From Little House on the Prairie, to Geography, to Maps, to Mount Rushmore, to History… And More

When good reading happens in my classroom, it opens the door to so many other things. Children have questions and ideas.  Interrupting in the middle of chapter reading means children are listening and interested.  I can answer those questions and get back to reading, or I can do more and follow through on those questions.

I do more and follow through on those questions.

It’s called emergent curriculum.  Here’s how it goes: a teacher reads, or gives a lesson. Children (or a single child) ask a question or make a comment.  That comment leads to something interesting yet completely different.  It’s like taking children into the woods and finding divergent paths, and then a child asks “Why can’t we climb a tree to see where they go?”

Here’s what happened this week:

I chapter read at rest time, and always walk over to each child to show them the picture at the end of the story.  Eddie had fallen asleep and missed the picture.  When children woke up…

Eddie: “Jennie, you forgot to show me the picture.”

Me: “Eddie, you fell asleep.  Would you like to see the picture now?”

Of course he did.  And the other children did, too.  So, we gathered around the table to see the picture together.  Children shoved in like a can of sardines.  My book is old and falling apart.  Somehow that makes it all the more wonderful.  Children instinctively know its ‘been around the block’ many times, and they have a reverence, as if the book itself has many stories to tell.

We looked at the picture Eddie missed.  We looked at more pictures.  And children started to ask to see the pictures they remember.

“Jennie, where is the picture of Ma when the log fell on her foot?”

“Jennie, where is the picture of Bunny?”

“Jennie, why did Jack always walk under the wagon?  Didn’t they go a long way?”

The window of opportunity just opened.

“I think Jack liked walking.  He must have had plenty of rest every night.  They did go a long way.  They started in Wisconsin… wait, let me get the map book so we can see.”

We followed the pathway, starting in Wisconsin.  The can of sardines suddenly became very tight.  My finger went across the river to Minnesota (stopping to remember crossing the river), then down to Iowa and Missouri, then across to Kansas.  Hearing the words in the story is best, seeing those words come alive in pictures makes it stick.  So, I left the book and the map book out for children to explore.

“Jennie, where is the river they crossed?”

We found the Mississippi River.  I traced it to the Gulf of Mexico.  I told children that all rivers go into the ocean.  And then we traced all the rivers on the big map book.  It was ‘I Spy meets geography’.  Learning is fun.

Mac looked at the map book carefully.  He had been quiet all along.  Then he pointed to something on the map book – four faces.  “What’s that?”

Another window of opportunity presents itself:  Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, which has no correlation to Little House on the Prairie.  That’s how emergent curriculum works.  Small windows of opportunity that must be grabbed, seizing the moment.

Oh, how we talked about Mount Rushmore!  While we learned who the presidents were – no interest to preschoolers – I switched to carving the stone.  Preschoolers like building, and they can understand carving.

“Mac, if you were carving Mount Rushmore, you would be much smaller than any of the noses.”  I described this in every possible way.  It was no use.  Mac and the others could not understand how big the monument is, and how they would be smaller than a nose.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

Looking at this photo, children have never been so quiet.  They gained a piece of understanding and appreciation.  It was chapter reading that brought them through a great journey of learning.  Thank goodness we got off the track.


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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64 Responses to From Little House on the Prairie, to Geography, to Maps, to Mount Rushmore, to History… And More

  1. beetleypete says:

    That looks like a great map book, Jennie. I love illustrated maps, as they bring the country to life.
    Working from the book chapter to Mount Rushmore is a wonderful example of how to adapt to changing themes in a classroom.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      It’s a well loved map book, Pete. The illustrations spark some of the best, spontaneous learning. Definitely adapting and changing. Best to you.

  2. I love that way of teaching – it is such a joy to explore subjects that pique the learners’ interests. I’ve only ever taught adults, not children, but it works just the same way and everyone gets so much more out of a session than strictly adhering to a predefined curriculum.

  3. Opher says:

    Just how it should be done Jennie!!

  4. I hope the value of curiosity will be reinforced throughout the children’s schooling. It’s an essential habit of mind in so many areas of life. (Besides being just plain fun!)

  5. Ritu says:

    I’m reading Roald Dhal’s The Magic Finger to them now!!

  6. Dan Antion says:

    What a great adventure in learning. These are lessons they will remember, Jennie and they will remember you for leading them (or following their lead).

  7. It looks like a great map book! I like learning this way too, and I did stand at the base of Mount Rushmore as an adult awestruck like a child at its size and the wonder of how it was created.

    • Jennie says:

      It’s a great book. All those illustrations spark many questions. And it’s a wonderful way to learn. I have never seen Mount Rushmore, yet I can imagine I would be as awestruck as you were. Thank you, Deborah!

  8. I love the colourful map of the states. My brother and I had one like that, as kids, but the states were each a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. We loved playing with it and got to know all the states. And we are Canadians!! We memorized all those states and played at making a list of them.
    Just as an aside – we were disappointed to learn that many Americans couldn’t even name our ten provinces and three territories. I don’t say that to hurt or brag, but that’s probably still how it is today.
    But the way you’ve integrated the geography with the story (Little House …) and beyond, is really a wonderful way for the kids to learn in a meaningful way.

