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The Hidden Value of Captain Underpants

22 May

9780439049993_xlgCaptain Underpants is a series about two fourth grade boys who accidentally hypnotize their cruel principal into becoming the superhero Captain Underpants.  The series, criticized for its offensive language and violence, has been on the “most frequently banned books” list for years, topping it in 2013.

It’s also a series that boys love. Boys are often our reluctant readers.  They enjoy informational texts, graphic novels that are long on pictures and short on words, and books about farts, wedgies, and embarrassing events.  Adults tend to emphasize books with beautiful language, important themes, or rich characters.

There’s a disconnect, and that gulf drives our boys away from reading.  I’m not a huge fan of Captain Underpants.  I find the series silly and the main characters annoying.  But I’m not a 10 year old boy.  For many elementary aged boys, the book reflects their imagination and their sense of humor.

Books like Captain Underpants also aren’t totally devoid of educational value.  Their ability to hook disengaged readers is priceless.  It doesn’t matter how awesome the book you have chosen for your 4th grader is if he refuses to read it.

The series can also be used for some more complex reading work.  The books main characters repeatedly defy authority figures that are cruel or bullying.  Children can analyze the characters’ choices–was it ok for George and Harold to play tricks on the adults, if the adults themselves were villains?  Are they heroes even though they’re acting badly, and why? Use the titles, such as Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, for lessons on alliteration, or some of George and Harold’s misspelled writing for editing lessons.  Have students write their own “mini-comics” in the style of Dav Pilkey to get their creative juices flowing.

Students, even elementary-aged boy students, do need to be introduced to the finer works of literature and experience a wide-variety of genres.  But the number one thing a child can do to improve his or her reading level is read.  A lot.  And books like Captain Underpants will help our hardest cases become independent, enthusiastic, readers.

Gender Stereotypes and Disney’s Frozen

13 Apr

Teachers are used to using touchstone texts to teach children–books they go back to over and over again to teach reading skills and strategies.  The benefit is that once children know a story very well, they can stop reading (or listening) just for plot, and start to do some deeper thinking work.  The same can be true of films.  Once a child has seen a film once (or 10 times, since kids like repetition) they can start to go beyond their first impressions.

Previously I talked about using Frozen to introduce children to the idea that characters are complicated–how they are on the inside doesn’t necessarily match what they do, say, or look like.  We can also use Frozen to introduce children to the idea of gender stereotypes.

Much has been made of the role of the two main characters, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna.  Some laud Disney for finally breaking out of the traditional helpless-princess-waiting-for-her-prince stereotype, whereas others blast the film for teaching children (girls in particular) that heroines are always beautiful, helpless without a man, and mostly just out to find their prince.

The controversy makes this a great film to both look at how women are stereotyped (or not) and for children to form and defend their own opinions based on evidence.  Both are important skills for students in the new Common Core State Standards.

How can we help children begin to think about the role of women using Frozen? We might start by using a story they know very well with a clear gender disparity–say, Cinderella.  Cinderella suggests some pretty crazy ideas about women, such as:

  • women’s role is domestic–cleaning, cooking, caring for the house
  • the goal of a woman is to marry well (a prince if you can!)
  • it takes an enchanted dress to catch said prince
  • ugly on the outside = ugly on the inside (stepsisters and stepmother) and vice versa

Cinderella is about as anti-feminist a fairy tale as you can get.  Then we look at a film that is one of the most feminist of the cartoons Disney has made–Mulan.  Here we have a heroine who:

  • fights a war in disguise to save her father
  • saves the hero, and leads the fight to take back the palace and save the emperor
  • rejects the traditional role of subservient daughter whose main goal is to make a match

(Some will disagree with me that Mulan is a feminist film, which is fine.  If you don’t like Mulan as an example, you can always go with The Paperbag Princess, where the prince needs rescuing from a dragon and the plucky princess saves the day, turning the traditional princess tale on its head).

After using these two tales as models, we could then look at Frozen.  We could show some clips from the film and have the children discuss if they promoted gender stereotypes or subverted them.

Clips that  promote stereotypes could be:

  • where Elsa sings “Let it Go and changes from a buttoned up, repressed princess to a sexy siren.  Seriously–why does “letting go” involved sashaying hips, whipping free your long blond hair, and a slit up to the thigh on a sexy sparkling dress?

  • Anna and Kristoff’s meeting and first song about true love.  Sure, this is ultimately sort of a parody on Disney princess and love at first sight, but it doesn’t negate the fact that one of Anna’s main goals in life is to meet a man and get married.

Clips that might support the idea that Frozen is a feminist film:

  • when Anna goes in search of her sister alone, leaving the male (Hans) to watch the castle
  • When Anna chooses to save her sister rather than run to her man (Kristoff) ultimately saving herself.
  •  Elsa saves Anna with true love’s kiss-the love of a sister, not a man, being the important distinction.

