The Mermaid’s Muse: The Legend of the Dragon Boats

A poet named Qu Yuan, advisor to the King of Chu, is falsely banished to a far off island where the inhabitants really respect his wisdom. A dragon falls in love with him, and changes to a young woman, who asks him to come and live with her under the sea. The villagers assume, when they see him on the dragon, that he is going to be killed and they row out in their boats to save him, banging on the water to scare the dragon, throwing in rice cakes to distract the dragon, and attacking. The dragon refuses to fight back. The poet eventually changes himself into a dragon and says, “Do not believe everything your eyes will tell you.” After that, each year, the villagers celebrate the two dragons, and eventually come to celebrate with their own dragon boats.

David Bouchard, Raincoast Books, 1999, ISBN 9781551922485

Author: Dave Bouchard
Dave Bouchard is a former school administrator and teacher in BC. He has a school named after him in Ontario. He has received the Governor General’s medal and written many books. Three of his books are of Chinese folktales: The Mermaid’s Muse, The Dragon New Year, and The Great Race. Nine of his books reflect his Metis heritage which he discovered as an adult including I am Raven (click for teaching ideas).

Pourquoi Stories: How Things Came To Be
Pouquoi is French for “why”. This is a pourquoi story of how it came to be that there are dragon boat races and festivals around the world. Students could be asked to write their own imaginative, “how it came to be” story. One possibility is how the name of their school came to be, or the name of their town. Another is just an ordinary object such as an orange and how it came to be. Most pourquoi stories have a humorous element.

For example, I went to General Currie Elementary School in Richmond in grade one. We children believed that it was named after an American General (because that seemed more possible than a Canadian General) who had retired in Canada after the American Revolution. As an adult I discovered that he was the first Canadian commander of an all Canadian military division.

Art: Drawing the Dragon
There are many YouTube videos to teach students to draw important Chinese symbols, including the dragon. One I particularly like is How to Draw a Chinese Dragon by Paolo Morrone (below). Be prepared to stop the video at regular intervals so that students can catch up.

For more creative writing ideas, click The Mermaid’s Muse to download.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes

Emperor Ming Da is only nine years old, but he knows his minsters are corrupt. To obtain the money to help his people he convinces his ministers that burlap bags are really magic New Year’s clothes. Honest people will see splendour and the dishonest will see burlap sacks. Fooled, they claim to see the perfection of the clothes, until in the New Year’s parade a boy calls out that they are wearing burlap sacks.

Ying Chang Compestine ©2017, Abrams Books, 978-1-4187-2542-5

Comparison
The story is an obvious variation on The Emperor’s New Clothes as written by Hans Christian Anderson. Read that story to the class, asking them to note as many similarities as they can think of to The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes. Tell them you are going to introduce them to the SECRET for writing a “good enough” comparison every time.

  1. List 3-5 ways they are similar.
  2. List 3 ways they are different.
  3. Start with a basic introduction, “The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson and The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Compestine are variations on the same story…”
  4. Write your 3-5 ways they are the same. Start with your best example, end with your second best example, put the others between.
  5. Start with However, the two stories have quite a few differences. Then explain your 3 differences, starting with the strongest, ending with your second strongest, with the other(s) in between.
  6. Write a conclusion; perhaps your opinion of which is the better version and why.
  7. Re-write your first sentence to be more interesting. “Without Hans Christian Anderson’s original Emperor’s New Clothes there would have been no version set in China.

The Author
Compestine has had a diverse career including being a food advisor for Martha Stewart. She has also written many children’s books including: The Story of Chopsticks, The Story of Kites, The Story of Noodles, The Runaway Wok, The Runaway Rice Cake, and many more. You can visit the her website here or listen to her life story in this keynote lecture below.

For more creative writing ideas, click on The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes to download.

The Bravest Man in the World

Wallace Hartley is the man who played the violin as the Titanic sank. He was praised as the “bravest man in the world” because he was offered a space on a lifeboat, but instead stayed to calm the scared passengers by playing as the ship sank. The story is told by Jonathan Harker, a stowaway befriended by Hartley, to his grandson who doesn’t want to practice the piano.

Patricia Polacco, Simon and Schuster, ©2019, ISBN 978-1-4814-9461-8

Inquiry: Famous Disasters at Sea
It might make a good “rapid research” inquiry topic for students in pairs to find the basic when, where, why, how for the disasters. They need to also create ten interesting sentence facts about the disasters.