    • Jennie says:

      The colorful map is a favorite in the classroom. We learn so much. How wonderful that you and your brother had a similar puzzle and had fun learning the states. How sad that American children know little about Canada, including the ten provinces. Our brother across the border, and we know little. Well, I’m going to change that in my class next year. So, thank you! Really! Children love geography, and the Little House books are a great way to spark that learning. Thanks so much, Anneli.

      • It’s a standard joke about Americans not even knowing about Canada (never mind the provinces) – where they ask, “Canada? What state’s that in?” But thank you for future lessons on your northern neighbours.

      • Jennie says:

        I appreciate the joke (it’s sad but true), as it adds to the importance of learning about our neighbors. I would laugh, too, if I were a Canadian. Thanks, Anneli.

  9. iamthegreenestofblues says:

    This made me miss elementary school and how fun learning was! Every new thing learned is like a piece of a missing puzzle! Thank you for all you do!

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I never thought that there was a track to get off of when I taught. And I taught college students! Nothing beats genuine intellectual curiosity. It trumps lesson plans every time.

  11. Darlene says:

    I love how you latch onto these teachable moments! I recall teaching English to a group of Tibetan teenage girls who planned to work in the medical field. I had a lesson planned around camping and had barely started when one young woman asked me how to not get pregnant. We spent the entire lesson discussing birth control. So much for camping!

  12. Your class room is so exciting and fun. And you are such a caring and loving teacher. I dont think i ever received the love and care as you give to your class, when i was a little person…

    Thanks for sharing your bright posts

  13. Emergent curriculum. Following the imagination, fun and learning combined. Great post, Jennie.

    • Jennie says:

      Yup, follow the fascinating imagination and interesting questions of children and you have real learning. And fun. Thank you, Diana! 🙂

  14. Mike says:

    I wish teachers back in my day had used such an approach. What you’re describing truly does make learning an adventure. Sadly, schools have functioned as education factories with bored captives (speaking for myself) on assembly lines.

    An inspiring post.

    • Jennie says:

      I think you’re right, Mike. America is 27th in reading in the world of education. Sad. Children love getting excited about learning. Teachers are simply burned out with paperwork and too many children in their classes. If I can give other teachers a spark, a way to make learning fun, that’s a good thing. Thank you, Mike.

    • As it happens, I was up late last grading research paper proposals for my writing process class, and one of students will be presenting an evidence-based argument in favor of creative expression over academics for preschool children. In fact, the assembly line approach to education (and its attendant teacher burn-out) is a consistent concern I’ve heard from my students in teacher preparation programs for the past five years or so.

      • Jennie says:

        Yes! YES!! I’m so glad to hear this, Liz. I may not have facts and figures to back this up, but I have 35 years of hands-on experiences to prove it. That was the drive to begin my blog and write about all those “proof” experiences. Assembly line, please step aside.

  15. Ren says:

    Would you want to be a teacher of young children, in your “next life” (whether you believe in ‘next life’ or not)? If so, would you do anything differently?

    Thank you Jennie for another wonderful post. As always, bless you for all the hearts – small and big – you have helped to open.

  16. Pingback: From Little House on the Prairie, to Geography, to Maps, to Mount Rushmore, to History… And More ~ Jennie Fitzkee | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  17. colonialist says:

    They had no concept of the size of the features on the Mount Rushmore sculptures, but now they nose! (Couldn’t resist it.)
    What a refreshing way to teach and learn!

  18. joylennick says:

    Such a sensible/fun approach.I wish you had been one of my teachers,Jennie! x

  19. I learn something everyday and especially when I come here. I learn from your readers as well. Very often I will read something that sends me to Google it for more information and like you, I follow the thread to more learning. You inspire everyone, not just your classroom students. Everyday is a learning day. 🙂 Off to another adventure.

  20. What a simply marvelous learning adventure, Jennie. Little House on the Prairie and all the other books have always been among my favourites. When I was a little girl, I begged my mother to show me how to make a bonnet and a night cap which I sewed myself so that I could bring the story to life. I was always Laura and my sister, Cath, was Carrie. We had boots and my mother made us each a dress to wear. What lovely days.

    • Jennie says:

      What a wonderful story. I’m glad your mother could provide items for pretend play. That must have been so much fun. Many thanks, Robbie. It was a great learning adventure.

  21. Pingback: My Little House on the Prairie story – Robbie's inspiration

  22. Love your way preventing monotonous “front teaching”, and encouraging the pupils for thinking by themselves. Michael

  23. dgkaye says:

    Wonderful map Jennie. I’ll bet those kids wish they could have you for every subject all the way through to high school. 🙂

    • Jennie says:

      Illustrations on a map are wonderful. I enjoy them and learn as much as the children do. They do remember me and have a great fondness for their time in my class. A classic quote I always give to children who are ready to move on is, “once an Aqua Roomer, always an Aqua Roomer.” Oh, they remember that quote, and they return. It’s really wonderful. Thank you, Debby.

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