Students could also discuss elements that run through the whole movie–how this is a film where the two main characters are both female (pro-feminist) or how those female characters are both drawn in exaggerated proportions, where there eyes are bigger than their wrists and the fact that they’re tiny compared to the men (pro-stereotype.)

by Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Anna in Frozen: Her Eyes are Bigger Than Her Wrists,

Whole class discussion, complete with t-charts and partner conversation, could lead to class debates and finally individual essays where students argue and support their opinion about the film.  The important idea isn’t whether or not Frozen is actually a feminist movie or promoting stereotypes, it’s the idea that children can be noticing how the sexes are portrayed in films and then forming (and defending) their opinion.


Teaching Character Analysis Through Disney’s “Frozen”

10 Apr

I finally watched Frozen last week.  After having my fourth grade students repeatedly sing and dance to Let it Go at every lunch, I had to see if it lived up to its hype.

It was pretty cute, I enjoyed it.  My husband, who usually hates musicals, won’t stop imitating Olaf (should I be worried that he identifies most with the talking snowman?) and he actually watched the Youtube version of Let it Go where singers from different countries are dubbing the song in their own language.

So it really has a broad appeal.   But enough of the free Disney advertising–how can we capitalize on Frozen‘s popularity to teach kids some complex literary analysis skills?

Frozen is practically shouting for us to do some character analysis.  So many of the character’s outsides (looks and actions) contradict their insides (thoughts and feelings).  Just read the character descriptions from Disney

  • Elsa – From the outside, Elsa looks poised, regal, and reserved, but in reality, she lives in fear as she wrestles with a mighty secret.
  • The Duke of Weselton – What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in arrogance and boasting.

Queen looks confident and mature, but she’s actually lonely and frightened.  The Duke of Weselton acts like he has power and influence, but there’s not much evidence he actually does in the film.  Plus his small physical presence makes his oversized ego all the more ridiculous. Not to mention Prince Hans, whose good looks and Prince Charming manners hide an inner villainy.

Students in upper elementary reading levels need to start recognizing that what a character says doesn’t always match what he or she is really thinking or feeling.  They need to be on the lookout for inconsistencies in what they know about a character, and then evaluate what they think the real truth is.  Frozen is a perfect opportunity to do some of this analysis using exaggerated characters and events, before students move on to more subtle literature.

How can we help them see the contrast? We could do a simple three column chart, with character appearance, actions, and thoughts/feelings in each column.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.10.50 PM

If your students need something more visually concrete, you can create “inside/outside” pictures, which contrast what a character looks like on the outside, with what they might look like if it reflected their inside.  Disney actually has the perfect model with Elsa.  Contrast her appearance in the beginning, when she’s feeling isolated and repressed

Elsa’s coronation [Frozen] by DarikaArt from Flickr

to how she’s portrayed when she decides to revel in her abilities. from Flickr from Flickr

I can imagine students coming up with amazing posters, like this (with adjectives at the bottom to help them use more specific, true words in their discussions and writing):


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.29.40 PM

It could be a lot of fun, and it’s an accessible way to introduce students to some of the more complex character work we want them to dive into.

Using Love That Dog to Inspire Young Poets

8 Apr

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April is poetry month–you can check out my guest post on the “All Things Upper Elementary” blog to read how you can use Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog to help your students learn how to mentor off of great poets!

Science Vocabulary

9 Feb

Internalizing new vocabulary is tough.  There are usually multiple ways of thinking about a word, multiple forms of the word, and then there’s the “I-sort-of-know-what-that-means-I-could-recognize-it-if-I-heard-it-but-I-can’t-define-it” syndrome with which we’re all familiar.

I started out using a Frayer model to explore our important words (erosion, sediment, and deposition).  The model involves not only defining the word, but coming up with examples and non-examples, and in this case, different forms of the word.  Some of our examples/non-examples are a bit suspect (couldn’t dust on the ground be considered sediment?) but as long as the kids are really trying to think about what works and doesn’t, I figure we’re learning :).

photo 3 copy

Next was getting students to use the words in their own talk, which is a “stickier” way of teaching them the word than just writing definitions or talking about it.  Sentence frame are a good way to start this, but they’re controlled structure doesn’t allow for as much fluency with vocabulary as is probably ideal.   I was cleaning out some old files, and I found this vocabulary strategy, which I will boringly title “Categorize and Defend.”

photo 3Students have a list of appropriate words (here it’s from our Earth Science unit, but they could be from history, or a book your studying, or math, etc) and 2-4 categories.  They need to sort the words into the appropriate categories, explaining to their partner or group why they’re putting the words where they go.  What makes the activity so flexible, is that students can put words in more than one category, as long as they can defend why they did so.  There’s no right or wrong answer, you just have to justify.

