Home Education Magazine
March-April 2002 - Articles and Columns
Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp
The ABCs: Not Just for Little Kids
Ella Minnow Pea. Say it once or twice, fast, and you'll see what it has to do with the alphabet. Ella is the protagonist of a recent book of the same name -- Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2001) -- set on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. The island is named for its founder, Nevin Nollop, the inventor of the famous pangram (that is, a sentence using all 26 letters of the alphabet) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
This pangram is set in tiles on the base of Nollop's memorial monument and when the tiles start falling off, the Nollopian governmental committee attributes it not to failing glue but to a sign from the beyond. The Z is the first to fall, and it is promptly decreed that the letter Z be expunged from the Nollopian alphabet. This is a problem for Nollopians named Zeke or Zachary, and a disaster for the island beekeeper (the bees, which make ZZZ sounds all the time, have to be eliminated), but most people manage.
As more and more letters fall, however, life becomes increasingly difficult; and the island takes on aspects of a fascist state. Finally Ella, our heroine, comes up with an alphabetical solution to the problem by discovering another pangram -- but not before most of her friends and neighbors have been summarily deported to the mainland for using forbidden letters.
The story is told through correspondence, letters written primarily between the teenaged Ella and a cousin who lives at the opposite end of the island -- and these become increasingly creative and bizarre as more and more letters of the alphabet are banned. This is a delightful book, a marvelous combination of humor, alphabetical word play, and political ideology. It's just over 200 pages long, for teenagers and adults.
James Thurber's The Wonderful O (Simon & Schuster, 1957) has a similar theme: a pirate named Black in search of buried treasure takes over the island of Ooroo and proceeds to ban the letter O. As the pirates forcibly remove everything with an O in its name, the islanders, led by a poet named Andreus, vow that four O words will not be lost: hope, valor, love, and freedom. The book is a short chapter book, appropriate for ages 9 or so and up -- probably not much younger; the word play is so clever that kids need well-developed reading and vocabulary skills to fully appreciate it.
For ages 5-8, see Richard Wilbur's The Disappearing Alphabet (Harcourt Brace, 1997), in which the author demonstrates, one by one, in clever rhyme, what would happen if each letter of the alphabet should vanish: "What if the letter S were missing?/Cobras would have no way of hissing/And all their kin would have to take/The name of ERPENT or of NAKE."
A quick pass through the children's section of the library will turn up dozens -- if not hundreds -- of alphabet books; also see Online Alphabet Books at falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/alphabet.htm for a long list of electronic alphabets and alphabet-based lesson plans. Included are talking alphabet books, musical alphabet books, animal alphabets, dinosaur alphabets, and many more.
Some alphabet books, however, are notably more creative than others. Mary Elting's Q is for Duck (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), for example, is an alphabetical guessing game of animal sounds: Q is for duck because ducks quack. (Now try B is for Dog.)
In Kjell Sandved's The Butterfly Alphabet (Scholastic, 1999), kids find the letters of the alphabet in the patterns on butterfly wings -- that is, real butterfly wings; the author, a nature photographer, decided to create the book when he found a perfect letter F on the wing of a tropical moth that he was studying under the microscope.
Laura Rankin's The Handmade Alphabet (Puffin, 1996) teaches American Sign Language with clever letter-related visual cues. For each letter, a hand demonstrates the finger positions of the ASL alphabet, along with an alphabetical extra: the G hand, for example, wears a glove; the T hand sports three thimbles; the V holds a paper valentine.
Lucy Micklethwait's I Spy: An Alphabet in Art (Greenwillow, 1992) challenges kids to find something beginning with each letter of the alphabet in 26 beautifully reproduced works of art by such artists as Picasso, Botticelli, Matisse, Renoir, and Rousseau.
April Bubbles Chocolate: An ABC of Poetry, compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins (Simon & Schuster, 1994), is a collection of 26 short alphabetical poems for ages 3-6, ranging from Eve Merriam's "April" to Carl Sandburg's "Bubbles," Karla Kushkin's "Moon," and Richard Brautigan's "Xerox Candy Bar."
