August 30, 2013

Poem Study: "The Caterpillar" by Christina G. Rossetti

Christina Rossetti's "The Caterpillar" is a wonderful first poem for a child to memorize and study. It is short, simple and concrete, yet contains many poetic and literary elements that even a child can grasp easily. I'll share them below.

photo by Cyndy Sims Parr

First, the poem itself:

Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.

No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again 
A butterfly.

A shorter version of the poem appears in the excellent First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind: Level 1 and in several places online. Here it is:

Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk.

May no toad spy you,
May the little birds pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.

I think either version is fine. The first one seems to be the poet's original, the second a later simplification, but on to the study!

First, read the poem several times and just enjoy the words and images. The poem is very concrete and accessible; everyone has seem a caterpillar inch along. Everyone has seen toads and birds. Reading and enjoying "The Caterpillar" might be enough, but there is so much more to gain from this little poem.

Notice the rhyme scheme. Rossetti writes in couplets (including the two-word units "spy you" and "by you!").

Notice the punctuation. The first two lines contain no commas within or between the lines. The caterpillar is hurrying and so should the reader. Don't pause between the first and second lines. Then there is a comma between the "shady leaf" and the "stalk." Pause with the caterpillar as it ponders two possible places for its chrysalis.

Notice the line length. The lines alternate between short and long, like the scrunch-up-and-stretch-out motion of a caterpillar or inchworm.

Notice the Christian Imagery. In addition to her poetry for children, Rossetti wrote a lot of devotional poems. The butterfly is a common Christian symbol for resurrection. The caterpillar appears to die when it becomes a chrysalis and returns glorious as a butterfly. "Spin and die to live again a butterfly" on one level is about a caterpillar spinning its cocoon, but on another level, it might refer to a spinster who appears to have missed her opportunity on earth, but will be resurrected gloriously in heaven. (Rosetti had a series of suitors, but never married.) This point may be over the heads of children, but the best children's poetry also works for adults.

What else do you enjoy about "The Caterpillar?" Do you have a favorite poem to study with children? Please share in the comments!

You may find similar articles to this at Trivium Tuesdays.

August 19, 2013

It's Monday! What are you reading 8/19/2013

There's a children's book exhibition on in my town and one book that caught my eye was A Rock Is Lively by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (affiliate link).

The illustrations are bright and beautiful. The text is hard to classify.

Is it poetry? "Bubbling like a pot of soup deep beneath the Earth's crust ... liquid ... molten ... boiling"

Is it geology? "Depending on what type of rock it is, a rock melts at temperatures between 1,300 and 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit ..."

 However you categorize this book, the illustrations and poetic writing will satisfy your artistic side while the informative text will thrill your inner rockhound.

A Rock Is Lively Cover

August 17, 2013

How To Learn More from Making a Tin-Can Phone

Everybody's made a tin-can phone or string phone as a child. They're fun, they work (Can you hear me? Yes!!!), and they're quick and easy to make. But what can we as parents and teachers do to increase the fun and learning? Read on for the basics of how to make a tin-can phone, and then read some ideas for experimenting for more fun and learning!

photo by Florian Seroussi (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Making a string phone is easy. Here's what you need.

  • Two paper cups.
  • A length of non-stretchy string.
  • Something to poke holes in the cups (a sharp pencil will do).
  • Two paper clips (big ones work best).

And here's what you do.

  1.  Poke small holes in the bottom of your cups.
  2. Poke string through the bottom of each hole.
  3. Tie a knot around each paper clip so that the that the paper clips are inside the cups. This anchors the string and prevents it from pulling through the hole in the cup when you pull the string taut.
  4. Decorate as desired.
  5. Enjoy your phone by holding the string tight between two people. One talks, and the other listens. 

 Then experiment!


My students experimenting with string phones
Kids will probably have lots of ideas for experimenting with their string phones, but here are some to get you started.
  • Make a phone for each person and connect them so everyone has an earpiece and a mouthpiece as in the photo above (They could hear each other well).
  • Try different materials: cans or plastic cups instead of paper cups, different kinds of string or twine.
  • Experiment with the string length. How long of a string can you use before the sound is too weak to hear? The video after this list shows people who really push the limits.
  • Do the people on the phone need to be in a a straight line? Try talking with the string going around a wall corner. How about around the leg of a chair.
  • Will the phone work if the string passes under a rug? What if it's wet? What if someone pinches the string?

Can You Hear Me?: The Longest Tin Can Phone Ever.


What do kids learn from string phones?

Kids often understand intuitively why things work if they get hands-on and experiment a lot, but it never hurts to ask the "why" question and see how much they really understand and what needs to be taught. Depending on the interests and abilities of your children, they can learn about sound waves and what media sound travels through, how signal can be dampened and amplified (maybe focused is a better word). They can also learn some engineering when they try to keep the line tense without it ripping through the cup. Kids can learn about real telephones which operate on the same basic concept, except the sound signal is electronic instead of accoustic. (Here's a page about how telephones work.)

Enjoy your string phones, and if you have questions or ideas for further experiments, please leave a comment!

August 6, 2013

Home-Made Hot Air Balloon

The first human flight took place in a hot air balloon in France over 100 years before Orville Wright took to the air. It's not easy to make a working airplane, but balloon technology is simple--just heat the air inside a balloon so that the air inside and the contraption itself are lighter than the air that is displaced.

We made our balloon with a thin trash bag, straws, aluminum foil, tape, and six birthday candles, following the excellent instructions from

Here is our balloon's second attempt at flight, after trimming some weight from the straws, trash bag, and foil.


 A fun way to add some literacy and history to this activity for younger kids is with Hot Air, the story of the first balloon flight with passengers aboard (animal passengers). For older kids, The Twenty-One Balloons a fun mix of fiction, history, and balloonology is recommended.

Enjoy making your balloon, and keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water handy just in case!


August 5, 2013

Anti-Pattern Recognition

Math is largely about recognizing and creating patterns. But sometimes the best way to practice something is doing the opposite. Hmmm. Is avoiding a pattern another way of creating a pattern?
Take from a deck of cards all the Aces, Kings, Queens and Jacks.

Arrange them in a 4 × 4 square so that every row, column and diagonal contains one card of each value (A,J,Q,K) and one card of each suit (Heart, Spade, Diamond, Club). source
It's really tough not to have cards of the same value or suit in any row, column, or diagonal, but look at the sense of accomplishment on the faces of these ten-year-olds who stuck with it and solved the puzzle.