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.

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.

Continue reading

The Dragon’s Robe

Kwan Yin intends to create a dragon robe for the Emperor but on the way she meets an old man, guardian of the Emperor’s dragon shrine. He asks for a favour and she does it, but Lord Phoenix and Lord Tiger who come on the next days steal from the old man. A dragon appears and turns Lord Phoenix into a phoenix, Lord Tiger into a tiger, and for good measure floods out invading tartar armies. The old man then reveals that he is the emperor himself and rewards Kwan Yin.

Deborah Norse Lattimore, ©1993, Harper Books, ISBN 978-0064433211

Comparison
If you wish, students could look at how this story pattern is somewhat similar to a classic European fairy tale. We have an orphan girl, with a simple skill (like Cinderella who cleans), she meets a character in disguise (like in Beauty an the Beast), things happen in threes, the “bad guy” gets his/her comeuppance, the girl succeeds in becoming wealthy and successful. etc. Oh, and the moral of the story: honesty, kindheartedness, and hard work pays off.

Vocabulary
China had emperors—and one empress. Ask students to brainstorm words that mean “a person exercising government over other people.” Add to their list when they have exhausted their own options—it sometimes helps if we name places: “What is the head of Japan called?”

Here are 20 words that mean “a person exercising government over others”: king, ruler, president, tsar, prime minister, dictator, monarch, president, potentate, Caesar, caliph, kaiser, oligarch, sultan, shah, chief, etc. Perhaps ask them to find out in which countries these titles tend to be used. Which are the oldest to newest titles historically? What about power—which are the most powerful (ruler of largest area, most power over life and death, able to raise the largest army? Which are the most likely to e used in a democracy? etc.

Continue reading

Mother Bruce

Bruce, the bear, is gathering eggs for his dinner recipe, but unfortunately they hatch. The ducklings immediately imprint on Bruce and follow him everywhere. After trying to get them to leave he gives up and raises them, even trying to teach them to migrate. When that fails, they end by vacationing in Miami every year.

Ryan T. Higgens, ©2015, Disney Hyperion, 978-1-4847-3088-1

Teaching About Imprinting

The first research on imprinting was by Konrad Lorenz around 1935. He observed that certain birds will develop a rapid strong attachment to a certain individual, often a mother. Geese will imprint on the first suitable moving stimulus in the first 13-16 hours (called the critical period). After that it is hard to change. It can even be a box moving on a track.

It is particularly associated with “nidifugous” birds, that is, ones that leave the nest shortly after hatching. They are born with open eyes, are capable of independent motion, and leave the nest almost immediately. It is from Latin for “nidus” meaning “nest” and “fugeri” meaning “to flee” (hence the word fugitive).

The purposes of imprinting are to learn what species you are, how your species behaves, what the sounds of your species are, what would be the appearance of an appropriate mate, for protection by staying near mother, and to learn to find food.

Typical birds that imprint are chickens, ducks, geese, crows, kestrels, vultures, eagles, raptors, and wading birds.

Ask students to first brainstorm what questions they would have about what animals imprint:

  1. What kinds of birds imprint? List some. What other animals imprint?
  2. Why do they imprint—what is it for?
  3. What are some of the birds that don’t imprint?
  4. What are some of the birds that do imprint?
  5. What are the characteristics at birth of birds that imprint?
  6. How are the birds that don’t imprint different?
  7. Who discovered imprinting?
  8. What is the problem if birds imprint on humans?

It’s Bad Science

In the end of the story, a little baby turtle approaches a duck and says, “Mama?” It’s cute—but not good science. Ask students why? As mother turtle lays hundreds and hundreds of eggs that the male fertilizers, the eggs are buried, and both parents leave. The babies hatch and must flee to the sea under the assault of predators who have gathered for “lunch”. Barely 1 in 100 survive to return to the beach. They have no parent to which to imprint.

Extreme Writing and Grumpy Cat

Mother Bruce is grumpy, but not as grumpy as Grumpy Cat. For Extreme Writing, go to my Grumpy Cat Pinterest page that contains 26 Grumpy Cat statements with three choices for Extreme Writing topics.

For the Good luck… You’ll Need It image, for example, the three prompts are:

  1. Lucky things that have happened to me—or a friend.
  2. Good luck and bad luck—superstitions I know.
  3. “It started as a normal Monday morning,” and continue with alternating good and bad luck.

For 10 creative writing ideas, click Mother Bruce to download.

Town Is by the Sea

Written in the first person, a boy tells of his simple day. First he describes the setting by the sea with a house, a road, a grassy cliff, the sea, and the town and his father digging coal under the sea. Then getting up, going to the playground, having lunch, doing an errand in town, visiting his grandfather’s graveyard and and going home, listening to the radio, having dinner, An ordinary day, and at every stage he thinks of his father digging coal under the sea.

Joanne Schwartz, ©2017, Groundwood Books, 978-1-55498-871-6

A First Person Story of Your Day

Using the story as a model, students could write a simple story of what happens during a typical day in their life. They could then mark 5 places where they will place sentences, “And my mother”….. followed by “and my father.” They may need to consult with their parents to find 5 things that they typically do throughout a day. Putting these things together will show the three lives happening separately but at the same time of the day. It could be a rather powerful little piece of writing.

Mining Songs

In Canada, the song Working Man, sung by Rita MacNeil, is considered a classic. It is also a perfect representation of the life of the men of Town Is By the Sea. 

The Power of Repetition

At each point in the story, our narrator repeats that his father is a miner and that he digs for coal under the sea; this is repeated 5 times. Before that statement, each time, there is a description of the state of the sea—its white tips, its sparkle, its crash, its calm quiet, the sun sinking into it, the sound as you fall asleep. Under that sea is where his father digs coal.

Ask students to listen for the repetition—half of them listening for the description of what his father is doing, and half for the mention of the sea. They could make a quick note of each one, or they could just count how many times it happens.

For 11 teaching ideas, click Town is By The Sea to download.