They could also pose questions themselves for all disasters: What are the most common causes of marine disasters? Were any changes to the “rules” of the sea made after the disaster? Why do we particularly remember these disasters? How many people died? How do we know these disasters occurred?

It helps if the students generate the questions themselves. At the end, create a chart with questions down one side and disasters across the top. With each question, have students chime in anything that found that would help to answer the question. This is genuine evidence-based research of the kind for which scholars get doctorates. Example of past famous disasters at sea are:

  • The Mary Rose, 1545
  • The Spanish Armada, 1588
  • The Vasa (Swedish), 1628
  • The Merchant Royal, 1641
  • The Scilly Naval Disaster, 1707
  • The Black Swan, 1804
  • The Tek Sing, 1822 (China)
  • The HMS Birkenhead, 1845
  • The Titanic, 1912
  • The Kiche Maru Typhoon, 1912 (Japan)
  • The Great Lakes Storm, 1913
  • The Lusitania, 1915
  • The Halifax Explosion, 1917
  • The Bismarck, 1941
  • The Wilhelm Gustloff, 1945
  • The Edmund Fitzgerald, 1975
  • The Exxon Valdez, 1994

Other Picture Books About the Titanic
There seem to be innumerable books about the Titanic written with children in mind: pop-up books, colouring books, detective books, etc.

Titanicat (click for teaching ideas) is the story of a genuine survivor of Titanic who by a twist of fate did not get on the ship.

T is for Titanic is an ABC book for words from the Titanic. I have always had success with selecting a topic under study in Social Studies and having students working to create an ABC book of short paragraphs about that topic. If you have lots of time, students can work in pairs to create the book with each student doing 13 letters, but it can also be done where the class generates a list (or you do) of words that apply. Have students individually finds facts and write an interesting paragraph about the the word as applied to the topic such as the ABCs of Egypt, Haida, Japan, etc.

For more creative writing ideas, click on The Bravest Man in the World to download.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest

The story of Jadav Payeng, India, who started with a thicket of bamboo to stabilize an island that was being eroded away and over his lifetime has grown to a 1300-acre forest. It’s about the difference a single person can make.

Sophia Gholz, Sleeping Bear Press, ©2019, ISBN 978-1-5341-1024-3

Tree Proverbs
In every culture, around the world, there seem to be proverbs and sayings involving trees. Give each group four proverbs and ask them to discuss and prepare a written explanation of their meanings. Each group should have a unique set and then reports to the whole class the meaning of one of their sayings. Some examples are:

  • A little axe can cut down a big tree. (Jamaica)
  • The one who plants the tree is not the one who will enjoy its shade. (China)
  • Big trees cast more shadow than fruit. (German)
  • The taller the tree the harder the fall. (Dutch)
  • Do not cut down the tree that gives you shade. (Arab)
  • Useful trees are cut down first (Korea)
  • The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. (Chinese)
  • The tree falls the way it leans. (Bulgaria)
  • The creation of a thousand forests is in one acre. (USA)
  • All birds flock to the fruitful tree (Senegal)

Poetry and Art
A considerable number of poems have been written in tribute to trees, or about walking through trees. Why not add poetry to your tree unit?

  1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost)
  2. Trees (Joyce Kilmer)
  3. Birches (Robert Frost)
  4. The Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now (A.E. Housman)
  5. The Way Through the Woods (first stanza) (Rudyard Kipling)

Emily Carr was one of BC’s first “environmentalists”, showing in her art both the beauty of the forest, and the destruction wrought by forestry. There is a large collection of Emily Carr at Vancouver Art Gallery. Give your students a large sheet of watercolour paper (or regular paper if watercolour is too expensive) and a limited period of time (15 minutes?) To create an “interpretation” of an Emily Carr painting. This one is usually called Lone Pine.

True and Yet Not True?
First, show the students the images in the book and ask them to talk about how old Jadav is, how much life his 40 acres can support, whether he was ever employed, and how he makes a living. Second, give the students articles about the real story that this book is based on. Get students to discuss:

  • Is it OK that the story isn’t exactly precisely true, even though he is the actual person who did create a forest on his own and has certainly dedicated his life to doing it for no money?
  • Why would the author take liberties with the story?
  • Would the story be just as interesting and just as inspiring for young people if it were “factual”? What parts make it inspiring?

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boy Who Grew a Forest to download.

Pluto Gets the Call

Pluto loved being a planet but then receives the call that demotes him. He decides to head to the Sun to plead his case and on the way comments, mostly unfavourably, on the other planets as he passes them. The Sun consoles him with the fact that he now has a warm place in our hearts. With humour, we learn some facts about the solar system.