Jeanne Steig's Alpha Beta Chowder (HarperTrophy, 1994) is a collection of hysterical alliterative alphabet rhymes for ages 9 and up (T, for example, features Tactless Toby who teases Tina with tadpoles in her tapioca). And for all ages, see Tobi Tobias's A World of Words (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1998) a beautiful illustrated alphabet of quotations by such authors as Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll. (Interested older kids might enjoy making alphabetic quotation books of their own.)
Making alphabet books is almost always fun. Instructions for putting together a simple alphabet book for early learners (you'll need construction paper and a lot of old magazines) can be found online at www.enchantedlearning.com/crafts/abcbook. For older students, see ABC Books Aren't for Babies! at www.education-world.com/a_lesson/lesson083.shtml. This site is a lesson-planning article with helpful links and descriptions of many creative alphabet book activities for grades K-12. Students might make, for example, an Ancient Civilizations Alphabet Book, a Biology Alphabet Book, a Mathematics Alphabet Book, or a Technology Alphabet Book.
They might also surf the Internet for the ABC's, a project adaptable for a wide range of age groups and interests. A sample project by early elementary students can be found at www.siec.k12.in.us/~west/proj/abc/. For each letter, the kids identified one or more high-quality letter-related Web sites: under C, for example, they located sites on cats, crocodilians, and coloring books.
For hands-on alphabet activities, Judy Press's Alphabet Art (Williamson, 1998) for ages 2-6 is a great collection of crafts, fingerplays, games, rebus puzzles, and activities for each letter of the alphabet. B, for example: kids make upper- and lower-case Bs from bubblewrap (templates can be traced from the book), assemble a paper butterfly, and read Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which sounds like a C book, but there's a gorgeous and enormous butterfly on the last page).
Debora Pearson's Alphabake! (Dutton Books, 1995) pairs a cookbook of simple cookie recipes with 26 letter-shaped cookie cutters. Karen Potter's Building Blocks to Reading at www.thepotters.com/ltrain/activities.com lists simple activities for each letter of the alphabet: for A, kids try apple stamping; for C, they count coins and make coin rubbings, and for E, they make enormous (wearable) elephant ears.
For more alphabet games and activities -- as well as alphabet worksheets, flash cards, poems, songs, crafts, puzzles, teaching tips, and a free newsletter -- see Mrs. Alphabet at www.mrsalphabet.com; or try AlphaBites at www.alphabet-soup.net/alphabite.html -- click on a letter for suggested activities.
Or try an alphabetical board game. The A to Z Game for ages 8 and up is played with an alphabetical A to Z letter board; on each turn, a player (or team) draws a category card and tries to come up with an appropriate category-related word for each letter of the alphabet. The category NUTS, for example, might generate Acorn, Butternut, Cashew, and Walnut; the player can then cover the letters A, B, C, and W on his/her letter board. First player to cover all the letters on his/her board wins. There's also a junior version of the game available for ages 5-9. The A to Z Game (both junior and senior) is available from Turn Off the TV; (800) 949-8688; www.turnoffthetv.com.
Some of the most gorgeous alphabets ever are surely the illuminated letters of medieval manuscripts. Kids can learn about the process of 15th-century book-making in Bruce Robertson's Marguerite Makes a Book (J. Paul Getty Museum Publications, 1999) for ages 7-12, in which young Marguerite, when her artist father is injured, takes over and finishes his beautiful hand-written and painted book. Fold-out pages explain the technicalities of the process, including how paints were mixed and gold leaf applied.
Bellerophon Books (www.bellerophonbooks.com; (800) 253-9943) publishes A Medieval Alphabet to Illuminate, an inexpensive coloring book of blackline medieval letters reproduced from historical texts. For those interested in inventing their own illuminated letters, see Social Studies Work and Projects at www.geocities.com/Heartland/Woods/9499/social.html: the site has a lot of great color pictures of a class illuminated-letter project.
