Friday, January 25, 2013

Benjamin's Dreadful Dream

Dreaming is a source of fascination for most children, and the topic can lead to examinations of questions about knowledge, and the relationship between reality and experience. Benjamin's Dreadful Dream is Alan Baker's picture book about the hamster Benjamin, who one night decides to get up and have a snack when he can’t sleep. Quickly, all kinds of weird adventures begin to happen to him. Then he finds himself back in his own bed. 

“Was it all a dreadful dream?” he wonders.

The book inspires such questions as: Were Benjamin’s adventures a dream? How do you know if you are dreaming? What is a dream? Why do we dream? What is the difference between dreaming and being awake? What is the relationship between dreaming and our experiences when we are not dreaming? Are dreams real? 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Does everything have a right to live?

In a fourth grade class at Whittier Elementary School yesterday, we read chapter 3 of Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills, and the children asked the question, "Does everything have a right to live?" Most of the children responded initially that they thought that everything did have a right to life.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

"If everything has a right to life," I asked, "does that mean that if I swat and kill a mosquito because it's about to bite me, I'm doing something that's morally wrong?"

"Well maybe," one child replied. "I mean, if you get bit by a mosquito it's not going to kill you, and so it seems unfair that a mosquito should die so that you won't get bit."

"But if you were in a country where mosquito bites could kill you it would be different," another child noted. "Like it you could catch malaria or something."

"And mosquitos need to bite humans to live," observed a third child. "If you have to do something to survive, it seems like there should be less negative consequences than if you just want to hurt someone else for fun."

"I think everything has a right to life, but every right to life is not equal," suggested another student.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I think that everything starts off with a right to life. All creatures that are alive have a right to life. But not all of these rights are equal. It depends on how important you are to the whole environment. People think human beings are the most important, but we might not be."

"I agree," replied a student. "If all the humans died, it probably would cause greater harm to the environment than if all the mosquitos were gone. But that doesn't mean that nothing is more valuable than people."

"We think that people are the most important," put in another student, "but that's just because we're people."

"I agree," said a student. "You always see things from your own perspective. I mean, mosquitos probably think they're the most important beings on the planet. Imagine living on a planet where we were tiny and there were these giant mosquitos that were constantly swatting at us whenever we got near them. We wouldn't think that just because we were smaller and less powerful, that the giant mosquitos had more of a right to life than we did."

"What you think about which creatures are the most important," responded a student, "really depends on your attachments. We think people, and dogs and cats and other pets, are more important than mosquitos, but that's just because we have relationships with them. If someone had a mosquito for a pet, they would probably see it differently."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Harry and Hopper

Harry and Hopper is the story of Harry's relationship with his dog, Hopper. Harry taught Hopper "how to sit, how to stay, how to catch a ball, how to fetch the lease, how to wrestle." Hopper helps Harry with his homework and Harry helps Hopper run his weekly bath. They are inseparable. Then one day Harry comes home from school and his father tells him that Hopper was killed in an accident. Harry is inconsolable. Then Hopper begins returning, night after night, in less and less solid form, until Harry says goodbye to Hopper for good.

This story is a gentle and powerful one for opening up issues with children about death generally, the loss of a pet in particular, and the mystery of living and dying and what death means. Beautifully and thoughtfully illustrated - for example, when Harry's father tells Harry that Hopper is dead, we just see their backs, a recognition that this a profoundly personal and painful interaction between the two of them - the book is comforting and unsparing at the same time. I'm going to try it with my second grade students later this month.