Adam Rex, Simon and Schuster, Beach Line Books, ©2019 978-1-5344-1453-2

Memorizing the Planets – In Order
Yes, there’s a mnemonic—My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles—but for me it’s as hard to remember the sentence as it is to remember the planets in order. I was once taught a story that works, because narrative is easiest to remember.

First, remember there are 4 inner smaller rocky planets, and 4 larger gas planets. Also, this names the planets from the sun out which means, for example, that if I say “Jupiter” you will always be able to say it is between Mars and Saturn.

Right next to the Sun, there was a very zippy planet called Mercury, named after the Messenger God because of its speed. Unfortunately, Mercury sneezed on the next planet over, which was the beautiful planet, Venus. Now mercury is poisonous so Venus scooped it up and threw it on the next planet, Earth. Earth didn’t want it either, and threw it onto Mars, the next planet and an angry red planet named after the god of war.

Mars was just winding up to throw it, when over the hill came a giant, that reached to the clouds, Jupiter. He was wearing a t-shirt with a huge red circle in the middle surrounded by the letters S.U.N. (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). In the old days, he also had worn a ridiculous beanie cap on top of which was a tiny little model of the cartoon dog Pluto, but he doesn’t wear it any more.

Tales in Space
For general vocabulary, it’s a good idea to try out the Two Dozen Words You Need to Explore Space. Actually, I made that up, but they are still good words: satellite, orbit, rocket, space station, sputnik, comet, meteor, nebula, vacuum, astronomy, solar wind, big bang, Kuiper Belt, stardust, asteroid belt, International Space Station, telescope, cosmonaut/astronaut, heliosphere, black hole, galactic, magnetosphere, NASA, Canada Arm.

Once they have the words in their space suit, so to speak, ask them to write a story incorporating at least 10 of the words. It could be a space adventure such as Guardians of the Galaxy with a hero, an oddball sidekick, and a quest. It’s okay for them to create another adventure for characters they already know. The idea is to stretch their vocabulary into active use.

Ask them to highlight the words they use because there will be 2 marks: 1 for using the words, and 1 for the story, and you want your marking to be as easy as possible.

The Gods of the Greeks and Romans Are With Us Today
Give students a list of the products and events in our life that relate to the Gods of Greece and Rome. Ask each student to research one of them: what is the product and what does it do, what is the story behind the god it is named after, and why they feel that connection is appropriate. Prepare a quick PowerPoint or Keynote with pictures of the product or event. Students will turn in their paper, and also make an oral presentation. Two marks from one assignment and it’s fun too.

Here are some products: Nike shoes, Pandora jewelry, Versace designer uses the Medusa head, Ajax cleaner, Hermes fashion, Starbucks siren/ mermaid symbol, Trident gum, Goodyear tires with the flying sandal, FTD florists’ symbol of Mercury, Amazon delivers, Mars candy bar, Oracle database software, Ambrosia salad, Apollo Theatre in New York City, Delphi software, Vulcanized rubber, Centaur pharmaceuticals, Echo Digital Audio, Europa (website of the EU), Hyperion Records, Odyssey records, Pegasus travel, Poseidon Seafood, Prometheus books, Titans ()NFL team), Triton Tool and Die, Mercury Car, the Nissan Titan, the Volkswagen Phaeton, Venus Beauty supplies, Pegasus symbol of Mobil Oil. Honda Odyssey.

For more creative writing ideas, click Pluto Gets the Call to download.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

Earle Dickson’s wife Josephine has many kitchen injuries – cuts, burns, and scrapes. To help her Earle creates a cover to protect the injury that eventually becomes Band-Aid by Johnson and Johnson. Johnson and Johnson develops a market by providing them free to the Boy Scouts.

Barry Wittenstein, ©2018, Charlesbridge, 978-1-58089-745-7

Writing: Playing with the Structure
The most fun of this book is the series of endings—six times in the course of the book when a logical pause in the plot occurs, the author says “The End.” But when the page is turned over the plot continues! Phrases that restart the plot are “Actually, that was just the beginning,” “But WAIT,” “Oops, not yet,” “Sorry, not really.”

Students could start by writing a story, following the basic story plot of a problem, with three attempts to solve it, before succeeding. When the draft is finished, they could enlarge and expand it, by adding details of conversation, and including “The End” at each of the attempts to solve it then continuing on the next page with why that solution does not work.

