Redefining Normal in the Lives of Second Graders
By Melissa Carpenter
This vignette describes engagements with students that arose from a literacy community in Spokane, Washington. Please see Providing the Books for the Literacy Communities by Marilyn Carpenter for an overview of this group’s work.
During the students’ book choice time I placed a cart full of books from our literacy community meeting in the middle of our shared literacy space and did some “kidwatching” to see the children’s responses to the new books. This was the beginning of our investigation of personal culture. I was pleased to see that students recognized familiar authors like Bob Graham and made text to text connections with books that we had previously read. The excitement over the books Matt called, “BookMAS! Like Christmas but with books.”
Unpacking the Books!
I teach a second grade class in an urban school of 450 students, 79.3% of whom receive free lunch. Students attending my school are primarily white with some Native American, Asian, African American, and Hispanic representation. The lack of ethnic diversity combined with a low socio-economic level made it critical for me to provide my students with opportunities to explore their personal culture as well as other cultures. One of the concepts that needed to be explored was the concept of “normal.”
My students’ world view is built mostly from digital media sources. They have very limited knowledge and experience within our local community. Even though we are within two miles of our city’s downtown cultural area many of my 22 students have never left the immediate neighborhood. Their perceptions from the media of what is normal don’t match the lives they live. These perceptions make them feel their lives are lacking. One example is a student who is being raised primarily by a grandparent and father. She would frequently say, “I can’t do that because I don’t have a Mommy, and that’s something mommies do.”
Two Homes by Claire Masurel (2003) initiated our conversation about what is normal. At the time four of the students’ families were experiencing painful divorces. They were wrestling to understand where they fit in their new family structures while trying to find a sense of belonging since they didn’t have what they considered a normal family anymore. One girl who goes between a home with a mom and dad, and a home with a dad and a dad, was able to talk about how she had never seen a book about having two homes before and she hadn’t thought it was normal to have two homes. Our class conversation brought out that about half the class lived in one home, and the other half lived in two or more homes. Students acknowledged that no matter how many homes they had they felt loved, they had what they needed, and their arrangements worked for each family. The word “normal” was now used to describe the norms for each individual and a new understanding of personal culture. As we talked about our personal cultures an understanding of culture developed based on one’s values, actions, traditions, and stories.
Several books were instrumental in helping the children obtain this understanding of culture. Books by Bob Graham like Oscar’s Half Birthday (2005), “Let’s Get a Pup!” said Kate (2003) and The Trouble with Dogs (2010), with his slightly androgynous characters helped open the door for conversations about people who may be different looking but hold similar values and then how we can tell what they value based on their actions.
Karate Girl (Leary, 2003) was pivotal in helping students identify elements of their personal cultures that help them successfully navigate day to day events. Whopper Cake (Wilson, 2006) and A Birthday Cake is No Ordinary Cake (Frasier, 2006) provided opportunities for students to share how their families create celebrations and how those rituals are expressions of culture.
Books like Janna and the Kings (Smith, 2003) and Forever Dog (Cochran, 2007) gave us a forum to discuss how our cultures help us deal with loss and find new ways to appreciate our relationships. A student shared a connection to Forever Dog about missing a friend that he, “like loved.” I told the boy I wasn’t surprised because he was a lovable guy. “Yeah!” chorused several boys. “WHAT?” the student responded. Another boy wearing a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) muscle shirt promptly got up, walked across to hug the boy as he said, “I love you, man. You’re a good friend,” as the class all nodded.
This exchange between the boys was critical because it represented how our class’s social interactions were no longer guided by the perceived norms as seen on television. We had established an environment where students were able to say what they stood for and take action that reflected those values. The books I read aloud and that the students read independently made a valuable contribution
I want my students to be able to acknowledge and value the differences in their personal cultures so that they can ultimately see that culture is a tool to navigate and understand their world. Next year I am looking forward to beginning the year with a study of personal cultures to help guide my students to a deeper understanding about our community and world.
Cochran, B. (2007). The forever dog. New York: HarperCollins.
Frasier, D. (2006). A birthday cake is no ordinary cake. New York: Harcourt.
Graham, B. (2003). “Let’s get a pup!” said Kate. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Graham, B. (2005). Oscar’s half birthday. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Graham, B. (2010). “The trouble with dogs…” said Dad. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Leary, M. (2003). Karate girl. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Masurel, C. (2003). Two homes. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Smith, P. (2003). Janna and the kings. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Wilson, K. (2006). Whopper cake. New York: McElderry.
Melissa Carpenter teaches second grade in the Spokane School District in Spokane, Washington. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Language Arts.