Friday, July 24, 2015

"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak

I guess I couldn't resist pulling out this other Maurice Sendak classic. "Where the Wild Things" is one of my childhood favorites that follows a rambunctious boy named Max who is sent to bed without his supper. It is there in his room that he escapes his punishment and his imagination takes over; he journeys to where the wild things are and becomes their king. After a wild rumpus, he heads back to his room only to discover his dinner is there.

Awesome typewriter, the book
with a jungle growing out of it, and me.


This book can reach every age group... seriously, every age from the toddlers all the way up to the college students. (It is AR Level 3.4.). It is a staple of most classrooms, so here are some ideas to use with the book...

1. Study the Art:
Many times we just say "Cool art..." or "Wow! Those are some amazing pictures." This is a book that is so brilliantly constructed I have met college students who study it for nearly a month. I don't expect most classrooms to use this for a month, but a five minute in-depth observation is certainly warranted, no matter if you are in grade K or 12.

When you look at the construction of the pages do you notice something unique? Some of you caught it right away; Sendak illustrates so each ilustration gets bigger and bigger until the wild rumpus starts. The first page, as pictured below, is a small thumbnail-like piece, and by the time the rumpus is in full swing, the entire page is engulfed with art--even the words are eliminated. Then, after the rumpus has gone on, Max calls it quits and the scenes from that point on get smaller and smaller. Some of you who have read this a thousand times will suddenly see this. Go look, you will be delighted.

I can only imagine there are lots of theories as to why the pages do this. My personal theory is it is Max's entry and departure into his imagination. I personally love that the last page is just the words "and it was still hot." Helping kids of any age see this structure helps them to discern details and nuances in books. I can't tell you how helpful that is when they get to high school. Start kids noticing details with pictures and the learning will spill into other aspects of study.

In addition to how the art is cropped, designed, and framed, you can study his style with pen and ink and watercolor--a fantastic art teacher at my school did this with high school students. Consider how one could use this work and analyze his developing style and perspective through a comparison of his picture books. Seriously, this is worth the time--think of the great papers older students might write on this subject!

2. The Perfect Reader's Theater:

Not only is my wife a talented author (check out her book Sherlock Academy), she is also a local arts teacher for the public schools.  When she works with grades K-2, she uses this very book to create a reader's theater. She spends 8 forty-five minute lessons to build a working knowledge of setting, character, stage directions, voice, and theater jargon... but you can do an abbreviated version of this in your classroom, even if it is just a homeschool group of three or four kids.

Some things you will want to do:

First, if you are working with a full class, divide the class into two groups. Essentially you will double cast actors for the book. For instance, rather than casting one Max, you'll have a Max for Group A and a Max for Group B. The same will be for all assignments.

And that's just where I'd start: characters. There are only a few: Max, the dog, Max's never-seen mother, and, of course, the Wild Things. Double cast all of these characters, one for Group A and one for Group B--I suggest you pick out about 5-10 wild things for each group. You'll know the ones to pick for this one. :-)

The first page, an example of the smaller illustration that
eventually grows into the place where the wild things are.
The rest of the class will be double cast as setting and props. Before announcing this, have the children think of where the story is set. There are actually three locations: Max's room, a forest complete with an ocean, and the place where the wild things are. If you are in a traditional classroom, some of the kids will become the setting. Using their bodies, kids group together to create a shapes to form the setting and props. A group of four kids will put their arms in the air to look like a four-poster bed, others become walls or ceilings that will later turn into trees hung with vines. While some students may groan about being a piece of furniture, without them the piece doesn't work--think about the page where Sendak says, "and an ocean tumbled by...". Without the actors becoming the setting, we would have a hard time imagining this.. Have the kids really examine the book to discover what important props and setting figures they will need. Obviously, you could just stick with characters if you are doing this with a smaller group of homeschoolers.

But for those of us with large classes, once you have two full casts, you will call on Group A to get up and practice their performance. This will be a run through that you can directly supervise and give feedback. Don't feel like you have to go through it seamlessly--take time to give feedback and stop.

During this time, Group B will watch as the audience. I would spend time the time to talk to Group B about what it means to be a good audience member. Remind them it is good to laugh when things are funny, clap at the end of the show, and, most of all, watch and listen quietly through the whole piece.

You then read the book aloud and Group A goes through the motions. Read slowly, and allow kids to explore movements and acting choices. After they are finished, ask a few audience members what they liked about the characters, setting, and props--I typically ask for a compliment for each category.

After Group A has practiced, it is now Group B's turn to practice. Before they do, I ask Group A to tell me what makes a good audience--it is always great to hear what they think, especially after being under the spotlight. Group B has a go at it, and then they get the same feedback.

At this time I would give each group a copy of the book and have them go to separate parts of the room to perfect their performances. After a good 15 minute rehearsal, gather together and watch the two shows.

Some great follow up writing can be done on this--have them write a review of the other team's work,  write an ad to invite others to come see the show, reflect on how they became their part, or just recount the entire process in a diary-like entry.

The many faces of Max... and this is only a few!
3. The Many Faces of Max- Studying the Nuances of Vocabulary: 

Max is created beautifully. His expression is completely different on each page. From disdain to rebellious gloating, and pride to utter boredom, his look changes on every page.

One of the best vocabulary activities I use with grades K-12 is to have them identify these mood words. With Kinders you may hear words like "happy" or "bored", and with twelfth graders you may hear "disdainful" or "lugubrious". The key with this activity is to not let kids settle on the first words that come to their minds... Yes, write down first ideas and acknowledge them, but ask if it is really the best word to describe the emotion. Push them to think about other words or use a thesaurus and a dictionary. Once you have an official list, you can then list out his mood page-by-page.  Here is an example list (assuming pg. 1 is the first page we read):

pg. 2- rebellious
pg. 4- fiendish
pg. 6- sassy
pg. 8- haughty
pg. 10- elated
pg. 12- (no face shown) wild
pg. 14- proud
pg. 16- startled
pg. 17- unperturbed
pg. 19- commanding
pg. 21- superior
pg. 24- wolfish
pg. 25- crafty
pg. 27- proud
pg. 30- bored
pg. 31- content
pg. 34- snooty
pg. 36- delighted

A variation of this activity is to print out the word list above and mix them up so kids don't know to which pages they are assigned. Then ask students to match the word to the emotion expressed by Max. Some may argue about placement, and that is brilliant! The key is examining the nuances of words; give kids a chance to discuss denotation and connotation of words. It sparks a lively class time and brings language to the heart of the session.

4. Discussions/Writing Prompts:

Use these prompts to talk about the book with your kids, or you can have them write their responses. Remember, picture books don't need to stop in second grade!

1. If you were to go where the wild things are, what would your reaction be?
2. If your room could magically transform to a new place, what would it be? Describe it in detail.
3. When you get mad, what do you do to work through those feelings?
4. Does Max deserve to have his supper at the end of the book? Why or why not?
5. What lesson do you think Sendak is trying to say to his readers? Do you agree with the message? Why or why not?

I hope you enjoy picking up "Where the Wild Things Are"... And I hope you still get your supper tonight.

Happy learning!

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