow detail the story.  It took a long time to finish reading the first page.

A few pages later a child said, “There’s a compass.”  Sure enough, a compass is featured throughout the book.  Our Big Book of the World has a compass on each page, and we often talk about north, south, east, and west.  Understanding the geography of the town is key to Katy’s snow plowing in the story.  But wait, this compass is different!


North is not pointing to the top, and there are eight main points, not four.  Quick thinking was necessary to seize this moment.  While I didn’t have a compass in the classroom (now I will), I had one on my phone.  We huddled together to look at the compass, and it was moving.  So, we spread out like a group of scouts on an expedition, walking around the classroom, finding north and more.

Back to the book’s compass, I asked children as I pointed, “If this is north and this is east, what is this (the smaller arrow)?”  Shouts of “Northeast!” came from everywhere, and with that momentum we identified all the points.

Then came the page with only words:

A strong wind came up and drifts began to form… one foot…. two feet….. three feet…… five feet…….. The snow reached the first story windows………. the second story windows…………


The children seemed to understand that more dots in the text meant more snow.  As I read the words I held my hand above the floor to the approximate height, but that wasn’t enough.  I needed to show children how much snow is two feet, etc.  A yard stick to the rescue.  I use this in my classroom more than I use a ruler.  Young children need big!  I could show them one foot, two feet, three feet.  They got it- a lot of snow!

This is everybody’s favorite page, especially after measuring with a yardstick.  It puts a visual as to how much snow we measured, and beyond:


So, Katy plowed out the roads in each location, north, south, east and west.  She helped the police, the schools, the airport, and of course the fire department.


The story does not end here.  Learning and enthusiasm isn’t a switch that turns on and off.  It grows.  Today we looked at our new foot of snow and a child said, “It looks like Katy and the Big Snow.”  Yes, it did.  So, we went outside without coats, and with our trusty yardstick in hand to measure the snow.


The snow was 16 inches high.  We went back inside and measured each other, the tables and chairs.  Everyone wanted to find 16 inches.  Children understood how that number on the yardstick measured the snow, and they wanted to measure, and measure again.  They understood that 16 was more than just a number.  In the eyes of the children 16 represented something concrete- eureka!  It clicked.  Boy, it was exciting to find 16 inches.


This is emergent curriculum at its best.  That means something sparks the interest of children, and a teacher builds upon it.  The most important learning, things that stick and are the foundation for more learning come from the children.  Math, science, geography, literacy, art… the list is a long one, and is greatly enhanced through emergent curriculum.  Katy and the Big Snow is a perfect example.

Oh, how I love reading-aloud and the windows that open to learning!


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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22 Responses to “Katy and The Big Snow”– Geography, a Compass, and Measuring

  1. Nina says:

    Jennie, I wish I had you as my preschool or kindergarten teacher. You are simply AMAZING! All these wonderful children are sooooo blessed to have you as their teacher. You’re a born teacher! You just have the gift of teaching and the heart for children. I love you! Happy Valentine’s Day! 😊😙❤

  2. beetleypete says:

    Just wonderful to see these supposedly old-fashioned ideas providing tangible results. I grew up with a good perception of depth and height, as well as a full understanding of compass orientation. That seemed to disappear with metrication and satellite navigation. Now younger people here (including my wife) have no idea about North and South, and have become completely reliant on electronic aids.
    And the marvellous borders! Every children’s book should be like that!
    Inspirational stuff, Jennie, and a pleasure to read about.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Excellent, Jennie. What fun. And that’s a lot of snow!

  4. Oh Jennie.. you make learning, reading and exploring SOoooooo Much Fun.. I have said it before and I will keep on saying it.. I wish you had been my teacher in primary school. 🙂 Hugs and Loved that story book xxx

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Sue! Learning should be fun. I often think about teachers who are locked into a curriculum, whether its from their state or self imposed. They become distant from students and learning becomes a chore. Do you remember when Carl Sagan, the scientist, went to a class of eighth graders to teach? That was decades ago on TV, and that showed me what real teaching was- exciting for children.

  5. Jennie,

    I love those “eureka” moments as you share a story! It’s so much fun for all of us, and the children gain such a lot when the reader takes advantage of those opportunities! Thank you for sharing yours. ☺️ Susan

  6. Jennie….you continue to share stories that are timeless, beautiful and teach worthy in so many ways!! I recently wrote a post that quoted a line from “Katy” and marveled at how Virginia Lee Burton always roots for the underdog. Your teaching practices seem to evolve so much with your kiddos and they are incredibly lucky to have a teacher constantly wanting to challenge themselves in so many ways. (Ps- I never noticed how the ellipses were connected to the snow getting higher- and I’ve read this book a million times….I just love learning from one another 😉 🙂 !!

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you so much, Larissa. Your words are greatly appreciated. I seize every moment reading aloud, and I’m on top of every good book, old or new. It surprises me that many teachers stick with the new. Oh, what they are missing! Virginia Lee Burton does root for the underdog, like Mike Mulligan. That’s the basis for teaching empathy and kindness, yet too many books try to get that message across directly instead of indirectly, like Virginia Lee Burton. And the ellipses? Wow! Learning from one another is fantastic! Best to you, Larissa.

  7. And I love coming here. You take story reading to a whole new level.

  8. Thank you for another slice of life as a teacher (excellent one, at that!) complete with kiddo-photos.
    I’m wondering if the kids were more curious to see those 16 inches as contrasted to their own
    height? Yes, they could experience it hands-on as they approached the snow banks, but did it translate from the yardstick to actually measuring their own height? Just a wonderment…

    • Jennie says:

      Thanks, Laura. Yes, the 16″ translated
      from the snow and yardstick to measuring their bodies. Emergent curriculum, following the interest of the children and the book and enthusiastic learning.

  9. reocochran says:

    We used a book for a whole month in special and integrated preschool, Jennie. The more you explore a book the more diversified the learning of the basic Content Standards. I am sure many preschool teachers for this but my classes were logged onto the state content standard web from 2000 until 2008. They want to know how 3-5 year olds are doing.
    Scissors is a math tool since it is a version of a lever. You listed great tools that are used in content standards for math and science. Snow is an element we could use for a month but the month includes so much more.
    I am happy you mentioned Jan Brett. She writes back, sends oodles of great free stuff and the alphabet by her website we colored by hand for our classroom and laminated. She has center pages, too. We bought quite a lot of her books once we found out how nice and personal she was by sending manilla envelopes full of new stuff.
    Your discovery of the borders on “Katy and the Big Snow” and connecting this to the much younger author, Jan Brett is remarkable! If you write to her ask if this was her inspiration. I think this is so cool! 🙂

    • Jennie says:

      I will definitely write to ask Jan Brett if Katy and the Big Snow was her inspiration for creating borders in her books. I love writing to authors. Many write back. Yes, the more you explore a book the more you see and the more you give to your students. Wonderful!

  10. How I missed this one I don’t know but as usual your amazing abilities to put that spark of wanting to know more, learn more and retain it is one of the most beautiful gifts a child can receive from a teacher. Kudos!!!

  11. Another great day of lessons. I love the additional note of going outside “without coats,” I’ll bet they felt pretty important out there measuring!

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