For example, some students put “minerals” in the rock cycle category, because, “Rocks are made of minerals, so to have a rock cycle, you need to have minerals.”  Other students put them in the weathering category, because, “chemical weathering dissolves certain minerals, like calcite, from rocks.”

The word sort was much more engaging to students than I had anticipated–the more they disagreed and had to support their point of view, the better–and each group was able to come up with a variety of justifications for where they put their words.  It was an interesting opportunity for me to see what they had internalized and what they hadn’t.  The sorting activity on it’s own only took about 15-20 minutes, depending on how long I gave for the debrief discussion.

I would really recommend this more for the middle/end of when you’re teaching a word than the beginning.  Students need to have a fairly wide exposure to the word or learning about the subject in order to have a rich discussion.

Too Many Buts

26 Jan


When students write quickly about a topic, we sometimes see them lose many of the conventions and grammar rules that they’ve demonstrated mastery over during the year.  In particular, the dreaded “____ but ____ but _____ but…” (or it’s cousin, the” _____and _______ and ______ and…” ) run-on sentence appears.

It’s like they’re worried someone’s going to interrupt them before they’re done with their thought, and the only way to avoid being cut off is to never finish their sentence.

The last summaries my students wrote had a shockingly high but:other words ratio.  One summary read:

The mouse wanted to go to the sea but his parents didn’t want him to go but he convinced them to let him but then he was attacked but he finally got to the sea and saw the sunset.

This is one of those cases where a lot of teaching wasn’t required.  We’d already talked about FANBOYS, the need for commas and to begin a new sentence when you have a new subject.  They knew this, they just weren’t using it in the moment.  Sometimes, it’s the moment for humor.

I noticed, yesterday, that a lot of your writing was suffering from too many buts.  (cue confused chuckles from the class.)  One but is often useful.  Sometimes two buts is ok.  But in a short summary, more than that is often just awkward and strange.  Read over your writing.  Does it have an overwhelming number of buts?  Can you edit your piece to take out your superfluous buts?  (I did not actually use the word superfluous, but it’s one of my favorite words so I’m going with it here.)

We wrote another short summary on a different fable, and afterwards, students counted their “buts” and proudly proclaimed to the class, “I have just one “but”!” or “my writing has two “buts!”  More importantly, when they removed the offending conjunction, they correctly embedded periods and capitols.

Like all of us, students need repetition.  They don’t always need another lesson.  Now they can remind each other.  The boys, in particular, showed a great affinity for reading each other’s papers and reminding their partner, “You have too many “buts” in your piece.”  Humor is a great motivator for a ten-year-old.

Advertising and Persuasion

24 Nov

The newest ad for Goldie Blox has been making quite a splash with the way it transformed the decidedly misogynistic Beastie Boys song, “Girls” into a tribute to girl power.

The commercial got me thinking about how advertisers attempt to persuade us to buy their product.  Usually it’s by convincing us to think a certain way.  For years, Barbie has been sharing a message that girls aspire to be beautiful, have accessories, and a boyfriend with a cool convertible.  Goldie Blox is trying to change the message, with a pretty clear “sayonara” kick to the old stereotype about girls only playing with dolls.

When we talk about visual literacy, being savvy viewers of advertising is one of the things I think of.  Educated consumers should be able to pick apart an advertisement, analyze what the company is claiming, and then decide if they agree.  For example, in the Goldie Blox commercial, there’s a clear pitch that girls want to be builders, innovators, and inventors.  But there’s a subtler message too–they want to do it while still being girls.  The colors of the product are pink, yellow, and purple.  Goldie Blox comes with a cute female heroine and a book about how she has to engineer different systems to save the day.  When I watch the commercial, I think it’s about girl power, but also about the fact that science, engineering, and math can be feminine.

Originally, I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the version of “girls” in the video with the original, but after looking up the lyrics in the original, I changed my mind.  Maybe better to save that analysis for the adults in the room :).

You can also look at different ads in a similar theme.  You can use one of the earlier ads for goldiblocks to again look at how they are dismantling the traditional stereotype of girls toys:

Or you can compare and contrast it with a typical barbie commercial.  Here’s the original commercial from 1959:

Notice the emphasis on “beauty,” “slim,” and the close up on the barbie dressed for her wedding when the song says, “I want to grow up exactly like you.”  Not exactly the same message is it?

Or this 2013 commercial starring Hilary Duff.  The motto is “be who you want to be,” which in Barbie world means pick the colored highlights and outfit you want.

Commercials like these are an engaging way for students to look at how people can use images and words to appeal and send a message.  I might use these to launch a reading unit on persuasion, and then mix and match in some print ads and billboard slogans before moving into some full textual pieces.


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