—Nancy Boyles, graduate reading program coordinator for Southern Connecticut State University
But what are “the right tools” to build English Language Arts literacy? Carefully selected grade appropriate texts and engaging activities to unpack them are the basic ingredients needed to build close reading and develop knowledge gathering skills at every level.
One author whose texts are perfect for elementary Common Core State Standards applications is Beatrix Potter, a perennial favorite with readers young and old. Growing up, many of us heard her stories read aloud, and we fondly remember the escapades of Peter Rabbit and his friends. Potter’s timeless illustrations complement her imaginative story lines and continue to bring these animal tales to life for generation after generation.
Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit was born as a picture letter to comfort a little five-year-old boy homebound by a long illness. In December 1901, after the story was rejected by publishing houses, Potter had 250 copies of the story printed through a private press in time for Christmas. They sold like hotcakes at a shilling each, forcing the author to print another 200 copies. The following year the story was formally published in a run of 8000 copies. It has never been out of print since and has become one of the best-selling books of all time!
EDSITEment’s lesson: Beatrix Potter's Naughty Animal Tales offers several engaging activities, which serve as building blocks for English Language Arts skills for Grades 3–5. These applications align with English Language Arts Standards, College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
Childhood: 19th vs. 21st century
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.6 Distinguish their own point of view from that of the author of a text.
Activity 1 considers how childhood in the Victorian era compares to the experience of being a kid nowadays. Students view online source material to make distinctions between childhood from the 21st-century point of view and childhood as it was experienced at the time Beatrix Potter was writing her animal stories.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Activity 2, Part One, introduces Beatrix's childhood, her family relationships, and her connections to her pets as inspiration for her later work. Students refer back to the stories as well as to the biographical information to answer questions regarding Potter’s motives for writing the stories:
- What was unusual about Beatrix Potter's relationship with her parents?
- What kinds of activities did her family enjoy?
- What kinds of pets did the family keep?
- Based on facts of Beatrix Potter's childhood, cite evidence why she might have written her stories about animals rather than people.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
Activity 3, Part Two, introduces Beatrix Potter's artwork, emphasizing her works as an "illustrator" who learned to draw by observing and sketching her environment. View examples of her drawings of plants, animals, and insects. Consider how Beatrix Potter’s childhood pictures, scientific sketches, and landscapes formed the basis for her story illustrations. With your students, trace the inspiration for her illustrations back to the flora and fauna she observed at her home, Hill Top Farm, and her life in England’s Lake District. Discuss how Potter conveys the mood and character as well as setting for each story through her illustrations.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
In Activity 2, trace the elements of Beatrix Potter's “Naughty Animal Tales.” Read the stories, and using the story chart, have students determine common elements that surface in four different stories. After the students have finished, discuss common traits of the naughty animal characters and how they move the story events along. Have the class determine how these characters contribute to the moral of each story.
Create your own story
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
Students write and illustrate their own naughty animal story in Activity 4. Provide a story-planning chart so that they can outline the important elements of their stories before beginning to write and plan where their three illustrations will go in their stories. Students will compose their stories and arrange both the text and pictures they create. ReadWriteThink’s Story map is a versatile tool with graphic organizers to assist students with this activity. After completing individual sections or the entire organizer, students may print out their final versions for assessment.
- A Fanciful Nature, NEH's Humanities magazine
- The Morgan Library and Museum, Beatrice Potter: Picture Letters
- Victorian and Albert Museum, Beatrix Potter Collection
- (Elizabeth Nesbitt Room, Information Sciences Library, University of Pittsburgh), The Illustrators Project: Helen Beatrix Potter (1866–1943)
- New York Times Learning Network, Common Core Practice | Sandy Beaches, Instagram Election Photos and Peter Rabbit