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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meanwhile...In the Reading Alcove

Picture books offer readers of all ages the opportunity to live through bits of history, understand literary concepts, and experience strong vocabulary - with visual literacy as an added bonus! Today's story for intermediate students was a perfect way to introduce them to irony and satire in one ten-minute lesson.

Trinka Hakes Noble's 1987 book Meanwhile Back at the Ranch is the story of Rancher Hicks and his strong wife Elna. While he sets off for the town of Sleepy Gulch 84 miles from the ranch, Elna plans to dig the potatoes. In alternating double-page spreads of their experiences, she tends a newly birthed batch of kittens and wins and ultra-cool refrigerator, and he hears the latest news (about a five-minute rain shower in '49) from the barber. Things get even more outrageous as Elna inherits a bunch of money, gets visited by a movie producer and the President, and strikes oil on the ranch, all the while taking care of business as usual. Meanwhile in Sleepy Gulch, Rancher Hicks watches a lengthy checker game, eats potatoes galore at Millie's Mildew Luncheonette, and watches a turtle cross the road, bringing Elna a box of Cracker Jacks home because she missed all the excitement.

One fifth grade class stared at me the entire time I read the story (with the best rancher and small-town voices I could muster). Not a smile appeared, and not a single person seemed to catch the humor, much less the irony. The next class laughed, gasped, and guffawed at the couple's antics, and several children asked to read the book when I finished.

So, what makes one group of students so different from another? How could one class be so engrossed in the ridiculous plot elements (and illustrations) while the other seemed unaffected by any of it?


  1. I've always been amazed at how different groups react differently. I think maybe there has to be a balance of verbal kids--maybe two or three--that understand the humor, and point it out to the rest by their laughter. In the quiet groups, there might be a few that get it, but they are too embarrassed to be vocal about it.

  2. I think you are right, Joyce. And I wonder the same thing about group dynamics as well. I can tell a story to one group of first graders and they will roar with laughter, and then I'll tell the same story to another group and they will stare at me quietly, afraid to utter a sound. Like you, I wonder how groups can be so different.

    And by the way, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this particular book. It is one of my all time favorites. I wish I could have listened to you read it; I would have been one of the guffawers. Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
    I'm smiling just thinking about it.

  3. I agree as well, Joyce. You must experience the same things when working with classes and students. It has continued all week. An obvious factor is the teacher and his/her reaction. One teacher today was a guffawer and made me go back several times at the end to reread for the kids.

  4. As an adult I have no reservations about laughing aloud but as a child my laughter was rarely heard though inside I was tickled with delight.