How a Photo of A Man Rescuing His Kitten During Hurricane Florence Taught Third Graders How to Write

There are millions of images on the internet, and sometimes we want to share a few of those  with friends.    I sent the two photos above of a rescued man with his kitten during Hurricane Florence (North Carolina)  to my girlfriend, as I thought she would be as touched as I was.    A third grade teacher,  at a  K-8 STEM School in Seattle, Ms Kathryn Show was so affected that she took the photos to school and showed them to her students, who seemed mesmerized by the images.   So she asked them to write a story based on the photos and ended up with 24 great realistic fiction stories written by a bunch of eight year olds.

Realistic fiction, or fiction based on a true story,  is a difficult concept for third graders to grasp, she said. Students often  mix in elements of fantasy.  The sequence of events is often out of order, and there are huge gaps in time.  “In the past, stories might start out about one thing, but then fantastically the character would turn into something else, and sail around the world in 2 days, before falling in a hole in the middle of the earth,” she said.

“My students have so little experience with real tragedies and so much of entertainment that they are exposed to on a daily basis is filled with fantastical feats by superheros. ”

The students immediately empathized with the man’s plight, said Ms.  Show.   They kept asking questions about the man and the cat in the photo.    Does the cat belong to the man?  Whose boat are they in?  Is a hurricane like tornado?  Why is there water everywhere?  They wanted to know if he made it to safety.   And they were so worried about the fate of the kitten.  “And all of sudden I got this idea,” she said.

She realized she had a true story represented by the photos.  There was a real setting, real characters, and an actual event– the hurricane.  What better way to foster their imagination into wondering what happened before the boat rescue and what might have happened afterward, said Ms. Show.   “I think seeing a photo of two real participants in the storm, and having some background info about what a hurricane can do to a town, helped them stay “real” and not suddenly lurch into fantasy,” she added.

She and the students  brainstormed as to where the man and his kitten might have been when the storm began, how they might have gotten stranded, and how long they waited in the flood waters before a boat rescued them.      “I gave the man a name but not the cat.  I thought out loud about how they might have been doing one thing or another  as the storm struck their town,” she added, telling them to use their imaginations to come up with valid scenarios.

The two photos  helped the students “stay on track” and prompted them to think in a logical way and to stay focused.

She asked her students to adhere to a simple outline, where there’s a beginning, and couple of steps before the end.  “But the  photos helped enormously with giving them a structure to follow,” she said.

One of cover drawings for the rescue story during Hurricane Florence

“My students were amazing.  They often “showed” rather than just telling the story.  For example, here’s what one wrote:  “Then they got to the second floor of their home and looked out the window.  Garbage cans were flying through air. The winds were so hard shingols  flew of off the roofs.  A refridgerator  flew out of someones home and against their door, they were locked in!  After they climbed out of their window, and on their roof.  Spots the kitten meee-awed aloud meaw  over and over and over again.  Finally, someone came to rescue them….Jo, the man, tucked Spots in his coat…

Another student wrote how, “They saw garbage cans flying like airplanes!  They saw roofing of houses flying like black birds.”  And went on to describe how Able (the man) “had…an apple and a bagle  and cat food for Ningie (the cat’s name).

Some of them could only write a few sentences.  One writer told how the man and cat got rescued, taken to a hotel,  got in a taxi, and flew to Seattle where they bought a house and lived happily with no more sadness.  Others were able to keep the man and cat in the same area and ended the story with them getting to a safe place.  Another student ended the story by saying the owner put the kitten “in his jacket and they were happy.”

Another cover drawn by a student

Students also illustrated the cover of their stories.  “I thought their illustrations would have made any artist proud…they were imaginative and original,” said Ms. Show.

“It’s like herding cats to get 24 kids to write a story, including revising and editing within a 2-3 week time period.  They only have enough stamina to write about 20-30 minutes a day, since they have to keep up with their other assignments. But all of them finished their stories,” she said.

Upon completion, they read their stories aloud to each other in groups of four.    “They were so excited to read to each other, that I had to guide them in how to listen and respond to each other,” said Ms. Show.

Ms. Show also featured six stories each week, placing them in folders to be read during independent reading hour.  The students eagerly read them often laughing out loud over the funny parts.

“The photos were so powerful that I think my students wanted to reach out and touch the man and his cat, and let them know that they also felt the anxiety he must have been feeling,” said Ms. Show.

Stories are often told through images.  But more often than not, it’s only part of the  story and we are left to wonder about the whole story.   Leave it to a class of third graders, who had never written fiction that made sense, to use their imagination and came up with a complete story–a beginning, a middle, and in most cases, a happy ending.

The photos at the top of this blog post, were taken by Andrew Carter, a reporter for the North Carolina News & Observer.

judyfolkenberg@verizon.net

 

 

 

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Books and Cats (Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage)

http://www.judyfolkenberg.com/ (my art website)

Cats got their literary start in the scriptoriums of medieval monasteries.  This relationship can be traced back to an 8th or 9th century poem, Pangur Ban (which means white cat).   Supposedly written by an Irish Benedictine monk who worked in the scriptorium of Reichenau Abbey, a German abbey on an island of the same name, the author compares his scholarly pursuits with the cat’s activities of chasing mice.

“I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.”

That monks and cats formed close bonds should come as no surprise.  Mice and rats lived in the scriptoriums feasting on the precious, hand-copied manuscripts.  Cats, on the other hand, feasted on the rodents.  Scriptoriums were also solitary places, so this companionship between kitties and monks made a whole lot of sense even though monks ran the risk of kitties stepping in the ink jars and walking across the manuscript leaving their paw prints.  Proof of ink-soaked paws are shown in the illustration (right), a medieval manuscript that a researcher recently discovered when going through manuscripts in Dubrovnik, Croatia.     This habit exists to this day and age:  cats now walk across the computer keyboard.

Many 20th century writers turned to cats as their favorite muse.  Ernest Hemingway was famous for his numerous polydactyl cats, the descendants of which exist to this day at his house/museum in Florida.  Poets William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell (“The cat’s asleep; I whisper “kitten” Till he stirs a little and begins to purr–) kept cats,  as did the existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.  (It looks like the kitty is dictating to Sartre the copy of Being and Nothingness, which Sartre claimed to have authored).   The beat writer, Jack Kerouac, adored his ginger Persian, “Tyke,” and compared the death of Tyke to the death of his little brother.   William Burroughs had cats all his life and seemed to love them as much as he loved illicit drugs.

Mark Twain qualifies as perhaps the most famous writer/cat-lover.    He considered cats superior to humans (“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  – Notebook, 1894) and owned cats all his life.

Cats even played a role in the writing of his classic, “Huck Finn.”  Twain began writing the novel in the summer of 1876 in a small study filled with cats, in Elmira, New York.  

A 1905 Washington Post article described Twain’s huge bed, where he spent a good deal of time writing.  The reporter enumerates the various items on the bed;  the books, writing materials, clothes and numerous other objects (“enough to furnish a Harlem flat”).

The reporter continues:    “He looks quite happy rising out of the mass, and over all prowls a huge black cat of a very unhappy disposition.  She snaps, snarls and claws and bites, and Mark Twain takes his turn with the rest;  when she gets tired of tearing up manuscripts, she scratches him and he bears with a patience wonderful to behold.”  –interview subtitled “Mark Twain’s Bed,” Washington Post, March 26, 1905, page F12

The most absurd thing in life is how much pleasure I get from TeddyBoy (my cat pictured in top photo).  The second most absurd thing is how I lay the burden of muse on TeddyBoy’s furry shoulders, and how well he seems to bear it with nary a care in the world.

judyfolkenberg@verizon.net