Because of COVID-19
We have discovered during the pandemic, many adults don’t seem understand what a vaccination is and does. We attribute it often to the fact that in their lifetime and even their parent’s lifetime, they did not experience or see anyone who caught the many diseases that vaccination prevents. They have not experienced polio, measles, mumps, rubella, small pox, etc. and don’t know anyone who did. There’s a meme going around saying:

“Remember when you caught polio?”
“Of course you don’t. Your parents vaccinated you.”

So, if you did a small presentation about how vaccines work first, you could then assign pairs of students to study the 15 diseases for which we have vaccines—all developed since about 1920. If each pair took one disease, they could present on the following topics:

  • What is the disease and its effects?
  • How many people used to catch it?
  • How many people suffer long term effects from it or die?
  • Who developed the vaccine and when, and how?

Students could prepare a collective report—each pair preparing a two-page presentation with images. That project could be bound and catalogued for the library. Then students could prepare an oral presentation for their disease to help developing speaking skills.

Possibilities include:

  1. Insulin
  2. Tuberculosis
  3. Diphtheria
  4. Tetanus (lock jaw)
  5. Pertussis – whooping cough
  6. Penicillin (great antibiotic, not a vaccine)
  7. Yellow Fever
  8. Smallpox
  9. Shingles
  10. Measles
  11. Mumps
  12. Hepatitis A and B
  13. Polio
  14. Chicken Pox
  15. (You could include the COVID-19 vaccines if you like)

My Personal Timeline: Writing
The back of the book has a timeline for the major events of Earle Dickson’s life with a focus on his career with Johnson and Johnson. It might be an interesting project for students to write their own timeline, starting from their birth, kindergarten, grade one, etc. and also including any major events in each year.

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boo-Boos that Changed the World to download.

Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China

A good woman went to visit the granny of her three little girls and told them to be very careful to close the door tight and latch it. Soon they heard a voice claiming to be their granny and when they let her in, they recognized him as a wolf by his tail and his claws. The little girls climbed a tree claiming that the ginkgo berries on it would help you live forever. When the wolf couldn’t climb, they offered to lift him in a basket. Once they had him to the top of the tree, they let him go and he died in the fall.

Ed Young, Macmillan Books ©2007 ISBN 9781435204533

Comparison
Using a Venn diagram, students can prepare a chart comparing how this Little Red-Riding Hood story is the same as, and different from, the European version. Decide whether to read them a picture book, or show them the Disney version which is short and available on YouTube.

A simple method is to ask students to first write a rather pedestrian opening sentence such as: This is a comparison of the classic European Cinderella with the Lon Po Po version. They then choose and write about at least three ways in which they are similar and at least three ways in which they are different. They conclude by stating whether they are more similar or more different. At this point, they re-write the opening sentence to be more dramatic and interesting, and also write a conclusion that has pizzazz. Voila! It may not be amazing, but it is serviceable and can be used for a “decent” B mark throughout their student life.

Kim’s Game
In this story, observation skills are very important to the survival of the girls. In Girl Guides and Boy Scouts and other youth organizations, the observation game, Kim’s Game, is very popular. Select about 20 random objects and create a visual you can project. Give students 20 seconds to observe. Then project a visual with one object removed and ask them to try to remember and write down what is missing. The name is derived from a book called Kim, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1901, in which Kim plays this game to train to be a spy.

Extreme Writing Topics
There should always be three prompts for an Extreme Writing inspiration. Otherwise students waste time making a decision. For a complete description of the process, see my book, The Power of Extreme Writing, or visit Extreme Writing.

The children were very trusting at first; tell stories of times when you trusted someone or something and how it worked out. The children lifted the wolf; tell stories of things you have lifted and carried. Stories of any encounters with dangerous animals (dogs, crows, raccoons, coyotes, cats, bees) and how it turned out.

For more creative writing ideas, clock on Lon Po Po to download.

The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle: The Cool Science Behind Frank Epperson’s Famous Frozen Treat

Frank Epperson was a question asker and an experimenter as a child, especially with flavoured soda waters. He tested a lot of his concoctions on his little brother Cray. One year there was a cold snap in California where the weather dropped below zero and he experimented with a glass of flavoured water and voila a frozen drink on a stick. Eventually he worked out how to produce them in volume and called them the Ep-sickle, and eventually the Pop-sicle.