A survey of multicultural and alternative alphabets can be a fascinating project for all ages. See Omniglot at www.omniglot.com for background information on the history of writing and an immense and fascinating list of writing systems -- visitors can view the Cyrillic, Etruscan, Runic, and Greek alphabets, and many, many more. The site also includes a list of "alternative alphabets," including Braille, Morse code, and the Shavian alphabet -- inspired by George Bernard Shaw, who touted a phonetic alphabet designed to simplify English spelling. (Visit www.shavian.f9.co.uk to learn about it, view it, and type in it.)
Ken Vinton's Alphabet Antics (Free Spirit Press; www.freespirit.com; (800) 735-7323) is an alphabet activity book for all ages, with research projects, vocabulary lists, coloring pages, fun facts, and quotations: each letter is shown as it appears in several different alphabets, including Roman, Greek, American Sign Language, Braille, Morse Code, and the International Flag Code.
Connie and Peter Roop's Ahyoka and the Talking Leaves (Beech Tree Books, 1994) is the story of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, as told by his little daughter; check out the Cherokee alphabet online at www.atypical.net/CherTabl.html. It's a work of art.
Best Sellers: The Game of Novel Ideas
Best Sellers -- descriptively subtitled "The Game of Novel Ideas" -- is a great game for young writers. Players use their imaginations and writing skills, competing to produce -- in just two minutes -- the beginning to a "best-selling" story. Not just any story, however: there are rules involved. Game equipment consists of writing tablets, teeny little pencils, a timer, and a pack of color-illustrated cards, each showing the cover and title of a potential book on one side and a letter of the alphabet on the other. On each game round, players draw a book cover card and two letter cards from the deck, and then race to write two minutes' worth of prose inspired by the book title while using as many words as possible beginning with the letters on the letter cards. Book covers/titles include Warm and Fuzzy (with picture of a kitten), Life in Camelot, Dark Secrets, Scoundrels of the Seven Seas, Travels Through Time, Paris Romance, and dozens more. Creative writers earn points for numbers of words beginning with the featured letters; the player with the most points at the end of ten rounds wins the game. How about, for example, Invasion From Space with the letters B and R? (The big robotic beast rose from the rusty rubble of its beryllium rocketship...)
The game is recommended for two to eight players, ages 9 to 99. About $25; available from Faby Games, Inc., (416) 260-3107; www.fabygames.com; or from Barnes & Noble bookstores; www.bn.com.
Mad About Physics
Mad About Physics: Braintwisters, Paradoxes, and Curiosities by Christopher P. Jargodzki and Franklin Potter (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) is a collection of nearly 400 physics-based puzzles, categorized by topic -- sample chapter titles are "Color My World," "Fly like an Eagle," "Opposites Attract," "Bodies in Motion," "Third Stone from the Sun," and "Across the Universe." Readers tackle questions having to do with singing snow, violet skies, rollercoaster loops, Martian mountains, levitating tops, Roman aqueducts, catsup bottles, and much more, from the seemingly commonplace to the wildly bizarre. Try this one: "Inside a moving automobile, a child holds a helium balloon by a string. All the windows are closed. What will happen to the balloon as the car makes a right turn?" And why can small animals run uphill more easily than large animals? How does a cowboy lasso keep spinning? Why do foghorns emit only low-pitched sounds?
The answers, thank goodness, with clear detailed explanations and -- in some cases -- references, are in the back.
Parthenon Graphics Timelines
Anybody looking for timelines? Parthenon Graphics produces attractively designed and nicely organized laminated timeline posters on a wide range of topics. There are over 20 titles available, among them Timeline of Ancient Egypt, Timeline of U.S. History (1492-1750 and 1750-present), Timeline of Art History, Timeline of Classical Music, and Timeline of World Religions (Western and Eastern). The Timeline of U.S. History from 1750, for example, is divided into ten-year increments horizontally, with seven vertical columns variously tracing Statehoods and Territorial Acquisitions, Presidents, Wars and Battles, Documents, Acts, and Treaties, Constitutional Amendments, Population and Area, and Notable Events. It's all clear and easy to read; these timelines manage to provide lots of information without cramming the entries into microscopic illegibility. They even come with little mounting pads for attaching them at kids' eye-level to the kitchen wall.