Anne Renaud, ©2019, Kids Can Press, ISBN 978-1-5253-0028-8

Books About Inventions
Here are ten picture books written about inventions. Students could work in groups of three to read the book and research the inventors. The group then prepares a 3-part presentation, each student taking one part. They may choose any of the following responses:

  1. A poster “celebrating” the invention and the inventor
  2. A comparison of similarities and differences of the “Real Life” of the Inventor to the book’s version
  3. A set of imaginary entries in the diary of the inventor
  4. A humorous poem about the invention and the inventor

Books about Inventions:

  • Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament
  • Popcorn at the Palace
  • Snowflake Bentley
  • Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call
  • Now and Ben
  • It’s a Snap! (George Eastman)
  • In the Bag, Margaret Knight Was It
  • Now and Ben (inventions of Benjamin Franklin)
  • Going Up! Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top
  • All Aboard, Elijah McCoy

The Science of Liquids
There are three experiments in the book that are feasible for students.

  1. Why oil and liquids don’t mix
    Oil is lighter and will float on water. If a drop of food colouring (which is water-based) is dropped into the oil, it will progress slowly down to reach and colour the water level.
  2. How to make your own lemon-flavoured soda water using baking soda.
    The baking soda reacts to the acid of lemon to produce carbon dioxide.
  3. How salt lowers the freezing point of water.

Countdown Poetry
Demonstrate with the popsicle version of the poem, and then ask them to use the pattern for something in Social Studies or Science. Examples are below:

5 words for what it looks like
4 words for what it feels like
3 words for what it tastes like
2 words for what you say
1 word for how it smells

Yellow, red, green, orange, blue
Cold, icy, melting, sticky
Chilled sweet fruit
Yum, yum
Strawberry
Popsicle

Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, compass
Danger, foolishness, bravery, adventure
Hardtack, dried cod, chickpeas
Chewy, salty, dry
Sweaty
Columbus

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle to download.

Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac

Cat and Rat and The Cat’s Tale are both about the origin of the Chinese zodiac which was established in a race the Jade Emperor set up. I like the Ed Young version the best, because he is such a great illustrator and his story has more dialogue in it. On the other hand, The Cat’s Tale is in the first person which provides an opportunity to teach point of view.

Ed Young, ©2019, Macmillan Books, ISBN 9780805060492

Pourquoi Stories:  How Things Came To Be
The literary name for the stories of how things originated is the French word for “Why” which is “Pourquoi”. This is an example, among several, of stories of how things originated. Students could write their own pourquoi story of how ordinary things in their environment came to be: stop lights, bananas, a park, etc.

Stereotypes of Animals
There are specific stereotypes that are basically agreed to from one culture to the other. A matching activity with qualities on one side and the name of the animal on the other will help reveal to students how widely we agree on these stereotypes. For example:

  • Owls are …
  • Pigs are …
  • Oxen are …
  • Mules are …

Fair
Here’s an important question in life: What is fair? Is this race fair? Is the Jade Emperor rigging it? What about the actual competing animals—should the Jade Emperor intervene? Is this a good way of deciding priority?

For more creative writing ideas, click Cat and Rat to download.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown

It’s a simple biography of Margaret Wise Brown that tells of the life of one of the greatest children’s book writers ever. There are 42 pages, simple sentences, just a few examples, but what a lovely tribute to her.

Mac Barnett, ©2019, Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-239344-9

The Important Book

One of Margaret Wise Brown’s out popular books was The Important Book. The video below is a reading of The Important Book by Gary Eisenberg. Students will instantly understand that the pattern of the book itself, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, is totally an homage to her original book. You would have to know her books in order to recognize the homage.

The pattern is:

  1. The Important thing about…
  2. 5 facts about it…
  3. Then repeat, but the Important thing about the…

This is potentially a really successful writing pattern for your students. Use topics from the classroom, or gym equipment, or art materials, or positions on a team, anything that 5 things can be said about. The students construct a list of 5 items for their Important Book—humour matters if possible—and then write. The finished book will seem really easy for them to write, but it has a structure and will result in 7 sentences for each item, 5 items in total—35 sentences in total—and they’ll have a good time doing it. Below are a couple examples:

The important thing about the whiteboard is that it is white. It is in front of the room. It is written on with erasable pens—never with permanent pens unless you want the custodian to be angry. It contains important information about what we are doing. It can get very messy. It isn’t used very often any more. But the important thing about a whiteboard is that it is white.

The important thing about a pitcher is that he throws the ball. It has to be a round white official baseball. He throws in the direction of the home plate. The ball may be hit by the hitter and very rarely can be caught by the pitcher. If the hitter doesn’t swing, or swings and misses, it is caught by the catcher. The catcher throws it back to the pitcher who catches it. But the important thing about a pitcher is that he throws the ball.

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