Timelines are 9 inches wide and 44 inches long; they cost $12.95 apiece. Also available are blank timeline templates (either laminated or plain paper) for those who want to create their own.
To order or for more information, contact Parthenon Graphics Timelines, 2205 Stafford Dr., Arlington, TX 76012; (817) 795-6927; www.parthenongraphics.com.
The koto is a zither-like instrument -- six feet long with 13 strings -- that came to Japan from China in the 8th century A.D. Kids can learn all about it online at Kids Web Japan (jin.jcic.or.jp/kidsweb/): go to "Virtual Japanese Culture" to learn about many Japanese cultural traditions and experiment with virtual activities. For example, kids can try origami, ikebana (flower-arranging), and shodo (calligraphy), participate in a game of mounted archery, design a kimono, join a judo competition, and listen to koto music and try playing a virtual koto. The site also includes a Japanese language lab, a Japanese cookbook, and a collection of illustrated Japanese folk legends.
With (or without) a bit of Japanese background under your belt, you're ready to appreciate Elizabeth Falconer's musical Koto Tales. Falconer, who lived and studied in Japan for 12 years, is an accomplished koto player and storyteller. The tales she tells -- in English, sprinkled with Japanese words and phrases -- are traditional Japanese folktales, accompanied by the versatile koto, which can be coaxed to produce not only haunting string music, but the sound of washing on the river bank, woodcutters at work, squabbling cats, blowing wind, and ocean waves. Plum Boy! and Other Tales from Japan includes -- among others -- the stories of Plum Boy, found in a gigantic plum, who bravely battles a gang of demons; Issunboshi, the Inch Boy, who used a sewing needle for a sword and a rice bowl for a boat; and Kumo the Spider, in which listeners learn the importance of gratitude and, incidentally, find out how to count to ten in Japanese. In Hana and the Dragon and Other Tales from Japan, kids hear another five tales: in the title story, young Hana goes in search of Ryu, the great mountain dragon, even though all the villagers are afraid of him, and finds that her bravery wins her a friend.
Koto Tales are available on either audiocassette ($10) or CD ($15); for more information or to order, contact Koto World, 15722 SE 166th Place, Renton, WA 98058; (877) 430-1972; www.kotoworld.com.
Plexers, More Plexers, and Whatzit?
Plexers are word puzzles, the addictive kind that expand the mind, promote creativity, enhance problem-solving skills, encourage thinking outside the box, and all in all drive you absolutely mad in the process. Try this one: SHKEEPAPE. (It's "Keep in shape." Get it? KEEP inside SHAPE.) Or what about GOOD/GOOD BE/BE TRUE? (It's "Too good to be true.") Plexers -- by the hundred -- are available in book form: Titles include Plexers, More Plexers, Science Plexers, Arithmetic Plexers, and Social Studies Plexers, all by David Hammond, Joe Scales, and Thomas Lester (Dale Seymour Publications). Each contains about 250 puzzles, recommended for kids ages 9 and up. Answers are included in the back. To order all or any, contact Dale Seymour/Pearson Learning, (800) 526-9907; www.pearsonlearning.com/dsp-publications.
Plexer-type puzzles are also the basis for a new board game, Whatzit? -- otherwise known as the "Game of Batty Wordplay." The game includes a plastic playing tray and nearly 400 puzzle cards, variously known -- in order of easiness -- as Thingbats, Dingbats, and Kingbats. Players compete to solve these at the rate of 30 seconds per puzzle -- the time limited by a threatening little timer that sounds like a ticking bomb. (A picture of a spinning red top next to the word STETSON? It's "TOP HAT." )
Whatzit? costs about $25; available from game stores or online at www.amazon.com.
© 2002 Rebecca Rupp
March-April 2002 - Articles and Columns
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